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Summer 2005
Tony Massarotti, A89, on the job at Fenway Park.  
photo by Rose Lincoln
Just a Bunch of Idiots

The following is an excerpt from A Tale of Two Cities: The 2004 Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry and the War for the Pennant, a recount of the 2004 baseball season by Boston Herald baseball columnist Tony Massarotti, A89, and New York Daily News columnist John Harper. For more information, visit www.soxyanksbook.com

In the wake of Game 3, the Red Sox were roundly criticized, most notably for the manner in which they carried themselves. Once praised for being a collection of free spirits who grew their hair long and thrived on lawlessness, the Sox were now viewed as being undisciplined, immature, unmotivated. They were drinkers and they were partiers, nothing like the corporate and clean-cut Yankees, who functioned efficiently and professionally at the most critical of times. The Red Sox were very much living up to the nickname given them by bearded center fielder Johnny Damon, whose mountain-man look had made him a cult hero but who was 1-for-13 with five strikeouts through the first three games of the series.

“We’re just a bunch of idiots,’’ Damon had cracked.

And after Game 3, he never appeared more right.

Following the debacle, frustration grew so high in some corners that the players’ wives and girlfriends had to be restrained from one another. Earlier in the playoffs, both for good luck and as a sign of solidarity, Curt Schilling’s wife, Shonda, had bought a collection of scarves and handed them out to the other wives and girlfriends. Damon’s fiancée, Michelle Mangan, had refrained from wearing hers, however, and it was following the 19–8 defeat to the Yankees that Mangan entered the family waiting room following Game 3 and struck a nerve in Shonda Schilling.

“A lot of good those scarves have done,’’ said Mangan.

Countered Shonda Schilling: “Well if you were wearing one, maybe your fiancé wouldn’t be 0-for-16.’’

The two women ultimately had to be separated from one another, though the good news for Red Sox followers is that the tension among the players never reached such heights. For all of the criticisms promoted by their carefree nature, the 2004 Red Sox proved capable of functioning in Boston precisely for the same reason. Things inevitably become tense for all teams at some point during a baseball season—there were more untold stories of clubhouse fights and encounters than the media and fans ever knew—and many players did not know how to cope with failure. To do so required a unique perspective, an understanding that there truly was no pressure because there was really nothing to lose.

Baseball was a game, after all.

Even if it hardly seemed it.

Still, in a place like Boston, people had long since lost perspective. Fans and media put so much pressure on the team to win that it became virtually impossible for the players to simply play, a reality that created a spiraling paradox. The harder the players tried, the worse they played, the more they lost. In Boston, more than any other place in professional sports, what was required to win was a team that had no fear of losing, that had no concerns about being lumped in with the succession of Red Sox teams that had failed to win a World Series over the 86-year span beginning in 1919. Where most Sox teams feared being lumped into the past, the 2004 Red Sox seemed to recognize that they would truly be no worse off than any other collection of players to have worn the uniform since the days of World War I.

They were expected to lose.

And so in the wake of Game 3, just one defeat away from a truly humiliating sweep at the hands of the hated Yankees, the 2004 Red Sox seemed to come to a startling conclusion.

They had been freed.

All they had to do was play.

In that way, especially, Damon had become the poster boy for the entire team. Not long after the start of the season, after Damon had reported to spring training with flowing locks and hair on his face, some Fenway fans began showing up at the ballpark in wigs and fake beards, playing off media references to The Passion of the Christ and dubbing themselves Damon’s Disciples. The player became instantly identifiable both on the road and at home, his look growing so familiar to fans that, during the season, he had his beard publicly shaved for charity. His face then clean, Damon immediately grew back the beard, continuing to play throughout the season with a consistent productivity and efficiency that had not been apparent to that point in his Red Sox career.

Johnny Damon may have looked like Charles Manson, but he was playing like an All-Star.

Nonetheless, from the start of Damon’s career to the end of the 2004 season, the metamorphosis was extraordinary. Damon began his career with the Kansas City Royals as a speedy outfielder who was literally and figuratively groomed, coming through the Kansas City system with closely cropped hair and a boyish charm. He had married his longtime girlfriend and was painfully shy, speaking with a stutter that he would eventually overcome.

After five years with the Royals and a subsequent stint with the Oakland A’s, Damon was not much different when he signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Red Sox prior to the 2002 season, when he had a sensational first half of the season and represented the Red Sox at the All-Star Game. But his play slipped steadily in the second half of that season and he went through a divorce that winter, and by the time he showed up for Spring Training 2003, he was acting like a man in a midlife crisis. Red Sox officials grew so concerned about Damon’s off-field habits that then manager Grady Little confronted the player about partying too much, a concern that had not entirely dissolved by the start of 2004.

By then, too, the once soft-spoken Damon had emerged as a quote machine for hungry members of the media, who were routinely flocking to his locker after games because they knew Damon would be there.

Said one Red Sox official early in the season, when Damon went through one of his rare slumps of 2004: “Our center fielder needs to stop talking and start getting some hits.’’

Still, however disturbingly liberated Damon had become both on the field and off, the effect on his game was proving too beneficial for anyone to tinker with. By the end of the 2004 season, Damon had enjoyed his best season as a member of the Red Sox, finishing with a .304 batting average, 20 home runs, and 94 RBI, the latter an astonishing amount for a leadoff hitter. He scored 123 runs, one behind Anaheim outfielder Vladimir Guerrero for most in the American League. And he had been such a catalyst for a Red Sox offense that led the major leagues in runs scored for a second consecutive season that he was being mentioned as a candidate for the AL Most Valuable Player award, even if nobody expected him to cop the honor.

In the Anaheim series, too, Damon had been an absolute force. In the Red Sox’ three-game sweep of the Angels, Damon had gone 7-for-15 (a sparkling .467 average) with four runs scored and three stolen bases. He had scored at least once in all three series victories and joined No. 2 hitter Mark Bellhorn in placing such relentless pressure on the Anaheim pitching staff that the Angels were forced to confront the fearsome middle of the Red Sox batting order.

Yet by the time the Yankees series began, Damon showed no hint of the same magic. He struck out all four times he came to bat in the series opener and went 0-for-4 again in Game 2, only once managing to hit the ball out of the infield. He had an RBI single in the second inning of wild Game 3 but stranded five baserunners in his final three plate appearances, finishing 1-for-5 in the game and bringing his series totals to 1-for-13. So while Damon was not the 0-for-16 that an annoyed Shonda Schilling had alleged, he had hardly been the kind of factor that the Red Sox had expected in their return trip to the American League Championship Series after Boston’s frustrating loss to New York in 2003.

Suddenly, an unshaven Johnny Damon looked very much like the idiot he professed to be.

And as was often the case in baseball, the Red Sox were falling into line behind their hard-living leadoff man.

Copyright 2005 by Tony Massarotti and John Harper

POSTSCRIPT: As Boston fans well know, the Red Sox would take the next four games and the pennant, Damon hitting a grand slam and a two-run homer in the seventh game at Yankee Stadium, on their way to a World Series crown in what may be considered the greatest comeback in sports history.