By: David Bray
Well, that was underwhelming. After what had been the funnest Red Sox regular season in three years, after David Ortiz had a farewell tour that actually lived up to the great career he had, after the Red Sox made it back to the postseason for the first time since winning the World Series in 2013 and finally giving Big Papi one final chance to snag one final World Series Ring, the Red Sox were swept out of the American League Divisional Series by Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians. As a lifelong Red Sox fan who has been through it all with this team, I’m disappointed, but I’m not mad.
The Red Sox have their flaws, and those flaws will have to be addressed by team president Dave Dombrowski and general manager Mike Hazen in the offseason. Their pitching was unreliable most of the year, and as well as they played in September, they came crashing back to reality in October. Rick Porcello had a career year, posting a record of 22-4 wins/losses record, while David Price found his groove in the second half of the season after signing a seven year, $217 million contract with Boston last winter. However, both looked like different pitchers, and not in a good way, on the road in Cleveland in the first two games of the ALDS. In Game 1, Porcello gave the Sox 4.1 innings with 5 earned runs on 6 hits, including 3 back-to-back home runs. The Red Sox would go on to lose the game 5-4. In Game 2, Price gave the Sox 3.1 innings with 5 earned runs on 6 hits, including a back-breaking 3-run homerun in the 2nd inning. Needless to say, there would be no final exclamation point on the incredible 2016 season David Ortiz had.
Usually the term “farewell tour” is associated with guys that should have retired a few years earlier and their final, overhyped season features a has-been shell of that former player, like we’ve seen in recent years with Derek Jeter and Kobe Bryant. The other alternative is that great players will go out without fanfare, announcing that they are done weeks or months after they played their last game like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett did this summer. David Ortiz was different. He announced before the season started that 2016 would be his last year and he played like his normal Big Papi-self all year anyway. The Red Sox rightfully spent all of 2016 celebrating him, and have already announced their plans to retire his #34 in 2017, rather than wait for him to get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame like they did with Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, and Pedro Martinez.
Ortiz will best be remembered for what he did in 2004, 2007, and 2013, as the only player on all three World Series Champion teams Boston has had this century. He succeeded where so many of the other Red Sox greats never could. It’s not entirely fair to someone like Ted Williams, who only played in the postseason one time in his career because the playoff format was different, and the 2004 Red Sox who reversed the Curse never would have even made the playoffs if they played in the 1940s, but Ortiz capitalized on the chances he was given. Time and again, from the extra inning walk-off against the New York Yankees in 2004 to the series altering grand slam that turned the Fenway Park bullpen cop into an Internet sensation, David Ortiz was the guy leading the charge for the biggest moments of my baseball fandom and some of the greatest sports successes Boston has ever had.
Another guy who deserved a ton of credit in transforming the Red Sox from losers into winners in the early 2000s was manager Terry Francona. He was the first manager to win a World Series in Boston (which is doubly impressive because Boston had two Major League Baseball teams until 1953 when the Braves moved to Milwaukee), and the first Red Sox manager to last more than five years since Joe Cronin, who managed the team from 1935 to 1947 and was a player-manager for his first ten years. Francona was beloved by Red Sox fans as well as members of the Boston sports media who covered the team, and had earned the right to leave the Red Sox with dignity. The Red Sox ownership had different ideas, and as I wrote about for The Point in 2012, they dragged him through the mud after the disastrous end to the 2011 season. He deserved better, and he had ever right to be mad at the organization.
The thing that had me worried going into the postseason this year was the Terry Francona revenge factor. Tito was hired by the Indians in 2013, and I had this lurking feeling in the back of my head even that season, that if the Sox got the Tribe in a playoff series, it would not be an easy out. Francona is a better manager than current Red Sox manager John Farrell, and Farrell was Francona’s pitching coach here in Boston. If it came down to in-game adjustments and crucial strategic decisions, as these playoff games so often do, one guy would be managing with an intense, inspired vengeance, while also occupying the other manager’s head, and that dynamic did not favor the Red Sox. On paper, the Red Sox should have been the better team, but Cleveland had a manager that knew the Red Sox well, and knew how to best exploit their weaknesses.
In the David Ortiz Era in Boston, 2003 to 2016, there were only three outcomes for the season when the Red Sox made the postseason: they either win the World Series (as they did in 2004, 2007, and 2013), lose the American League Championship Series in seven games (as they did in 2003 and 2008), or they get swept in three games in the American League Divisional Series (as they did in 2005, 2009, and 2016). This fact crossed my mind over the weekend after the Red Sox dropped the first two games of the ALDS in Cleveland. I thought about the fact that the only other semester that the Red Sox made the playoffs and I was a student at Fitchburg State (2009), the Red Sox got swept in the first round (I took three semesters off in 2013 and 2014, and never set foot on campus during the World Series winning 2013 season).
I also thought about how the Red Sox have been through this before. In the Ortiz Era, they had an 0-2 series deficit in the ALDS against the Oakland Athletics in 2003, a 1-3 series deficit in the ALCS to the Indians in 2007, and most of all a 0-3 series deficit against the New York Yankees in the ALCS in 2004, and all three times they went on to win that series. All three times, David Ortiz played an enormous role in their turnaround. Not this time. This is it. The ride is over. With Ortiz riding off into the sunset, I cannot help but shake the fact that this must be what most fans of most baseball teams feel most of the time. Who is that good for that long? Who is that good in the moments of highest leverage with that kind of consistency? Nobody.
For the first time since I was in middle school, the Red Sox will go into next season without the luxury of penciling Big Papi into the middle of their lineup, and while there are good young players for fans to be excited about, there will not be one of the most reliable hitters of the last 40 years for them to fall back on when other bats go cold and when the pitchers cannot hold a lead. It will be a lot like what Patriots fans went through for the first four weeks of this football season without Tom Brady, except this time it’s forever.