DENVER – The men who sit behind glass doors brought them together. The cancer survivor, the throw-in, the crazy kid who dances a jig and 22 others, culled from all corners of the country and all ends of the baseball-playing world, bound by a Boston Red Sox uniform and burned into history because of what they accomplished Sunday.
The Red Sox won the World Series, and the men behind glass doors – 33-year-old general manager Theo Epstein and his corps of lieutenants – knew it would happen. Maybe not in the fashion that it unfolded, a 4-3 victory against the Colorado Rockies, completing one of the dominant four-game sweeps in the 103 years of the World Series, but close enough.
Because the plan called for it, and to the Red Sox, baseball is just that: a task, a philosophy, a process – and one they seem close to perfecting. For the second time in four years, the Red Sox hoisted the World Series trophy, sprayed champagne and kissed their wives with the passion they haven't since their wedding day. Joy abounded at Coors Field, where the Rockies slinked off the field embarrassed by a Red Sox team that, like the group that assembled it, went about its business ruthlessly.
"The front office does its job," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona, the liaison between the glass doors and his clubhouse door, "but it's a game of baseball, and you have to enjoy competing or it doesn't work.
"There's a lot of ups and downs. There's a lot of times when it gets difficult. But when you do it with people you truly care about, it's special."
People such as Jon Lester, the winning pitcher in Game 4, who this time last year was undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and third baseman Mike Lowell, the series MVP and himself a cancer survivor, who came to the Red Sox as an afterthought in the deal for ace Josh Beckett. And, of course, Jonathan Papelbon, the crazy-legged closer who pumped a fastball through the swing of Seth Smith for the final out.
He's the one who started this run. In spring training, the Red Sox tried to convert Papelbon to a starter. Their bullpen fell into disarray. So about a week before spring training ended, Papelbon approached Francona and told him he wanted to close, no qualms and no questions.
No way the Red Sox are here, either, if Papelbon doesn't volunteer.
"No," pitching coach John Farrell said. "No. No. Simple as that."
And so began Boston's 2007 season, Papelbon epitomizing their ethos before opening day, Francona and Epstein embracing change as they would have to do so many times again.
"I did what I had to do," Papelbon said. "I know I had to. It got the doubt out of people's minds."
Ever since then, the Red Sox have been prohibitive favorites to win. With the New York Yankees mounting a late-season charge. With the Cleveland Indians taking a 3-1 lead in the American League championship series. Even with Colorado entering the series having won 21 of 22.
Maybe the Rockies reverted to their pre-streak form. Or perhaps they just ran into a Red Sox buzzsaw even more impressive than the '04 crew that swept the St. Louis Cardinals.
Whatever the case, the Red Sox carried on just as they did three years ago in St. Louis, only without Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon interloping. Boston fans stuffed themselves into box-level seats on Sunday and hooted until midnight, nearly two hours after the final pitch.
They chanted for the Red Sox to re-sign Lowell and not to sign Alex Rodriguez, who, in the middle of Game 4, opted out of his contract with the Yankees and declared himself a free agent. They begged Papelbon to dance as he'd done after division series and championship series victories, a combination of an Irish jig and Elaine Benes' best – make that worst – efforts.
"It's gonna have to wait until we get to Boston," Papelbon said.
He was zonked. Saving the final three games of the series had sapped him, and every few steps Papelbon stopped to catch his breath, until he finally collapsed into the arms of his wife, Ashley.
"I can't believe it," he said. "I can't believe it. I cannot even believe it."
Beckett could. He strutted with the pomp of a man on the way to the title of baseball's greatest postseason pitcher after shutting down the Rockies in Game 1, paraded with a cartoon-sized torpedo cigar befitting of one – "Looks like one of these that's about to explode," he said – and gave one to Francona, too, for good measure.
"This is making me dizzy," Francona said.
Now he knows how Boston's opponents felt.
The Red Sox throttled the Los Angeles Angels in the first round and overwhelmed the Indians, outscoring them 30-5 in the final three games of the series. And the World Series was even more lopsided: a combined 29-10 score that, even in its disparity, does not illustrate the difference between the teams.
"Look, there's a lot of luck involved," Epstein said. "If things don't go our way in one of those elimination games against Cleveland, you guys are probably sitting here asking me what went wrong, what we need to do to get back on our feet as an organization, are we questioning our methods and techniques, how are we going to catch up with the Indians in the American League. A lot of it depends on how the ball bounces.
