Sylver: Red Sox have changed, but their championship pursuit has not

Oct 18, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Boston Red Sox players and staff pose for a team photo after defeating the Houston Astros in game five of the 2018 ALCS playoff baseball series at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub

Tonight’s Game 1 between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers marks the fourth time the World Series has come to Fenway Park in the last 15 seasons.

That’s the same number of times Fenway hosted the Fall Classic over the preceding 86 years.

1946. 1967. 1975. 1986. Each one a seven-game loss, the brutality of which gave the Red Sox their identity. Of the three non-expansion franchises that failed to taste champagne the last eight decades of the 20th century, the Cubs were the “lovable losers” flanked by the similarly moribund White Sox 11 miles to the south, while the Red Sox made epic failure an art form.

Postseason invites are easier to come by in the Wild Card era. But there are more teams and rounds of playoff baseball to navigate than ever before. For the Red Sox to reach the postseason ten times this century is one thing; to have a shot at the pinnacle of the sport for the fourth is quite another.

It’s a testament to an organization which, despite its share of tumult, has mostly been a standard-bearer.

Oct 18, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Boston Red Sox players celebrate on the field after defeating the Houston Astros in game five of the 2018 ALCS playoff baseball series at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Yankees fans yapped for years about the “Core Four” (discrediting Bernie Williams and conveniently leaving out Andy Pettitte’s three-year sojourn to Houston in the process), but the Red Sox have largely lacked common threads between pennant winners. Outside of David Ortiz, Boston’s success is less of a dynasty and more of an evolution.

The fate of the 2004 miracle workers was largely credited to the machinations of a young Theo Epstein. But they also boasted impact veteran holdovers from the Dan Duquette regime. The result: 30-somethings Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon, among others, would exit Boston within two years.

That left just seven players (Ortiz, Manny Ramirez Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli behind the plate and Mike Timlin in the ‘pen) intact for a 2007 title run.

Those Red Sox managed to fill a number of holes with ascendant talent, and their core appeared poised to dominate the American League for the next several years. But by 2013, just Ortiz, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury would remain. Injuries, free agent missteps, volatile personalities and clubhouse shenanigans combined to hasten Epstein’s departure, leaving Ben Cherington to build one of the more unlikely World Series winners in recent memory.

This time, only Xander Bogaerts and Brandon Workman are back from five Octobers ago, where they combined for 35 plate appearances (yes, Workman had one) and 8.2 innings pitched.

With Pedroia’s future unclear and Ortiz retired, the 2018 Sox are led by an almost entirely different cast of characters.

Oct 18, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Boston Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland (18) celebrates in the clubhouse with teammates after the Red Sox win game five of the 2018 ALCS playoff baseball series against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Boston’s financial flexibility under John Henry & Co. has certainly softened the impacts of year-to-year turnover, particularly over the last five years. It allowed Dave Dombrowski to step in and resuscitate what had quickly become a floundering last-place bunch, aggressively pursuing big name talent with dollars and prospects. Dombrowski’s marquee free agent commitments, David Price and J.D. Martinez, have been key contributors to a postseason run.

And ace Chris Sale will take the mound tonight because Dombrowski didn’t have to wait for Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to develop like other cash-strapped executives would. The fact he had Moncada and Kopech in the first place is a credit to Boston’s player development record during this period of sustained success.

Such factors also make it a bit easier to swing-and-miss on free agents. Granted, there’s no coming back from Carl Crawford or Pablo Sandoval. But look at a team like the 2007 Sox. Daisuke Matsuzaka had been the big ticket signing; his postseason could be characterized as rocky at best. The Sox waited out subpar seasons from Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew (though some are probably still slobbering over that sweet .373 OBP) before the two veterans keyed Boston’s charge that October.

The World Series MVP? Mike Lowell - a talented two-way player the Marlins dumped because they didn’t want to pay him and/or commit over the long term to Josh Beckett.

The Red Sox not only committed to Beckett, they imported John Lackey from the Angels a couple of years later. While Boston eventually tired of Beckett’s attitude and uneven performance and shipped him to the Dodgers, Lackey torpedoed his own trade value in short order. But after an entire year on the shelf, he emerged healthy, determined, and a World Series hero. And that’s how we remember him today.

David Price finds himself in a similar position. While his fortunes never sank to the depths Lackey’s did, his three years here have been marked by media squabbles and questions about his health and the wisdom of Dombrowski’s investment.

With Game 5 of the ALCS under his belt and a Game 2 start ahead, Price is staring (breathing deeply, adjusting his hat) at the opportunity to rewrite his own history as a key component of the ultimate team accomplishment.

If we don’t have David Price to kick around anymore, how can we stay in touch with the sky-is-falling fans we used to be?

Oct 22, 2018; Boston, MA: Boston Red Sox starting pitcher David Price speaks to reporters during media day one day prior to the 2018 World Series at Fenway Park. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 22, 2018; Boston, MA: Boston Red Sox starting pitcher David Price speaks to reporters during media day one day prior to the 2018 World Series at Fenway Park. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2018 World Series begins tonight, at Fenway Park, with the Red Sox favored.

Remember when we thought they were cursed?

Oh, to be Boston fans in the 21st century. No wonder everybody hates us. So let’s take a moment to pinch ourselves before settling in for another Fall Classic.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.