When I planned on starting these roundtable posts up this season, my plan was to sort of have them reflect the previous week in the world of the Red Sox. Of course, a global pandemic kind of prevented that idea so we’ve had to start looking further ahead and further back. This is going to be a further back kind of week. The question for the staff this week was simple: What was your favorite non-World Series Red Sox team. As it turns out, there were apparently only two options.
The thing about the 2003 Red Sox was that they broke my heart. This club had it all and my 16 year old self was convinced this was going to be the year. My favorite position to watch is third base, and that season Bill Mueller went off batting .326 to win the batting title and delivering grand slams from both sides of the plate in the same game! My favorite player is Pedro Martinez who was at the end of the most dominant stretch any pitcher has ever had. He finished the season with 2.22 ERA. Red Sox nation was also introduced to the one who would eventually change it all—David Ortiz. It was during this season at the beginning of the year when he became “Big Papi” to everyone.
All the stars were out in 2003 with Nomar Garciaparra and the always dominant Manny Ramirez both posting identical 5.8 fWAR seasons. This lineup was good enough to go all the way and it would’ve been the team to break the curse if the pitching hadn’t failed them. Despite winning 95 games they still finished second in the AL East to the 101 win Yankees. Pedro wasn’t quite as durable as he was from 1998-2000 and no other Red Sox starter had an ERA under 4.09, hell Jeff Suppan, Casey Fossum, and John Burkett all had ERA’s of 5.15 or higher. Ultimately it would be Grady Little and Tim Wakefield who would wear this one. Aaron “fucking” Boone man.
2003 walked so that 2004 could run, but 1999 was supposed to be the year before we even got there. The All-Star Game was played at Fenway Park. Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez were both transcendent. The Red Sox featured one of my favorite outfield trios in franchise history. (Shout out to my fellow Troy O’Leary fans.) It was a final renaissance for Bret Saberhagen’s legendary and underappreciated career. Speaking of underappreciated, John Valentin was still making plays, although at a below average pace, and Jose Offerman made the All-Star team. The bullpen was a fun group that featured Rich Garcés, Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield. This was also the first season in which Jason Varitek played more than 100 games. Plus, there was the ascendancy of Brian Daubach, which I’ve already written about.
A roster of greats and some of my personal favorite players isn’t all this team had. There was also some October magic. The Red Sox came back from down 2-0 in the ALDS against Cleveland, highlighted by Martinez’s heroic relief appearance in game five. It all came tumbling down in the ALCS, but this team will always stand out as a favorite for me.
I have to go with the 2003 Red Sox, with an honorable mention to the 2011 Red Sox. Both of them taught me the same lesson, more or less, and gave me my money’s worth when it came to emotion in sports. I watch sports because it lets me feel the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. It’s an incredible feeling on both ends I could never trade away.
The 2003 team was the first I watched a full-season of, so I give them the nod over the 2011 team. To see a team that good get so far, and then have it all blow up in an instant was devastating to an 11 year old me. The 2011 team was also heartbreaking (and fun to watch), but fall was in such slow motion at the end that it wasn’t nearly as fun to experience. Lows can be fun to experience on rare occasion in sports. But misery is a lot harder sell.
I’m from Virginia and my entire family is Atlanta Braves fans. I think it had something to do with the Braves AAA team in Richmond and/or TBS. Anyways, I was a semi-baseball fan at that point. I played third base in Little League softball so Chipper Jones was my favorite player, yadda yadda yadda. Well, one Saturday afternoon in 1999, I was inside and noticed Fox Saturday baseball was on. I had nothing else to watch so why not? It was the Boston Red Sox vs Seattle Mariners and someone named Pedro Martinez was pitching for the Red Sox. In that game, Pedro went eight innings with 15 strikeouts. At that time, I had never seen anyone more dominant as a pitcher. I don’t recall much from the offensive side of that game but looking back at Baseball-Reference the team scored four runs and Trot Nixon went 2-3. Also during this time, my friends and I were really into baseball cards. I ran to my collection and found I had a bunch of Boston Red Sox cards. Whenever we would get together to trade, I would always try to get every Red Sox but especially every Pedro Martinez card. I still have my stash to this day. So thanks to Pedro Martinez and the rest of the 1999 Red Sox team, I am now a fan for life.
