I can't tell you which game this happened in, but I can recall the moment when I thought that the 2004 team just might win it all.
It was a post-trade deadline game. Dave Roberts was getting a chance to be more than just a pinch runner and defensive replacement—he was actually in the batter's box. What was so memorable was what he was doing with the pitches coming his way: he was fouling them off one after another. Right into the Red Sox dugout.
On the first one, everyone scattered. After the second, people were a little ticked. On the third one, they were starting to climb out of the dugout. Manny Ramirez had a "what the?" look on his face (and when Manny Ramirez is wondering what's going on, you know you have problems). David Ortiz was chuckling to himself, and teammates like Johnny Damon and Gabe Kapler were helpfully pointing out that he should be aiming the ball in the direction of the outfield, not the dugout. And through it all, Roberts had this ridiculous grin on his face, registering somewhere between "Oops!" and "Please don't put itching powder in my uniform for the next week!"
But the key thing here was that the team was both taking care of business, but also still having fun and becoming a team. If there was going to be a team that could finish the 86-year-task, it was "The Idiots." But they weren't really "The Idiots" until very late in the year—almost not even until the playoffs began, actually.
Flash forward nearly a decade, and we are confronted with a team that has been even more memorable to watch throughout the year. And it's because of this that I don't really like "The Beards" as a nickname for the 2013 Red Sox. They're so much more than that.
It was clear from spring training and even Opening Day that this was a very different team than other recent models—a view only solidified by their response to the Boston Marathon attacks. As much as the 2004 playoffs were for all of Red Sox Nation, the whole 2013 season has been in honor of the city of Boston.The Red Sox are part of the fabric of Boston, a cultural institution with its own heritage and history, intertwined with that of a city like no other team in professional sports (Green Bay Packers fans may argue, but they haven't been around nearly as long).
But what has been so amazing to watch about this season is how ego-free it has been. Sure, we've seen plenty of individual moments of accomplishment this season (and baseball is ultimately a game pitting individuals against one another in civilized, ritualized, bloodless "combat"), but this season has never been about the reemergence of David Ortiz, the amazing comeback of John Lackey, the seemingly out-of-nowhere performances of Mike Carp, Jonny Gomes, and Daniel Nava, or even the utterly unique phenomenon that is Koji Uehara. It's been about the communal struggle and working together as a team to accomplish their goals (lack of run support for Lackey excepted). You can see it in their interviews and even their Twitter accounts: moments of self-congratulation are few and far between.
While John Farrell's call for a "relentless" approach to playing baseball has clearly taken root, it has fortunately not come at the expense of the childlike enthusiasm and exuberant energy that has also been a hallmark of the 2013 Red Sox. This dichotomy is always visible—this is a team of consummate professionals (even the rookies!) playing as if their lives depend upon it, right until the moment it doesn't. That's when you see their inner sandlot kids come out to play: the high fives, the bouncing, the punting of the helmets, and, yes, even the beards. (OK, the beards aren't exactly childlike, for obvious reasons, but my point remains.)
Reducing this wild ride in 2013 to just "The Beards," for me, devalues the whole experience a bit. It's just too glib, too superficial—and it's also not inclusive of everybody on the team. I love the whole #GotBeard phenomenon and everything that comes with it, but it's not enough to represent what this team has been, and how they've stopped the downward spiral of recent Red Sox teams. It doesn't convey what this team has gone through—a series of major injuries to the pitching staff, the struggles of players like Will Middlebrooks and Jackie Bradley, Jr.—along with the ever-present challenge of restoring confidence in a demoralized and dispirited fanbase. Not to mention being a rallying point, and a source of hope after the awful, senseless carnage of that Monday afternoon in April.
But, as in so much else, I think the team has already given us an answer. You can see it on their uniforms, and in the dugout. It's been their rallying cry, and that of a town, for the last five months. It's a little quixotic, and yet completely serious. It hits the mark like no other nickname or slogan possibly could. It's how I'll remember this year's team, regardless of how much further they have to go. Score twenty runs against one of the best teams in the league? Sure thing. Down five runs in the bottom of the ninth? A sticky situation. This is a team that has shown time and time again that they'll fight to the last out.
Win or lose, the 2013 Sox, for me, will always be Boston Strong.