Heart and soul return to Fenway

BOSTON -- They scampered atop the dugout flashing those old disarming smiles, the familiar irreverent poses, a pair of devilish looks that a couple of kids might reveal to their parents after they've been caught raiding the liquor cabinet. (The whiskey, in this particular case, would be most definitely in peril.)

It was a gamble to invite Kevin Millar and Pedro Martinez to address the masses at Fenway with a live microphone in their hands. They were known in their heyday, after all, to say anything, anytime, anywhere.

That's what Idiots do.

But you should not edit history, and in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, it was only fitting that the 2004 Boston Red Sox team, which ignited the most improbable and incredible turnaround in sports history, was properly represented Friday afternoon by two men who helped change the course of this franchise.

Predictably, the team carefully crafted prepared scripts for Millar and Martinez. And, predictably, Millar took one look at all those words and said, "Screw it. Let's ad lib."

"Drink!" Millar implored the capacity crowd. "Let's go!" (There was some anecdotal evidence to suggest Millar had previously taken his own advice.)

He then invoked his trademark "Cowboy Up!"

The 2004 Sox completed the biggest turnaround in Major League Baseball history by wiping clean a 3-0 deficit to the hated New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, then decimating the St. Louis Cardinals in a sweep to win it all.

Their title ended a drought of 86 years, one that held captive most of the more than 200 Red Sox players who came back for their ballpark's celebration.

There was a plethora of baseball luminaries at Fenway's birthday bash, among them Bobby Doerr, the irrepressible Johnny Pesky, the elusive Yaz. Yet, much like Bruce Hurst and Mo Vaughn and Nomar, who also took a stroll on the emerald lawn, they were all men with résumés that ended with "almost ... but not quite."

So, now they must live vicariously through the two men atop the dugout. Millar was an average player, a career .274 hitter, but he was the heart of that 2004 team. His counterpart Martinez was its soul, a brilliant, articulate Hall of Fame pitcher whose diminutive frame defied the fire with which he could throw a baseball.

Former Red Sox center fielder Reggie Smith said he has always felt a connection to the Idiots. In fact, he suggested, the 2004 championship team was "the culmination for so many of us of the groundwork we laid before them."

He's right. In the '50s and early '60s, the Red Sox were a losing proposition, both on and off the field. They were viewed as an elitist, racist organization that resisted changing with the times. They were the last team in the majors to field a black player when they finally added Pumpsie Green in 1959.

But then along came manager Dick Williams and Jim Lonborg and George Scott and Tony C and Smith and the Impossible Dream team of '67, which brought Fenway -- and the franchise -- back to life.

"Boston had a reputation as a country-club atmosphere, but Dick Williams changed all that," Smith said. "He made us winners, a team people could root for."

Smith proclaimed his visit for the Fenway celebration the "most fun I've ever had at one of these," and said the highlight for him was sharing a bus ride with Pumpsie to the ballpark.

He lived in California when the Sox completed their astounding comeback in the 2004 ALCS, and tuned in every night to watch the World Series.

"I was a little torn because I had also played with the Cardinals," Smith said, "but watching Boston win it all, I felt like we helped build that. Deep down, I was rooting for the Red Sox."

Pressed for their favorite moment in Boston, both Millar and Pedro didn't hesitate. It was the victory parade on the duck boats that left fans cheering them on from trees, kayaks, bicycles and the roofs of high-rise apartments.

"It doesn't matter where you're from," Millar explained. "When you land here, this is like a second home. The memories of the 3.7 or 3.8 million [people] for the parade will last forever."

"Every time I come here, I feel like I'm still in the parade," Pedro confessed.

Although Pedro, Nomar, Pumpsie, Louie Tiant, Lou Merloni and Jerry Remy received thunderous applause, the day's most fervent ovation was reserved for former manager Terry Francona, who publicly wrestled over whether he should attend a celebration orchestrated by a management and ownership team he feels unfairly slandered him upon his exit.

Francona was the skipper of the Idiots, and he trailed Millar out of the center-field wall onto the field. Millar likened the noise generated by the Tito sighting to "a Lear Jet going in my ears."

"It was pretty special," Millar said.

One of the reasons Bill Buckner, sans moustache, is greeted with warm applause these days is that 1986 is a distant memory, an old ache that was dissipated by the healing balm of 2004. The Idiots were hardly the most talented team in baseball. As Millar correctly pointed out, they didn't match up on paper against a loaded Yankees roster.

But they stood tall through one of the most humiliating beatdowns imaginable, and remained convinced they could come back and beat New York when absolutely nobody else believed it.

"You can't buy that," Millar insisted.

"Boston has so many reasons to brag now," Pedro added. He delighted in mocking Yankees fans, declaring, "We knocked you out after being down 0-3. That hurts. That hurts real bad."

Ultimately, the Idiot blueprint was not what young general manager Theo Epstein had in mind. Following the 2004 season, Pedro, who had turned 33 and was asking for a lucrative new contract, was not re-signed. A year later, Millar also was gone. By the time the Sox won the World Series again in 2007, there were only five position players and three pitchers (Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield and reliever Mike Timlin) left from 2004.

Gone was the core of the Idiots -- Millar, Johnny Damon, Derek Lowe.

A new, more professional breed of Red Sox heroes -- guys like Mike Lowell -- replaced them.

Lowell was there on Friday to soak in the grateful applause he received.

Few of his teammates, other than recent retirees Wakefield and Jason Varitek, joined him. Schilling, Doug Mirabelli, J.D. Drew and Manny Ramirez couldn't or wouldn't be there for one reason or another.

Of course, seven members of that 2007 championship team still play for the Sox.

Boston's 2012 baseball version continues to suffer in this infant season. They pulled on their 1912 uniforms and their all-white caps, sans the Sox emblem, and then rolled over to the Yankees 6-2 on this historic day.

Clay Buchholz, wearing a nameless jersey, pitched like an anonymous journeyman, relinquishing six runs on five home runs. His team has lost four straight.

Boston has dropped to 4-9 and hasn't won a game since manager Bobby Valentine's curious decision to publicly ruminate over Kevin Youkilis' mindset with the masses. (In one of the wiser decisions of the day, neither Valentine, president Larry Lucchino nor owner John Henry was introduced during the ceremony.)

The current local nine gamely insists that it's early, and they will turn things around. David Ortiz, an alumnus of 2004 and 2007, said these things have a way of working themselves out.

Asked what memories the sight of his former teammates conjured up, Ortiz said wistfully, "Winning. Winning when it counts."

In that way, 2004 seems a lifetime ago.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist and reporter for ESPNBoston.com.