Just a Bunch of Idiots .
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
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
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
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.