The last time the Red Sox made the ALCS, in 2018, they played the Astros, and the world was a very different place. The Astros’s trash-can affair hasn’t yet been brought to light, Mookie Betts and Dave Dombrowski were still in Boston and what we call COVID-19 was, at it had been for thousands of years, just hanging out in bats, waiting to strike.
Now the Astros and Sox are at it again, except COVID has escaped from bats, Betts is in L.A., Dombo’s in Philadelphia and we all know what Houston has been up to. The binge-and-purge Sox the first 20 years of Fenway Sports Group’s ownership have been replaced by the (extremely relatively) on-the-cheap-Sox, a team that’s surviving on serious ~vibes~. The vibes are good now, so things are nice. Actually they’re way better than that: They’re miraculous.
Now, though, the rubber will meet the road. The Astros do not care for fairy tales. Beating the Yankees was cathartic and beating the Rays was delicious and beating the Astros will be hard as hell. The Rays were still always the Rays, trying to cut corners, but the Astros don’t cut corners. They are in their fifth straight ALCS for a reason, and it’s not (just) cheating. They are a mini-dynasty, albeit a particularly reviled one. As a resident of suburban New York I can confirm that Houston is currently more reviled than the Sox among Yankees fan. Maybe that changed after the Wildcard Game, but also maybe it didn’t. I think Yankees fans mostly blame the Yankees. I think that any of them still invested in the playoffs will be rooting for us, too. What a concept!
At the same time, I’m a little scared that this is the top of the mountain. The Astros really are big and bad and determined to show the world that they can win it all without their bang-bang business. It hardly matters if, as the White Sox showed in suggesting they’re still at it, no one will believe them regardless. They are an angry bunch, and the Sox are little more than the latest obstacle.
Unlike three years ago, too, the Sox are not the favorites. The 2018 team was built on muscle. This team rides the waves, and the thing about waves is they are eventually going to crash. Sometimes a vibes team can carry on all the way through a title run—the 2006 Cardinals are the shining example of this, and the 2007 Rockies team that came up short is also a good one—but most of the time this is where the feelings start to run up against reality, and the dream dies.
As much as I hate to say so, that sounds about right for this team. The last week or so has had Sox fans digging into the March archives to find their team’s doubters, and while it’s been instructive, it hasn’t really been fair. You don’t predict how a season is going to go on how you want it to go, but on how you think it’s going to go, and the Sox were putrid last year. It’s all good because it’s all in fun, but it won’t help the Sox now.
Now we likely see the limits of a team trying to win it all without trying to win it all. I hope I’m wrong, but the difference between a Houston team several years into title-or-bust and a Sox team that isn’t there yet us likely to show up on the field. Obviously I hope it doesn’t, just as I’m thrilled to have been wrong in March. If I am, it’ll be the vibes that got me, and I’d like nothing more.