"We're in a good place right now with some good young talent, great veteran leadership, an outstanding manager, a great player-development system that I trust and that does things the right way. Hopefully, we can build on that. Because this game is really humbling. If you think you have it all figured out, it will put you on your ass really quickly."
Instead, the Red Sox stood and thumped their chests, David Ortiz putting it best: "When you wear Red Sox on your shirt, you're good at something."
Boston shut down the Rockies hitters throughout the series, limiting them to a .218 batting average, .283 on-base percentage and .346 slugging percentage. The 23-year-old Lester established himself in the first inning, busting leadoff hitter Kazuo Matsui's bat, and finished the third inning striking out Matt Holliday on a 93-mph fastball high in the zone.
As much as the Rockies tried to hit the rookie, they couldn't. And however hard Rockies starter Aaron Cook tried, he couldn't keep the Red Sox from hitting him.
In the first inning, rookie Jacoby Ellsbury led off with a double, and David Ortiz laced an RBI single through the right side. Lowell hustled home from second on Jason Varitek's single in the fifth inning for a 2-0 lead, and Lester held it up, pitching 5 2/3 scoreless innings before Francona removed him.
"On the mound, you have control," Lester said. "You know what you're doing. You've got your weapons, you try to execute. I wasn't really that nervous pitching. It was when I came out of the game."
Not that the Red Sox gave him reason to worry. They hit .333, the second-best batting average in Series history, powered by Lowell, who golfed a Cook sinker for a home run in the seventh inning, Bobby Kielty smacked a pinch-hit home run in the eighth and, despite a solo home run from Brad Hawpe and two-run shot by Garrett Atkins, the Red Sox led 4-3 entering the ninth.
Despite a warning-track scare from Jamey Carroll with one out, Papelbon composed himself enough to whiff Smith, throw his glove into the air, leap like an excited primate, chuck his hat and jump into Varitek's arms.
Varitek stuck the ball in his back pocket and promised to give it to the team. No controversy this time like in 2004 with Doug Mientkiewicz.
Not with this team.
"We had to communicate and adjust and communicate and adjust," Varitek said. "Get different guys acclimated playing. New guys, old guys. We'd lose guys. You're able to face adversity in different realms. Losing Josh. Losing Curt (Schilling). Young guys step up. Young guys come in and play. Old guys producing. Relying on Manny (Ramirez) and David. There was a lot of work."
And that pretty much sums up the 2007 Boston Red Sox.
They are about Ramirez asking "Who cares?" when down 3-1 in the ALCS. About little Dustin Pedroia and big David Ortiz. About Josh Beckett's arm, Mike Lowell's resolve and Jon Lester's courage. They are about the Black Pearl bullpen, the Oki Doki changeup and the $103 million man, Daisuke Matsuzaka, who still creates a frenzy back in his country even if he didn't electrify baseball during his rookie campaign.
As the Red Sox celebrated, a Japanese photographer ran up to Francona and tried to pantomime something by interlocking his hands.
"Daisuke," the photographer said.
"What?" Francona replied.
"You, Daisuke," the photographer said.
"Huh?" Francona said.
The photographer wanted Francona to hug Matsuzaka for a picture. Francona laughed and ran away.
Toward the pitcher's mound, in fact. There, a group of men in gray shirts gathered. There were Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington, co-general managers when Epstein took his three-month sabbatical after the 2005 season. There was Allard Baird, the special assistant who leads the Red Sox's scouting department, which did everything from telegraph the pickoff of Holliday in Game 2 to advise that standout rookie Troy Tulowitzki feasts on fastballs and can't lay off breaking balls, causing him to go 1-for-11 in the final three games. There was Bill James, the god of statistical analysis, whose scruff didn't exactly fit with the clean-cut crew but whose mind certainly made him a peer.
Epstein held the World Series trophy, its prongs extending into the cooling Denver night, and he invited Francona into the middle with him. Everybody else piled around them, and dozens of cameras clicked, the flashes illuminating teeth, which certainly weren't in short supply.
Most of them focused on Epstein and Francona. Each held one side of the trophy, the man behind the glass door and the man behind the clubhouse door, more than willing to share.
The plan had worked. Their plan. And the celebration was just beginning.