Red Sox have come a long way

BOSTON -- There were signs. Easy to miss, to be sure, back when David Ortiz could barely walk, Mike Napoli's hips came with "Fragile -- Handle with Care" stickers affixed, Stephen Drew couldn't see straight because of a concussion, John Lackey said he was just happy to hit the catcher's glove in the air, Jonny Gomes said his new whiskers were "day to day" and even the manager, John Farrell, like seemingly half of his roster, was coming off a down year.

But Dustin Pedroia, who jokes about the limits of his Arizona State education but whose baseball IQ has never been questioned, couldn't have sounded the alarm any more emphatically than Boston's original laser show, the one that lit up the windows of the Old North Church with a single lantern. The fact that Pedroia did so on Twitter just underscores the difference between the 18th and 21st centuries.

"Only thing I ask is u believe now!" @15Lasershow implored his followers on the eve of the 2013 season. "Don't jump on later. Boston doesn't have bandwagon fans! It's going to be special and we want the city to make a huge advantage all year for us. Get loud! Thx everyone let's go."

Days after Pedroia posted his tweet, he tore the ligament in his left thumb diving headfirst into first base in Yankee Stadium on Opening Day. But Pedroia played through the hurt, keeping it secret for months.

Then came the heartbreak of Marathon Monday, and Boston Strong, the team flying back home and players scattering to hospitals in groups of five to visit privately with the afflicted. They kept that quiet, too.

"I think fans in the city want to be proud of the team," Pedroia said on the cusp of the opener. "We didn't play well the last few years. It didn't go the way we wanted it to go, and obviously not for them, either."

The Red Sox went 18-8 in April, the best record in baseball. The last two times they did that were in 2007 and 2004, years in which they won the World Series. Six months later, there are no more secrets about this team. It is different, it is special, and, on Wednesday night in Boston, the Red Sox have a chance to win another Series title, not on the road as they did in '07 (Denver) and '04 (St. Louis), but in Fenway Park for the first time in 95 years.

They're not only "one step closer to the parade," as Gomes memorably told Jake Peavy the day he walked into the Red Sox's clubhouse in August, they can hear the duck boats idling.

Nearly two years to the day after he underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, Lackey will take the mound Wednesday with a chance to duplicate the feat he performed as a rookie for the Angels in 2002 -- pitch a Series clincher.

"That was a long time ago, man," Lackey, who turned 35 a week ago, said in a media session at Fenway on Tuesday. "I don't think that's going to play much into tomorrow. I think most of those guys in that game aren't even playing anymore."

Still looking to jump on the bandwagon? Go ahead, but it will cost you dearly. Standing-room tickets were going for $900-plus on Stub Hub, and extortionists were asking thousands more for the privilege of sitting in a ballpark that hasn't hosted a Series celebration since Sept. 11, 1918.

That wasn't quite the case back then. The country was preoccupied with World War I winding to a close, and the Series finale was played before far less than capacity, after the threat of a player strike over team owners stiffing them on their Series shares turned off a sizable chunk of the paying public. (A strike canceling a World Series? We wouldn't know anything about those kinds of things, would we, Bud and Don?)

It took 75 years for descendants of the winning Red Sox to receive the medallions traditionally awarded to the victors. After the Series, the winners got slightly more than a thousand bucks per man, which in today's market would buy them a standing-room ticket for Wednesday's game, plus a couple of beers. The losing Cubs got $671.09 a man, which on Wednesday might not even get you a seat at the bar in the Cask 'n Flagon.

Although history favors the Red Sox -- the last team to win World Series Games 6 and 7 on the road was the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates -- you can be sure the Cardinals will show up, even if mechanical problems with their plane in St. Louis did keep them from arriving in Boston until Tuesday night.

They were down two games to one in the best-of-five National League Division Series to the Pirates and came back to win, and they were down three games to two to the Texas Rangers in the 2011 World Series and came back to win. Going back to the start of the 2011 postseason, they are 8-1 in elimination games. That's duende.

The Cardinals' hopes are pinned on a 22-year-old, Michael Wacha, who is just a few years removed from pitching against Red Sox infielder Will Middlebrooks in high school, but, at his tender age, is inheritor of a proud tradition of great October performances by Cardinals pitchers, joining the likes of Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, John Tudor and Chris Carpenter, to name a few.

Wacha already is unbeaten in four postseason decisions this October, including a 4-2 win in Game 2 in which the Sox managed just three hits, one a two-run home run by Ortiz, who has separated himself from the greatest hitters in team history -- Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski -- by saving some of his best games for October.

Back in March, Gomes sensed that something like this might be in the works for Ortiz.

"He's definitely the leader of the pack and front-runner for wanting to turn this thing around," Gomes said at the time. "He wants to drive the bus on that."

That's no bus Ortiz is driving. That's a stretch Hummer. He has 11 hits, within two of Marty Barrett's club record of 13 in 1986 (seven games), he became the only player besides Billy Hatcher of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990 to reach base nine straight times in a single Series, and he has made just four outs in six games.

"This game, it's not that easy, you know," said Gomes, whose three-run home run was the decisive hit in Game 4. "I can only imagine the scouting reports and meetings about that guy. He can keep a guy like myself grounded. I hit 'a' homer. All I have to do is look over at Ortiz and my feet are right back on the ground.

"This guy's building an unbelievable résumé for the next league he's going to, Cooperstown. This guy's still active, and he's knocking on the door right now."

For Ortiz, immortality can wait. First, there is the matter of winning one more game. Win one more, and he will have three Series rings. With Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera both retiring, only Yankees captain Derek Jeter (five) has more among active players.

"I was born for this," Ortiz said.

Wednesday night, almost a century after it last had the chance, Fenway Park hopes to stage the ultimate celebration for a team reborn.