Inspirational Athletes

The Team that Reversed the Curse: The 2004 Boston Red Sox

By Dawn Dugan

On October 24, 2004, a lunar eclipse—the first one to occur during a World Series game—accompanied another feat many people thought would never happen. The Boston Red Sox, after coming back from a 3-0 deficit to beat longtime rivals New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, bested the St. Louis Cardinals in four straight games to take the 2004 World Series. It was, perhaps, the greatest comeback the sports world had ever seen.

The Red Sox had not won a Series since 1918. For 86 years legions of fans had suffered through what affectionately became known as “the Curse of the Bambino,” an oft-used explanation for years of near misses, October collapses, and sheer bad luck. To be a Red Sox fan was to dwell in possibility only to have your heart broken again and again. There were close calls in 1946, 1948, 1967, 1974, and 1975—tantalizingly close—and these made the losses all that much harder for fans to bear. And then there was the almost surreal fold in 1978, when the Sox led the Yankees by 14 games on July 20, but blew the lead and lost a one-game playoff.

In 1986, the Sox came closer to winning a World Series without winning it than any other team in baseball. If you didn’t believe that Babe Ruth was wreaking havoc with the boys from Boston before that game, you certainly did afterward. The Red Sox were just about to win it—they led the Mets three games to two, and were up 5-3 in the bottom of the tenth with two outs and nobody on base. In a game that no one will ever forget, the Mets came back to clinch the championship due to three consecutive singles, a wild pitch, and a ball through the legs of Red Sox Bill Buckner. The loss left fans bewildered and depressed. Would the Red Sox ever win another World Series again? It was not uncommon for fans to say they wanted to see the Sox win the World Series just once in their lifetime.

And then came the year 2003, the year where it looked like it really might happen. The Sox had an incredible season and faced the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series once again. And this time it looked like they had it in the bag. Star Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez was on the mound, and the Sox led the Yankees 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth in the last game of the series. But in a highly criticized move manager Grady Little left Martinez on the mound well after he should have retired him. In a preposterous unfolding of events, the Yankees rallied and won the game in the bottom of the eleventh when Aaron Boone hit a walk-off homer. Fans were stunned by the loss, but not surprised. If they had learned anything over the years, it was that it wasn’t over until it was over. Now, even fans who weren’t superstitious were wondering if there wasn’t something to this curse thing after all. There was no rational explanation for what had happened.

You could say that the 2004 season really began with that last game in the 2003 ALCS. General Manager Theo Epstein and other top brass knew some changes had to be made. Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, and David Ortiz were all on their last year of their contracts with the Red Sox. It would be the last year these talented players would be on the same team together. With some changes and a little bolstering, Epstein thought 2004 could be Boston’s best chance.

Epstein started by reloading the team. In November it was announced they had acquired pitcher Curt Schilling, previously of the Arizona Diamondbacks. This meant that with Martinez, Lowe, and Schilling, the Red Sox now had a top-three pitching rotation. In December, it was announced that pitcher Keith Foulke had also been acquired.

Everyone knew that Grady Little’s mistake in that last game in 2003 would cost him, and in November, just a few weeks after the Sox acquired Schilling, it was announced that Terry Francona had been hired as the new manager.

Though Francona had all the right experience (Philadelphia manager, Cleveland front office, Texas/Oakland bench coach), he garnered criticism early on for being soft on the players. Indeed, the Red Sox were like no other team in baseball. They fondly called themselves “idiots,” were rumored to drink Jack Daniels before games, grew their hair in a variety of unkempt styles, and drove motorcycles. On any given day in practice their shirts were untucked, and did not match. They smeared pine tar on their batting helmets. They were unshaven. Compared to the Yankees, they were a motley crew. But this down-to-earth quality, as well as the easy camaraderie among them, made the fans go wild. You couldn’t not love this bunch. Even those not particularly interested in baseball couldn't help but be taken in by these colorful characters.

The first spring training game was held on March 7 against the Yankees. It had been 143 days since Game 7 of the 2003 series, but the wound was still raw. The Yankees won that first game 11-7, but in the last game of spring training the Sox beat the Twins to give them a 3-2 lead over the Yankees.

