Many Yankee fans don’t seem to understand — perhaps they pretend not to understand — why Sox fans hold Theo Epstein and the current Sox ownership group in such high esteem. They accuse us of "drinking the Kool-Aid" or blindly holding to the "In Theo We Trust" credo.
The obvious answer, of course, is that within three years of the ownership group buying the team — and within two years of hiring Epstein as general manager — the Sox broke their 86-year-old championship drought.
I think it goes even deeper than that, and it can be summed up in the simple statement: They made the offseason interesting again.
Not long ago, the offseason wasn’t something about which to be excited. It was dreaded. What torturous contract-negotiation process would the Sox lose this year? What over-the-hill slugger, what broken-down pitcher, what high-profile dispute would arise from the ashes of another failed Hot Stove League?
That began to change in the 1997-98 offseason, when Dan Duquette traded for and signed Pedro Martinez. Until then, Sox attendance was falling, and Boston had gone the longest of any team in baseball without winning 90 games. The one playoff appearance since 1986 — in 1995 — the Sox were swept out.
It’s been 20 years since the Red Sox went out and got the best guy and paid the most dough. … Suddenly, the Red Sox are taken seriously around these parts and should recapture some of their eroding fan base. — Dan Shaughnessy, Dec. 10, 1997, upon the reported signing of Pedro Martinez
Although the arrival of Martinez improved things quite a bit, it’s important to note that the Red Sox until then were slipping fast — as described by Shaughnessy, back when he still wrote columns with substance. Perhaps nothing was worse than 10 years ago, during the 1996-97 offseason, probably the nadir of the Sox’ fortunes during my time as a fan.
In 1996, the defending Eastern division champions started a club record-worst 6-19 but rallied in the second half to finish within two games of the Wild Card.
The Sox began the offseason by firing Kevin Kennedy — a move the Hartford Courant’s Paul Doyle described as "alienating fans" — and losing out to the Marlins for Jim Leyland’s services. The Sox also entered the offseason with Roger Clemens an unsigned free agent.
The World Series wasn’t yet over when All-Star and former MVP Mo Vaughn ripped the front office. "They’ll probably hire a dictator (as manager) because that’s what the GM wants," he said. It was not the last time Vaughn would take public his (and others’) problems with Duquette’s management style.
On Nov. 18, to the surprise of many fans and pundits and after being rejected by Whitey Herzog, the Red Sox chose Jimy Williams as manager. Over the next 4.5 years, he would lead the Sox to the playoffs twice before collapsing in a ball of flame during a public feud with Duquette that ended up with Joe Kerrigan as manager in 2001. The Boston Globe headline: "Red Sox settle on (and for) Williams." Steve Buckley in the Herald: "The man with one ‘M’ and, as the saying goes, no marbles."
On Dec. 3, the Sox finally concluded a deal for a Japanese pitching sensation — Robinson Checo. It was the first trade ever between American and Japanese baseball teams. Checo would appear in 16 career games. Soon after, they also signed Bret Saberhagen and re-signed Mike Maddux and Tim Naehring.
On Dec. 12, Roger Clemens stunned Boston by signing not for the Sox or a Texas team as he had vowed, but for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Duquette: "We didn’t see Roger as the top pitcher in baseball. He certainly hasn’t pitched at that level the past few years."
Clemens: "I’m working for that world championship ring, so I’m extremely happy."
The Red Sox would finish ahead of the Blue Jays each of the next two years. Clemens — who finished the ’96 season with 240 IP and led the league with 257 strikeouts — won four more Cy Young awards and won his rings with the Yankees.
The Red Sox responded with a stunning rash of mediocre signings — Shane Mack, Chris Hammond, Steve Avery. Avery in particular was signed to be the Sox’ new ace after the previous options — Jeff Suppan, Aaron Sele and Tom Gordon — were determined not good enough, Doyle said. On Dec. 22, USA Today gave the Sox a D for their work in the free agent market.
In the meantime, Clemens and Greenwell trashed Duquette as they left the team and intimated that Vaughn would soon follow.
Robinson Checo disappeared in January, and the Red Sox — undeterred by heir complete lack of stars beyond Vaughn — raised ticket prices. Most expensive seat? $26.
On Jan. 23, the Red Sox traded star slugger and since-admitted steroid user Jose Canseco to Oakland for … wait for it … John Wasdin, considered at the time one of the AL’s top prospects. "Mo Vaughn is the next one to leave," Canseco told the Globe. Wasdin’s best season in Boston came in 1999, when he posted an 8-3 record as a reliever. He actually pitched in nine games, starting five, for Texas last season.
A week later, USA Today gave the Sox a C-minus for their postseason work.
Heading into spring training, Vaughn ripped the team again, accusing it of lying to its fans:
I just want the Red Sox to give (the fans) what they deserve and give them a team they deserve. If we’re a club that’s rebuilding, then say that. If we’re a club that’s on our way, then say that. Don’t lie. (The fans) don’t like being lied to, and neither do the players. … Everybody talks about the Red Sox being a small-market club, like we’re Milwaukee or something like that. I refuse to believe the Red Sox are like the Milwaukee Brewers. That’s what they’re coming with. That’s what they’re saying.
In other news, John Valentin told the media moving to second or third base for up-and-coming shortstop prospect Nomar Garciaparra was "nonnegotiable."
Meanwhile, the Sox took Sele and Tim Wakefield to arbitration, the cases dragging into spring training and forcing Wakefield to miss the voluntary pitchers-and-catchers report date.
As spring training began, Duquette told the Herald, "Obviously, we’ve got a couple of big questions. One is the pitching staff. The second is where people are going to play in the infield. The third is getting people to work together as a team." Ah. That’s all.
The Red Sox began 1997 with a starting rotation of Steve Avery, Tim Wakefield, Tom Gordon, Aaron Sele and Jeff Suppan. Heahtcliff Slocumb was closer. The Sox’ Opening Day lineup featured Wil Cordero, Bill Haselman, Rudy Pemberton and Shane Mack. Tom Gordon started on the mound.
The 1997 Red Sox finished 78-84, in fourth place, 20 games behind Baltimore.
But even then, the seeds of 2004 were sown. Nomar Garicaparra won the Rookie of the Year. The Sox traded Slocumb midseason for Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. And one year later, they traded for and signed the best pitcher we’ve ever seen throw a baseball.
Duquette contributed a lot to the World Series winning team. But he contributed months upon months of hideous decisions, clubhouse dissent and long cold offseasons to at least one fan growing up n New Haven, Conn. For me at least, this is why it’s so easy to like and defend a GM and ownership group such as this one.