That it was a lackluster campaign was lucky for him. "I wanted to catch fans during a typical season," he told me in 2004. (See "Patriot Games," November 12 of that year.) Because fandom, in the end, has less to do with winning and losing than "with the guy next door and the guy who works at the next desk and the people who are a row ahead of you at the game or on the next stool at the bar." Rooting is "something that brings you all together when most of the time you have nothing in common."
The Red Sox had a crappy season in '02, too, staffed with such immortals as José Offerman and the corpse of Tony Clark. But by the following season, rejuvenated by wunderkind general manager Theo Epstein's little-known pick-ups — Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, a decent hitter from the Twins named David Ortiz — the team gelled. One might even say they cowboyed up.
But, in the late innings of ALCS Game 7, with a trip to the World Series seemingly in the bag, Grady Little, our forever-to-be-execrated manager — the man they call "Gump" — suddenly forgot how to use his bullpen. The bad guys won. The good guys lost. Pint glasses were thrown into TV screens from Fairfield to Fort Kent. And our most beloved team fulfilled their time-honored role as choke artists extraordinaire.
Luckily, just three months later, Belichick, Brady, and Janet Jackson's nipple were happy to alleviate the sting. On February 1, 2004, the Pats won another Super Bowl — also a squeaker, also won with a clutch field goal in the waning minutes — beating the Carolina Panthers, 32-29. And New England rejoiced once more.
Turning the corner
But we knew not what rejoicing truly was until October 27, 2004. The Red Sox responded to that epochal '03 gut punch by hiring affable Terry Francona (a manager who'd implement the team brain trust's reams of statistical data), signing unflappable closer Keith Foulke, and wooing ace Curt Schilling — an incorrigible loudmouth, who nonetheless matched his words with deeds.
It's all been written in the books of lore. As no one had done before in a baseball playoff series, they came back from three games down to drive a stake through the heart of the perfidious Yankees. Two clutch game-winning hits from Papi! The Steal™! The Bloody Sock™! And then, with a red moon literally hanging in the sky, they went to St. Louis to steamroll the powerhouse Cardinals in a no-doubt-about-it sweep.
The region was engulfed in happy hysterics not seen since V-J Day. There was a "rolling rally" (or as Mayor Mumbles Menino called it, a "woawing wawy") whose attendance rivaled Woodstock. Kids dove into the frigid Charles in celebration. Tears were shed as Red Sox caps were placed on the headstones of the faithful departed from 86 years past.
It took almost a century and a new, fresh-eyed strategy for assembling teams, but at long last it happened. "It's an organization with a lot of very bright people who aren't afraid to do things in a [new] way," sabermetric savant Bill James, hired to be the Sox' senior advisor on baseball operations, told me in 2008. (See "Stat Man," April 2 of that year.) "We don't look at problems and say, 'That's not the way everybody else does it.' We look at problems and say, 'What's the best way we could attack this?' "