The Sox had a rough start to the season. It started when Baltimore beat Martinez 7-2, with seven of the first nine Orioles at bat reaching base. The second game of the Baltimore series was better, with Schilling pitching the Sox to a 4-1 win. The last game went into extra innings before journeyman Red Sox pitcher Bobby Jones walked four batters in a row in the bottom of the thirteenth.

Bad luck started early in the season for the Sox. Leaving Baltimore, they spent a sleepless night at the airport due to difficulty with their plane, and didn’t get to Boston until 7:30 a.m. on April 9. They had to be at Fenway at noon for a 3 p.m. game against the Toronto Blue Jays, which they lost 10-5. They had better results the next night with Pedro on the mound. They won that game 4-1, and the third and final game the next night when Ortiz hit a walk-off homer to win the game in the bottom of the twelfth.

On April 16, the Yankees came to Boston. This was the 50th consecutive meeting when the Yankees were first and Boston second in standings. But the Sox reversed those standing when they took three of the four games at home. Four days later the Sox headed to New York where they swept all three games. From New York they went home to take three straight from Tampa Bay.

Could this be the year? The fans were buzzing. The Sox’s 15-6 record was not only currently the best record in baseball, it also represented the best start in Red Sox history since 1918!

How quickly things change. In May their stellar record took a beating, starting with a loss to the Rangers in a double header in Texas. This was the start of a five-game losing streak that would deplete the Red Sox’s early season lead.

To make matters worse, rumors were circulating in Red Sox Nation. Martinez was openly complaining about his treatment from Red Sox brass, making it clear that negotiations regarding the following year were not going his way. He went so far as to announce that he would definitely be a free agent at the end of the season. And something was up with Nomar Garciaparra too. In addition to having an injured Achilles tendon and putting himself on the disabled list, he too seemed out of sorts and unhappy with his situation in Boston. It was not uncommon for cameras to pan the dugout during games and to land on Nomar, who would be sitting sullenly apart from his teammates.

Despite their awesome early season record, by May 21 the Red Sox were right where they were at the beginning of the season—tied for first with the Yankees.

And that wouldn’t last long either. The beginning of the summer was absolutely dismal, especially considering the Sox’s great start. By the beginning of June the Sox had sunk to six games behind the Yankees. On June 29 the Sox headed to Yankee stadium for another round and blew a three-game series that dropped them a whopping eight and a half games behind the Yankees. As if that weren’t enough, they lost two out of three games July 4th weekend in Atlanta. It seemed the season was effectively over. Red Sox fans sighed heavily and shrugged. They had been through this before.

But something happened after Atlanta. The Sox started hitting. It seemed like Johnny Damon, Ortiz, and Ramirez were getting three or four hits a game. Other players were hitting too. The Sox celebrated an 11-0 victory over Oakland, then went on a five-game winning streak. But a 3-3 result with Anaheim again cast doubt on the team.

On July 23 the Yankees came to Boston. Schilling pitched the first game of the series, which he lost. The Sox were now nine and a half games behind the Yankees.

In the meantime, the Nomar situation was really heating up in the Red Sox clubhouse. On the night of the second game the Red Sox management met with Nomar to see if they could somehow get him back into the fold of the team. Nomar said he was unhappy because of the Boston media. The negotiations went nowhere, and it became obvious that it would be best for the team if Nomar was traded.

The second game was almost rained out. But it wasn’t, and it turned out to be one of the season's most exciting games. By the third inning the Sox were losing 3-0. Then pitcher Bronson Arroyo hit Alex Rodriguez with a wild pitch, which set off a fight between catcher Jason Varitek and A-Rod. By the bottom of the ninth a comeback by the Sox had the score at 10-9 in favor of the Yankees. Red Sox Bill Mueller hit a two-run walk-off homer to win the game. The game had featured 21 runs, 27 hits, four errors, five ejections, and had taken three hours and 54 minutes!

