Josh Beckett has officially retired from baseball, at the still-young age of 34. In spite of his early exit, Beckett lasted in the bigs for 14 seasons and over 2,000 innings, with another 93 frames in the postseason and two World Series rings on his hand. Seven of those seasons and well over half of those innings came while with the Red Sox, as did one of those World Series championships, but even more than that hefty portion of his career mattered to Red Sox fans and to the Sox themselves.
In 2003, the Red Sox lost in the American League Championship Series to the Yankees in a Game 7 that needs no reenactment here, but will get one just the same. Grady Little failed to take Pedro Martinez out before his publicly known expiration date, the Yankees came back and won the game and the series after an Aaron Boone home run off of even then long-time Sox veteran Tim Wakefield, and Boston had to go home while New York went to yet another World Series.
On the other side, the Marlins had defeated the Cubs to earn their own World Series berth, and deny Chicago the one they had been missing since 1945. A 21-year-old rookie named Josh Beckett played a huge role in that series, pitching 19-1/3 innings over two starts and a four-inning relief appearance to help send the Cubs back to Chicago. Beckett threw a dominating complete-game shutout in Game 5 of the NLCS with 11 strikeouts against one walk, earning himself what still stands as the eighth-highest postseason Game Score of all time, according to Baseball Reference, but it's his performance against the Yankees that everyone remembers. Beckett started two games against New York, throwing 16-1/3 innings over two starts while limiting the Yankees to just two runs. He was on the mound for the entirety of the clinching Game 6 for his second complete-game shutout of the postseason, earning himself World Series MVP honors, and a youthful playoff legend was born.
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That Beckett was not on the Red Sox, but he was pitching for Red Sox fans. Now, even Sox fans aren't so delusional as to believe his performance mattered more to them than it did to the Marlins or their fans, but it hurt to be a devoted follower of the Sox at that point in time. They hadn't won a World Series since 1918, and had come close to their first opportunity to change that in almost 20 years, and almost did so against their century-long rivals. Losing to the Yankees at that time meant more than it ever has and maybe ever will: the Rays were not yet a factor nor a real rival, and the Sox had once again failed to slow down the team who made them feel so small and insignificant. The Yankees were all that mattered to the Red Sox at that time, and since the Sox had failed for so long and so spectacularly, they didn't even necessarily matter to the Yankees or their fans in the same way.
Beckett, long before his Sox career, mattered to Boston because of the position he was in. He had the opportunity to lessen the pain of seeing the Sox' chief adversary win yet another World Series, and he seized it. For a fanbase that had not felt the joy of a championship in almost 90 years, watching their greatest enemy fail was all we had to go on.
Things became much less pathetic -- it's okay to admit schadenfreude is a little pathetic -- a year later when the Sox finally dispatched New York on their own and then defeated the Cardinals in four games, and two seasons later Beckett, that temporary hero of Red Sox Nation, would find himself wearing their uniform. Ben Cherington and Jed Hoyer, in charge in lieu of the temporarily departed Theo Epstein, dealt Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez to the Marlins for Beckett and Mike Lowell. Ramirez was the team's top prospect by a mile, while Sanchez was considered a future key piece of a rotation so long as his arm could hold up. Hanley became a star, as did Sanchez eventually, but Beckett and Lowell helped lead the Red Sox to their second World Series title in four years. Regardless of what came after for the talented youths the Boston dealt away, the Red Sox had their flag with more than a little help from Beckett, and those things fly forever.
Beckett was the ALCS MVP in 2007, allowing just three runs over two starts and 14 innings. He only made the one World Series start because Boston once again swept their opponent -- this time the Rockies -- but he made it count with one run allowed over seven frames. It would be his last great playoff performance, but he would still manage to finish his career with a postseason ERA of 3.07, more than eight-tenths of a run better than his impressive career figure.
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Josh Beckett wasn't on the Red Sox for the third World Series title he helped Boston reach, but make no mistake: he was central to its existence. Beckett was part of the Nick Punto trade with the Dodgers in August of 2012, a deal meant to give the Sox some prospects, sure, but mostly to hand off a quarter-billion dollars in future commitments so that Cherington -- now officially the general manager -- could have the flexibility that his predecessor Epstein failed to leave him. Clearing Beckett's nearly $16 million from the books, in part, helped the Red Sox pay for players like Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, and Koji Uehara, all central to the Sox 2013 championship. It was once again an indirect World Series he contributed to, and he had no choice in this one, but that payroll space was a lovely parting gift from a pitcher who deserved better than what many fans and the media gave him during his lengthy tenure in town.
Beckett isn't a Hall of Fame pitcher even if he had a Hall of Fame arm before the injuries started to pile on, but he had a damn fine career. Two World Series rings as well as a 2,000-inning run as one of the 10 or so best pitchers of his generation is a career that merits attention and remembrance, even if it's only remembered by the fans he gave joy to in those times. While the game might be a little faster without Beckett around, it's lost a fiery Texan hundreds of innings before it should have. That's always an event worth lamenting.