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Appreciating the 2002 Red Sox

They were a year before things really took off, but they shouldn’t be forgotten.

Red Sox v Royals X Damon

To provide a bit of a peek behind the curtain here at OTM, I generally have a running list of story ideas that I am constantly updating, with some things being an idea I write up immediately but plenty of others that I keep in the holster for when I need to fill some space. As I announced last week, my time here is coming to a close with tomorrow being my last day, which means if I don’t write them soon they just won’t be written. That’s mostly fine, because generally there’s a reason I keep putting off some of the ideas, but there’s one I’ve been sitting on since January that I feel like I want to get out of my system before I hang up the keyboard. I want to show some love to the 2002 Red Sox, which gets lost in the shuffle of interesting teams from this century.

Generally speaking, I think we consider the beginning of this now multi-decade era of Red Sox success to be 2003. That was the year David Ortiz burst onto the scene, the year in which they took the Yankees to Game Seven of the ALCS (we don’t have to talk about what happened there), and when they put themselves on the map as one of the very best organizations in the entire sport. I won’t argue with that accounting, but at the very least I think we should consider the 2002 season as a prologue, a necessary bridge to get from the previous era to the current.

A big part of this story of course comes down to the ownership situation. It was in this season that the group now known as Fenway Sports Group, led by John Henry and company, officially took control of the Red Sox. Before this season, they’d had a nice run in 1998 and 1999, making the postseason in both of those years, but were mostly mired in a step below excellent and a run of seasons with win totals in the 80s. The new ownership cleaned house a bit, letting go of Dan Duquette (an under-appreciated part of getting the Red Sox to where they got a few years later).

Then the season began, the Red Sox put together a really impressive season that was lost to history thanks in large part to the misfortune of playing in an extremely talented American League. Manny Ramirez had arguably his best season with Boston, at least on a rate basis. Nomar Garciaparra was continuing his reign as one of the very best all-around players in the league. Johnny Damon, the big addition before the season, held things down atop the lineup. Shea Hillenbrand made the All-Star team. Pedro Martinez was Pedro Martinez. Derek Lowe hit his peak, winning 20 games with a sub-3.00 ERA and finishing third in Cy Young voting. Tim Wakefield had one of his best seasons, spending time in both the rotation and bullpen. They got 42 saves from Ugueth Urbina.

All of this is to say: This was a very good team! The Red Sox won 93 games this season under manager Grady Little, but they missed out on the postseason because they were competing with a 103-win Yankee team and a 99-win Angels team that took the Wild Card. And missing the postseason of course puts a damper on their legacy. It’s not unfair, but this was different from the meh teams that had been run out there in previous seasons.

The world of Hollywood is obsessed with origin stories right now. There’s obvious excitement in the climax of a character’s arc and the meat of the story, but it can often (but not always, Hollywood!) be extremely interesting to see how they get to that point. The 2002 Red Sox is the origin story of the era that came after when they became a model franchise in the league. They certainly weren’t as talented, or even as interesting, as the teams for the following two seasons or many that would come later in the decade and beyond. But 2002 was the stepping stone, the first season of a new ownership group and a year that laid the foundation for a run none of us ever could have imagined at that point. 20 years later, it’s worth remembering this group.