The next night the Sox won again. It was to be Nomar Garciaparra’s last night in a Red Sox uniform. The next day he would be on his way to Chicago to play for the Cubs, and in his place would be first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and shortstop Orlando Cabrera. “Who?” Red Sox fans wondered. The trade was tough on those Boston fans who loved Nomar, and there were plenty of them. Nomar was greatly admired for his skill, his effort, and his work ethic, and his popularity rivaled that of Ted Williams. The trade of Nomar was a crushing blow to many Red Sox fans, but in the end it proved to be the right decision. Without Nomar in the clubhouse there was less dissention. The team was more cohesive.

But the club would not see the results right away. On August 9, when the Sox lost to the Devil Rays 8-3, their record stood at 45-44 since May 1. For more than half the 2004 season, they had played .500 ball. It didn’t seem possible for them to climb out of this hole.

But the Sox did turn things around. After the trade, their record was 42-19. From August 10 on, the Boston Red Sox were the best team in baseball. Consider this. On August 18 the Sox were 10 and a half games behind the Yankees. In just three short weeks they managed to whittle down the difference to two games.

In the month of August the Sox went 21-7. All of a sudden they were the favorites for the Wild Card. By the end of the season they had won 98 games and were second to the Yankees. They clinched the Wild Card when they beat the Devil Rays 7-3.

The Sox were going to the playoffs for the eleventh time since 1918! But in true Sox fashion, things were shaky. Especially on the pitching side of things. Lowe had been severely struggling, sometimes lasting only two or three innings. It was likely he wasn't going to be included in the postseason pitching rotation. Pedro was in a slump and had lost his last four starts. And there was something wrong with Schilling’s ankle.

The Sox beat the Angels in Anaheim to secure their spot in the ALCS. They waited to see if the Yankees would beat the Twins. A few hours later they did. A rematch between one of the sports world’s greatest rivalries was on. Upon learning that they would be facing the Yankees an elated Epstein said to a writer, “Now that it’s here, we can admit that if we’re able to win a World Series and go through New York along the way, it will mean that much more.”

The first game of the ALCS was the 46th meeting between the two teams in 17 months. Schilling was the starting pitcher, but it was clear from the beginning that there was something drastically wrong with his ankle. He couldn’t push off or land on his right leg, and lasted only four innings. The Sox lost that game 10-7. Martinez pitched the second game and lost it 3-1. The mood in Red Sox nation was getting somber. What was up with the Boston batters? They certainly weren’t contributing. In the first six innings of the first two games, the Sox managed one hit.

A Game 3 rainout on October 15 left some wondering if maybe the Red Sox would catch a break after all. The delay meant that instead of playing on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, the teams would play on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. This meant that the Game 5 starter would have an extra day off.

But the Sox lost Game 3, with Arroyo pitching, 19-8. Fans shook their heads in disbelief. Some sold or gave their Game 4 tickets away. They just couldn’t bear to watch the Sox lose to the Yankees in four straight games. Anyone who ran the odds would know that the Sox had a 16-1 chance of coming back and winning the series after a 3-0 deficit.

Tim Wakefield was slated to be Game 4’s starting pitcher, but volunteered to go in Game 3 so that Mike Timlin and Foulke wouldn’t have to be used and could be saved for the next day. It was the action of a true team player, and almost certainly helped in the outcome of the next game. It was announced that Lowe would pitch in Game 4.

Despite a tough end of the season, Lowe got up there on the mound and did his job. He gave up a two-run homer to A-Rod, but didn’t give up another run to the Yankees until the sixth. The Sox were up 3-2 when Timlin came in, and Foulke came into the game and held it scoreless after Timlin.

The Yankees were leading 4-3 at the top of the ninth. And this is where a stolen base by Dave Roberts changed the outcome of the game, and subsequently the outcome of Red Sox history. In the ninth Kevin Millar was walked, and Francona sent in Roberts, a speedy designated runner who had stolen 38 bases and been caught only three times in 2004. Bill Mueller came up to the plate. Y ankees pitcher Rivera threw three times to first before sending a pitch. Roberts ran and beat the tag into second with a headfirst slide. A few pitches later Mueller put the ball in center field and Roberts scored easily. The score was now 4-4. At the bottom of the twelfth Ramirez led off with a single, followed by a homer Ortiz hit into the Yankees bullpen. The Sox had won Game 4!

