I was washing dishes at the Taco Bell in the Silver City Galleria when Ted Williams died in 2002. I liked washing the dishes. Usually, I was asked to work the register, because I was one of the only native English speakers in the place. So every time I got bumped back to the dish sink I felt like I was coming off stage. I could breathe back there.
We washed the dishes and we talked about soccer and the Red Sox. I didn’t know anything about soccer back then, but it was a World Cup summer and I worked with two Brazilian brothers who followed every minute of the tournament. Klessio and Kleyber would patiently try to explain the brilliance of Ronaldo to me and Mike, and then Mike and I returned the favor by teaching them about the pleasant above-averageness of Brian Daubach. It was a delicate balance back there.
On the day Ted Williams died, the Red Sox were in second place. This was not particularly unusual, as second place was the default setting of the Sox in those days, but it was disappointing, because they had spent the first half of the season tearing it up. This was the year that Derek Lowe finally became the second ace the team had been looking for to back up Pedro. Manny was still in his prime. Shea Hillenbrand came out of nowhere to seemingly lock down the third base job for the next decade. And Nomar was better than Jeter. The Yankees had won four out the last six World Series, but the Sox were kicking them in the teeth.
The Red Sox were still in second place on the day of the Ted Williams memorial a few weeks later, but while we didn’t know it yet, the season had ended the day before. The Sox were in New York for a weekend series. They entered the series just three games behind the Yankees, and then took the opener behind a typically Pedro-ish start by Pedro: 9 strikeouts in 7 and a third. And then the thing we always expected to happen between 1918 and 2004 happened: the Yankees won two straight games on walk-offs. On Saturday, they manufactured a run against some poor sap named Wayne Gomes in the 11th inning. The next day, they won on a ninth inning bases loaded walk yielded by future murder attempter Ugeth Urbina.
The Sox never recovered, eventually falling 10.5 games behind the Yankees for the division and 6 games behind Tim Salmon’s Angles for the Wild Card. And to this day, if you mention 2002 to me, I don’t think about Derek Lowe’s April no-hitter, or the ridiculous SEVEN Red Sox who made the All-Star team, or the fact that Pedro managed to win 20 games without even pitching 200 innings. Instead, I think about the Ted Williams memorial and the total malaise that settled over the rest of the season in the weeks that followed. The single biggest figure in club history was gone, and the Sox were still the Sox. I picture the giant banner of him in his flight suit that hung on the monster. I see Yaz making one of his rare Fenway appearances to say goodbye. And I remember talking with Klessio and Kleyber and Mike and saying “they’re going to get things going again eventually, right?” They never did.
Twenty years from now, I hope my memories of the 2022 Red Sox aren’t completely dominated by the David Ortiz Cooperstown celebration the way that 2002 is dominated by Ted. But that’s the vibe I’ve been getting for the last couple of weeks. Tonight was very much a night that belonged to the past. There was Yaz again, making another rare Fenway appearance to celebrate a legend. There was Pedro doing his Dominican buddy-cop thing with Ortiz. And, perhaps most poignantly, there was a balding Theo Epstein standing next to a beer-bellied Terry Francona. Did we know Theo was balding? No one told me this, and it was jarring to see. I still get a little a jolt of 2003-04 energy when I see him on TV, a brief return to a time when all of New England hung its hopes on a charming 30-year-old who seemed just as determined as the rest of us to win a World Series, but much more capable of actually doing so.
There’s still plenty of time to turn things around, and with the expanded playoffs, anything can happen (those disappointing 2002 Red Sox won 93 games, and these Sox don’t need to be nearly as good to salvage something from the season). But I worry that I’m back at the dish sink at Taco Bell again. I worry that we saw the defining image of the 2022 Red Sox last night, and, as was the case in 2002, it wasn’t something that belonged to this year.