Now favorites, Red Sox radically shift baseball's culture

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Unless you're older than Eddie Joost, older than Dom DiMaggio, older than Zsa Zsa Gabor, you've never lived in a world like this.

You've never lived in a world where a baseball season was about to begin and the Boston Red Sox could be described with a word millions of New Englanders were once completely unfamiliar with:


They're not your grandfather's Red Sox anymore. They're not your great-grandfather's Red Sox anymore. They're not the tragic, accursed figures of not so long ago anymore.

Winning one World Series didn't change all that. But winning two in four years -- yup, that did it.

The Boston Red Sox, as we know them now, are not expected to choke, or gag, or fizzle. They're expected to win. They're built to win. And they're darned sure good enough to win.

"The story has changed now," says Tim Wakefield, now in his 14th season with this team, a man who has witnessed this transformation from the best seat in the house. "It's changed from tragedy every postseason -- from: 'They did it again. Blahblahblahblahblah' -- to something different."

Something different, huh? Does that describe it?

Repainting your living room -- from white to tan -- that's "something different."

But watching the Red Sox go from "A Team Doomed by Fate, Curses, Sunken Pianos and Assorted Bucky Bleeping Dent-Type Villains to Never Win a Stinking World Series for the Next 8,000 Centuries" to "Only Franchise in History Not Named the Yankees to Sweep the Series Twice in Four Octobers" -- that supersedes "different," doesn't it?

It's kinda like waking up one morning and finding your family just moved to Mars. That's how unfamiliar we are with this universe -- a universe where even the Yankees are trying to catch the Red Sox. Where everybody, in fact, is trying to catch the Red Sox -- except, possibly, Hank Steinbrenner.

If Hank truly believes there's no such thing as Red Sox Nation, by the way, he needs to get out more. Not only does Red Sox Nation exist, we're pretty sure it's now larger than Bulgaria. And definitely Mauritania.

In this universe, there's apparently not even any such thing as a Red Sox "away" game anymore. We're not sure where all these Red Sox fans in Bradenton and Vero Beach, in Baltimore and Kansas City, in Arlington, Texas, and even the Tokyo Dome come from. But they're there, all right.

They're everywhere. Thousands and thousands of them -- dressed in their favorite Red Sox shirts, the ones that say everything from "NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE" to "I SURVIVED THE SANTANA TRADE." These two World Series victories, these two parades, have unleashed them on the rest of the planet. Loudly. And proudly.

"There's always been a fan base," says Mike Timlin, now in his sixth season in Boston. "You know that. But now that we've won a couple of times, it seems like it's exponentially multiplied."

It isn't just the numbers that have changed, though. It's that now, when all these people leave the house, they don't take their torture chambers with them.

"The big thing that I really get a kick out of," says Wakefield, "is, after we won in '04, I got, 'Thanks for my grandfather,' and it was for all the generations past. But when we won last year, I think that was for the future Red Sox fans. That one was for the future generations of fans who can say they were a part of two World Series, or even younger fans who can say they got to see a World Series when they were young -- instead of [chuckle] the folklore."

Ah, that folklore. Does anybody out there miss that folklore? Anybody? Aw, it was mildly entertaining for the first 50 or 60 years, maybe. But it got old. And not just if you were a personal relative of Bill Buckner, either.

You might think 2004 would have dispelled that folklore. But you'd be wrong. When 2005 rolled around, and that Red Sox team was tackling the business of repeating, it found itself surgically attached to the legend of the 2004 Red Sox.

So it went about its business surrounded by documentary crews, authors, historians, the cast of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and every celebrity in America who even owned a Red Sox cap. Which meant mundane stuff like "pickoff drills" wasn't always the No. 1 item on the old agenda.

That's one very sizable reason that this Red Sox team finds itself in such a different place from those 2005 Red Sox, even though both were theoretically trying to accomplish the same thing -- repeating.

"It's not a circus here anymore," says Timlin. "There's not 150 media people here, and cameramen taking pictures because it was the first time we'd won in 86 years. Now we can just be normal. We can be a normal team and just go play."

Actually, "normal" isn't the best word to describe this group now, either. The Royals are a "normal" team. The Reds are a "normal" team. The Red Sox are always going to feel like an earthquake rolling through your friendly neighborhood seismic fault.

But as this Red Sox team tackles the challenge of repeating, at least it can do that within the context of a baseball story -- as opposed to the context of a profound shift in modern American culture. Those larger plot lines still hover. But this team has perfected the art of how to avoid swerving beyond the white lines of that baseball story.

"We talk to them all the time about how, once the game starts, we've got a baseball game," says manager Terry Francona. "We're baseball players. Some people say we're entertainers. We're not. We're baseball players. If people get entertainment out of it, good. But we're baseball players. And you compete. You don't put on a show."

You can't bring just any old collection of 25 players into a situation like this and expect them to catch onto that, though. This is a unique franchise, centered in a unique market, playing baseball every day with a unique set of story lines swirling in the breeze.