In Game 5, the longest postseason game in history, Martinez started off at the mound. The Yankees were up 4-2 at the top of the eighth, but that changed when Ortiz got a home run off Tom Gordon. Millar walked and was again replaced by Roberts, who stole third on a ball hit by Trot Nixon. Varitek tied the game with a sacrifice fly ball to center. In the fourteenth inning, with two on and two out, Ortiz hit a single and brought Johnny Damon in from second to win the game. The game had lasted five hours and 14 minutes. Red Sox fans were exhausted but elated. Things were looking up!

But what was going on with Schilling’s ankle? During Game 4, in the back training room of the Red Sox clubhouse, Schilling had undergone a procedure that stabilized his tendon by attaching the skin around the tendon to the deep tissue. This created a sheath to hold the tendon in place. It was the first surgery of its kind ever to be attempted.

In Game 6, Schilling stood on the mound in Yankee Stadium. Some of the stitches in his ankle tore, and his white sock was soaked with blood. You can’t make this stuff up! Things got interesting when Mark Bellhorn crushed a three-run homer that bounced off a fan’s chest. Initially the ump thought it bounced off the wall, but following a conference among the umps the hit was ruled a home run and the Sox led 4-0. Schilling left after seven innings and the Sox led 4-1 when Arroyo came in in the eighth. There was more drama when A-Rod hit a dribbler to Arroyo. Ball in glove, he easily made the tag. But suddenly the ball flew out of his glove and into foul territory. What had happened? Umps determined that A-Rod had slashed Arroyo, called A-Rod out, and sent Derek Jeter back to first base. Foulke pitched in the ninth at 4-2, and ended it when he struck out Yankee Clark.

It was now 3-3, and it all came down to Game 7.

The date was October 20. Lowe had two days of rest and pitched beautifully. Ortiz got things off to a good start by hitting a two-run homer off of Brown in the first. The Sox loaded the bases in the second and Damon hit a home run, bringing the score to 6-0. Bellhorn hit a homer in the eighth to make it 9-3. In the end, Alan Embree was on the mound. At 12:01 Sierra hit a grounder to Pokey Reese at second, who fired it to Mientkiewicz at first. It was over. The Red Sox had won the ALCS and were on their way to the World Series.

The Sox had done the unthinkable by winning the last four games after a 3-0 deficit, and it was all the sweeter because the team they routed was the Yankees. Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan wrote that the experience was “the single most alternatingly stressful and exhilarating week in Boston sports history.”

The actual World Series was anticlimactic in comparison. For the third time in 58 years, the Sox would be up against the St. Louis Cardinals. Epstein said, “Time to play Finland now,” referring to the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team’s upset over the USSR, which most people forget was not the gold medal game.

The Cardinals were a formidable team. They had won 105 games, and had very strong batters including Larry Walker, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edwards. But they lacked in the pitching department.

It turned out to be a four-game sweep. The Sox won the first game 11-9 when Bellhorn hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth. In Game 2, the last game at Fenway before the Sox would head to St. Louis, Schilling pitched six innings of four-hit ball without allowing an earned run for a 6-2 win. In Game 3 Martinez pitched seven innings of shutout ball to a 4-1 victory.

And then there was Game 4. A 3-0 victory for the Sox. The night of a lunar eclipse. The team’s first World Series win in 86 years, since 1918. It ended at 11:40 when Cardinal Edgar Renteria hit a short one-hop ball back to Foulke on the pitcher’s mound. He jumped and caught the ball over his head, took seven or eight steps toward first base, then threw it underhand to first baseman Mientkiewicz to end the game—and the series. Varitek leaped into the arms of Foulke, a picture that would make it onto the cover of Time the next week.

This team—a group who called themselves “idiots”—had finally given their fans what they had been asking for. A parade in Boston 48 hours later drew 3.2 million fans. It was the largest celebration in the 374-year history of Boston.

Inspirational Athletes