Trade for Curt Schilling on day after Thanksgiving 15 years ago changed Red Sox history originally appeared on nbcsportsboston.com
Happy anniversary, Red Sox Nation.
It was 15 years ago today -- well, at least it was the day after Thanksgiving in 2003 (the actual date was November 28) -- the modern-day Red Sox were born. The 'new' Red Sox, the ones who've won more World Series championships than any other franchise in the 21st century. The Red Sox who've completely erased their blighted past. The Red Sox who've made the word 'curse' a distant memory.
It's the day Curt Schilling agreed to be traded to Boston.
Before you say anything, understand: The acquisition of Schilling, in and of itself, isn't what did it. It was a piece (a large piece) of the puzzle, but it wasn't the only move, or maybe even the crucial move, that flipped the switch and changed everything.
It was, instead, a sign. A sign that the old Sox were dead and things were going to be different from now on.
First, a little history.
The Red Sox -- for those who've forgotten or are too young to remember -- weren't your normal pipsqueak franchise during their 86 years between championships. They had their down periods, but they were actually pretty good most of the time. And they had more than their share of chances to hoist a flag. Usually, those chances ended in Game 7 World Series defeats (to the Cardinals in 1946 and '67, to the Reds in 1975), or end-of-season losses that cost them a pennant (1948, 1949, 1972). Disappointing, but not really tragic.
In 1978, though, 'disappointing' became 'heartwrenching'. Ahead of the Yankees by 14 1/2 games in late July, they blew the entire lead and then some, falling 3 1/2 back with 14 to play. They rallied and pulled into a first-place tie on the final day of the regular season, then lost the one-game playoff. (We won't get into B.F. Dent.) It got worse in 1986 . . . or have you forgotten Bill Buckner? And it was here that The Curse Of The Bambino was born, the myth -- a hard-to-shake myth -- that the Red Sox were forever destined to fail as punishment for selling the greatest player in baseball history, Babe Ruth, to the Yankees.
The reality was less dramatic but far more insidious.
It was Red Sox management that was the cause. They reacted to success by freezing up, not trying to improve teams that had fallen short but instead assuring themselves that what was good enough to almost win would be good enough to take the final step the next year. (It never was.) They reacted to catastrophic failure by freezing up, making the same assumptions -- that what worked once will work again -- they always had. The inevitable backslides began to be described as their own sort of curse, that winning would always be followed by losing.
But it was more than that. With the exception of the enlightened Dick O'Connell years in the 1960s and '70s, the Red Sox front office had a history of being behind the curve at every step. Race relations. Free agency. Every time the game changed, the Sox failed to quickly adapt; the progressive franchises surged forward and they were left clinging to a past that was gone. Even Dan Duquette, who did so much to expand the Sox' talent boundaries in foreign countries and erase a great deal of the team's bitter racial history in the 1990s, never grasped the concept that personal connections were important in the post-strike era. Teams now had to sell themselves to players, and his – or the organization's -- bungling of negotiations with Mo Vaughn and Roger Clemens left him virtually powerless to attract top-quality talent to Boston after Vaughn's departure in 1998.
In 2002, the slate was wiped clean with the sale of the franchise to John Henry and Tom Werner. They brought in a new and agressive management team headed by Larry Lucchino, who appointed Theo Epstein as general manager. Epstein, in turn, oversaw an expanded baseball ops department that looked at the game in a completely different way. And yet at the very beginning of their stewardship the Sox suffered a defeat as soul-crushing – and maybe even more so, considering the opponent and the stakes and how the game was lost -- as Dent or Buckner: Aaron Boone, Game Seven, 2003 ALCS at Yankee Stadium.
It was the sort of loss that sent past Red Sox administrations scurrying into a hole.
And that's when we discovered everything had, indeed, changed.
The offseason that followed began almost immediately. Within days of the end of the World Series, the Sox signalled their willingness to restructure themselves by placing Manny Ramirez on irrevocable waivers, willing to let him go for nothing in order to gain more financial flexibility for moves they hoped to make . . . moves like the acquisition of Alex Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers, a months-long dance that eventually proved unsuccessful. (Or perhaps it was successful, considering how the future unfolded.) They solved their bullpen issues by swooping in and signing Keith Foulke at the beginning of free agency. The message couldn't have been more clear: You may have won the battle, but we're not letting this failure paralyze us. The war rages on. It was a message never before heard from these executive offices.
It was all encapsulated in Schilling.
Understand, Schilling wanted no part of the Red Sox. A flyball pitcher, he felt he was unsuited to Fenway Park. He wasn't crazy about the team's history. He didn't think they could pay him enough. And the Yankees had signalled their interest, which intrigued him.
None of that mattered to Epstein or his bosses. He and one of his assistants, Jed Hoyer, flew to Arizona just before Thanksgiving to make their pitch (so to speak). Their baseball operations people put together an analysis that showed Fenway wouldn't actually hurt Schilling. They presented him with plans on how the club could help his ALS charity. They convinced him that being a member of a Red Sox team that won the franchise's first World Series since 1918 would be far more satisfying, and historically noteworthy, than winning one with the had-more-rings-than-they-knew-what-to-do-with Yankees. And the Sox were about to hire Terry Francona, with whom Schilling had forged a strong relationship during their time together on the Phillies in the late '90s, as manager.
Schilling was intrigued. No agreement was reached before Thanksgiving, but he and his wife Shonda insisted Epstein and Hoyer stay over and spend the holiday. They continued negotiating and eventually cut a deal on the day after Thanksgiving -- happy anniversary! -- that enabled the Sox to complete the trade they'd worked out the Diamondbacks, sending Jorge de la Rosa, Casey Fossum, Mike Goss and Brandon Lyon to Arizona for Schilling.
The rest, as they say, is history.
It was a different Red Sox team that took the field in 2004 than the one that trudged heartbroken out of Yankee Stadium in 2003. Schilling went 21-6 with a 3.26 earned-run average. Thanks in no small part the bloody-sock game, the Sox made history by becoming the only baseball team ever to overcome a 0-3 deficit in a best-of-seven series when they beat the Yankees in the ALCS. They swept the Cardinals for their first World Series championship since World War I.
It had all changed. Boy, had it changed.
Today, these details have faded a bit. Schilling, now an outspoken right-wing pundit, is no longer remembered solely for his baseball heroics, not in this deep-blue political area. The Sox took three more World Series -- 2007, 2013 and 2018, winning handily each time -- and have established themselves as baseball's dominant franchise in the 21st century. All that curse stuff seems long ago and far away,
Not that long ago, though. Not that far away.
Close enough that we can remember 15 years ago today.
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