So it's no accident that the core of this team is made up of human beings who have demonstrated they can focus on what really matters.

"These players are very mindful of what's at stake here," says hitting coach Dave Magadan. "They know how much attention we get from the fans and media. But everybody knows what's at stake. So they come here ready to play the second they walk in the door."

And it's only because this group gets it that GM Theo Epstein and the men who run this team did something over the winter that you practically never see anymore:

They won the World Series and then brought everybody back.

OK, not quite everybody. Eric Hinske, Eric Gagne and Doug Mirabelli aren't here anymore. But Sean Casey is really the only high-profile addition. And 22 of the 25 Red Sox who appeared in a postseason game last October are still wearing this uniform. If you hadn't thought much about how unusual that is in modern baseball, well, think again.

Of the 21 other teams that won a World Series since 1985, only one -- the 2002-03 Angels -- brought back this many returnees, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. So you just don't see this. And what's especially notable in this team's case is that you didn't even see it in Boston the last time the Red Sox were trying to repeat.

As beloved as those 2004 Red Sox may have made themselves in New England, eight of them didn't come back -- including Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Orlando Cabrera and the guy who caught the last out of the World Series, Doug Mientkiewicz.

So because nothing this organization does nowadays is an accident, it's telling you something that it didn't make a single significant change to this group.

"We didn't, but we didn't really want to," says Francona. "I don't think we were stuck in a rut. We won, and we like our players."

We'll never know what might have happened, of course, had they not won the World Series. Would they have made that Johan Santana trade? Might have. Would they have been able to carve out that below-market contract to keep the World Series MVP, Mike Lowell? Maybe not.

The priorities would have been different. The perspective would have been different. The perceptions would have been different. And repeating would have been some other team's goal.

But the sliding doors slid the way they slid. The big decisions were made. And now the new Red Sox look almost identical to the old Red Sox. But whatever forces converged to make that possible, this team didn't bring everybody back just so it could stage a fun little reunion tour, like The Police or Van Halen.

No, there will be changes. They're just more evolutionary changes. Jacoby Ellsbury moves into center field full-time. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz join the rotation for the long haul. Manny Delcarmen is ready to slip into a more prominent setup role.

"We needed to get a little younger," Francona says -- and they've accomplished that.

But the core of this team remains unchanged. And there's a danger in that, too. Can a group of players that has been there, won that, possibly be as driven to win again? Isn't that just human nature? So aren't the Red Sox taking a gigantic chance in thinking that this group can recreate the formula to do it again?

"I don't think so," says first baseman Kevin Youkilis. "I think it's a good thing. It's only a good thing if you have the right guys, but we have a lot of hungry guys. We have guys who are hungry every day. We don't have guys who think one World Series is good enough. Our guys here want to win 10. And that's the kind of guys you need."

That is indeed the kind of guys you need. But that's not all you need. The 2004 and 2007 Red Sox didn't just win because they had chemistry and character. They won because they cornered the market on dominating pitching, early and late.

And frankly, this team has more pitching questions heading into the season than those teams. Is Josh Beckett's back OK? Is Curt Schilling going to make any contribution? Are Tim Wakefield's back and shoulder going to hold up? Will Lester and Buchholz be as good over a full season as they've looked in short bursts?

But every team faces questions like this. And when you look at the other AL powerhouses out there -- the Yankees, the Tigers, the Indians, the Angels -- don't their flaws all seem more glaring, at least on paper, than the Red Sox's flaws?

They do. And so, for the first time in about nine decades, the Boston Red Sox have positioned themselves as The Team. The clear-cut favorites. What a thing.

We're not sure how much different that felt to Harry Hooper and Stuffy McInnis than it feels now to David Ortiz and Mike Lowell. But it sure feels different to those of us on the outside who are merely trying to comprehend how the planet spins.

"See, that never enters my mind," Francona says, "because I don't care. I don't really think it matters, because there are so many good teams out there. I think that's where you can run into problems, by viewing yourself as The Team To Beat. You know, every day we play, I think we expect to win -- but by playing the game, not by throwing your glove out there or making a statement. Go play."

Well, at least if this team doesn't win, nobody will blame it on Harry Frazee or any spooky supernatural forces in the universe. At least now, it might be possible to chalk it up to one more example of how "the best team" doesn't always win.

"You never know," says Youkilis. "You saw the Patriots this year. They lost, and they had the best team. So you just never know. It's sports. It's not math. It's not algebra. There are no equations. So I know fans get all worked up and think, 'We're the best team. We're going to win it all.' And they get mad [if you don't]. But it's sports. There's no science to it."

So can they repeat? Fasten your seat belt. We're about to find out. Only two franchises (1992-93 Blue Jays and 1998-1999-2000 Yankees) have done that in the last 30 years. No Red Sox team has done it since 1915-16. But this Red Sox team seems consumed by the quest to add itself to that list.

"The thing about this team is, we don't just want to win one," Youkilis says with a laugh. "We want to try to catch Yogi."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.