The year was 2011. The Red Sox finished in third place in the AL East. Terry Francona and Theo Epstein would be fired/forced out of the organization. There was some nonsense about Popeye’s chicken before the sandwich craze. The actual 162 game playing time ended badly. Like, really badly. Aaron Boone badly, but somehow both worse and not quite as bad since it wasn’t in an ALCS Game 7. My first thought for this prompt was, in fact, the 2003 season, which would set up so much joy the next year. But I took a different direction instead.
In 2011 we saw Jacoby Ellsbury as the most deserving player in the AL MVP race denied because BBWAA writers are fickle bunch and can grant or deny individual awards based on team performance. A 30/30 season leading the team with 8.3 WAR. It’s hard to remember how amazing a player he was and how quickly things fell apart. Adrian Gonzalez hit .338/.410/.548 with 27 homers. Youk still got on base at a .373 clip. Big Papi. Dustin Pedroia. Marco Scutaro. All had great seasons. Sure Carl Crawford and J.D. Drew were bad but no team is perfect. The rotation has Beckett/Lester/Buchholz to carry it and the bullpen was led by Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard.
This was a fun team to watch for most of the season and the memes about the collapse take that away.
The season didn’t end well, but the 2003 season and team really stick out in my mind for a bunch of reasons. First, it was really the team that drew me in being a Red Sox fan with my dad and is the first season I can really remember vividly in general. My dad watched all the games every summer and I (13 years old at the time) had been playing little league like everyone else but hadn’t really latched on to the Sox yet because I was young. I don’t really think you “understand” sports until your around that age anyway.
But that summer, man. The run up to the ALCS, mimicking Nomar’s batting glove routine, David Ortiz’ first season with the Sox, Johnny Damon colliding with Damien Jackson in shallow center vs the A’s. That season had everything and was the catalyst for connecting with the Sox. And even though the season ended literally as bad as a season possibly could, I’m glad it happened because it made me feel connected with generations of Red Sox fans who felt the same pain for 86 years. We’ve definitely been spoiled since, but when grouchy old curmudgeon Sox fans complain all we know now is winning we can revel in the misery of that 2003 season and nothing feels more New England than that.
As tempted as I was to say 2003, my favorite non-World Series team was probably the 1999 squad, simply because there was a real chance the 2003 team would have actually won it all. It never felt like the 1999 team had a chance because of the degree to which they were dependent on Pedro and Nomar, and it looked early on like they were going to get blitzed out of the playoffs by the Indians, with them falling behind 2-0 before rallying to win it in the Pedro/Troy O’Leary game. That was a perfect capper to one of Pedro’s dream seasons, and whatever happened in the ALCS was gravy. Unfortunately, most of it was spoiled gravy after the Sox blew game one in extra innings (rest in peace, Rod), but game three, which features Roger Clemens getting humiliated and laughed off the mound in Fenway as Pedro carved up New York, was the precursor for the 2003/2004 dramedy that changed our lives forever. This was the last true underdog Sox team, and I still adore it.
I kind of wanted to switch things up here and join Mike by going with the 2011 team. That one does hold a very special place in my heart because it was the season I started writing about the team and also I still believe that for those four middle months of the season it is the best top-to-bottom Red Sox team I have ever seen. But, I have to jump on the bandwagon and go with 1999. I was only eight at this point so I certainly wasn’t super aware of what was going on, but I knew enough. My first real baseball memories were in 1998, but that wasn’t Red Sox-centric. It was the home run chase, mostly. The 1999 season was the first that I was really a Red Sox fan, and as it was for most kids it was pretty much entirely about Pedro and Nomar. Plus, my brother worshipped Troy O’Leary to an arguably unhealthy degree, so that home run sticks out even extra in my mind.
2012 was a transformative year for how I took in baseball. I started getting more interested in the nuances of the game, wanting to learn anything I could. I was particularly interested in pitching. So, I’d turn on a game, sit down with my laptop, and chart the game. It was a very time-consuming process so I couldn’t do this as often as I wanted to, but when I did I learned invaluable lessons about pitch sequencing, how different starters were from relievers, how pitchers turnover a lineup, and random scouting reports about various Red Sox hitters. For instance, the only pitch Cody Ross was any good at hitting from right-handers was an inside fastball. And Mike Aviles *loved* chasing the high cheese. My brain is cursed but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are more successful seasons, such as 2008, but no year saw me grow as much as 2012.