It's easy to forget how laden with talent the 2003 and 2004 Red Sox were, but today Terry Francona returns to Fenway to remind us. The new, financially responsible Sox would have nothing to do with that orgastic bunch and its historic decadence, but even in the midst of all the chaos, Tito was worth the whole damn bunch put together. The real trouble started when he was gone.
There's an argument that he never really left, that his ghost hovered over the 2012 team, haunting Bobby Valentine at every turn, turning wins into losses, penciling Pedro Ciriaco into the lineup, but those days are over. The Red Sox are winning again and Tito's got his own bunch, full of their own piss and vinegar, who bring him back to Fenway today as an opposing manager for the first time since he ran a room of idiots into a World Series title, then added another three years later for good measure.
He literally ran them there -- if there's one thing we know about his tenure, it's the wink he gave Dave Roberts in the ninth inning of game four of the ALCS as he trotted out to first base to pinch run for Kevin Millar against Mariano Rivera. The wink meant everything. It said to Roberts: Don't worry about them, old sport. Just do what you do and we'll be fine however it works out. How couldn't we be?
Of course, Roberts stole second and was safe, and we really were fine. A team tradition of taking Mama Juana rum shots was born that night, "and the hell with it," Pedro Martinez recently told Amanda Rykoff, they took them every before game, presumably with their affable manager chugging along. It must have felt to all of them like taking a shot of oxygen in the thin air, the breath around them pulled into the region's collective lungs. When the exhale came, it was loud:
These weren't normal times, nor were they sustainable, the same way you can't live at the top of a mountain. Even the Yankees preach financial responsibility now. Thanks to the millstone collectors in Los Angeles, the Red Sox are free of their own deadweight and are flying high near the top of their division under John Farrell, a link to the Francona era who had the good fortune to miss last season. Square-jawed and serious, he's the antithesis of the good-natured Tito. He plays his cards far closer to his vest than his bald-natured and cartoonish predecessor. Whatever else Tito did, he livened things up.
He's livening them up again in Cleveland this season, his team off to a roaring start just past the 25 percent mark in the year. The Roaring Twenties didn't last forever, nor will the Indians' run, most likely, as FanGraphs predicts them to finish the rest of the season under .500. For the moment, though, everything is coming up Terry, as well it should be. We can wish him all the best because we're past him. Winning will do that for you.
We're no longer born back into our past -- the 2004 Red Sox are nothing more than an artifact, now, a commemorative book celebrating a dramatic and unlikely achievement and its real-life carnage, available to re-live over and over in desperate times. Think you can't re-live the past? Of course you can, on DVDs and in books and columns by Bill Simmons, Stephen King, and the rest of them. You'll relive it a little when you see Francona on the field tonight in familiar colors, but then it'll go away. We moved on, and so has he, but he's always there when we need him, safe and sound back in good old 2004, when the rosters were loaded and failure was not an option. We've got it better now. We don't need rarefied air to feel alive. But when we did, we called on Terry Francona to call us up into it, and he brought us up and down in one piece. There's not much more you can say about a man than that, and that's why we love him, now and forever.
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