The Patriots' Super Bowl afterglow is blinding. It's still stronger than anything on the Boston sports scene. But in two weeks, the Red Sox will again be front and center, trying to forge their own memories and trying to lift the burden the franchise has carried for the past 85 years.
That burden got a little heavier after the historically disappointing Game 7 loss to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series last October.
Over the past couple of days, the Sox, who did make headlines during the football season with their pursuit of AL MVP Alex Rodriguez, allowed the Patriots their moment in the sun. The Sox started making news again when they signed veteran designated hitter Ellis Burks to a one-year deal Thursday and yesterday inked Trot Nixon to a three-year deal worth $19.5 million.
The Nixon signing was the first positive breakthrough in deciding the future of the Magnificent 7, Boston's heralded group that was eligible for free agency after this season. It was also a message to Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Scott Williamson, Jason Varitek, Nomar Garciaparra, and David Ortiz that Nixon didn't, in the words of Sox general manager Theo Epstein, hold out for "every last dollar," and made the lure of winning a championship and playing in Boston among his top priorities.
"Trot and his agent, Ron Shapiro, demonstrated aggressively right from the outset through their words and eventually through their actions that staying in Boston was their absolute priority," Epstein said. "And so we entered a negotiation with them based on their desire to stay here. In the end, they deserve all the credit because they didn't try to max out dollars and didn't try to max out years. They took a realistic approach at a contract that made sense for the player and made sense for the club."
The Red Sox would certainly like the remaining six to give a little as well, so a well-stocked team can remain just that. As for the other negotiations, Epstein said only, "Some talks are progressing and some aren't," but he would not elaborate.
Nixon, 29, batted .306 with 28 homers and 87 RBIs, including an OPS (on-base percentage and slugging percentage) of .974, which was fourth best in the AL behind Toronto's Carlos Delgado, Manny Ramirez, and Texas's Rodriguez.
The multiyear deal supplants the one-year, $6.6 million deal the sides agreed to last month to avoid arbitration.
Nixon's signing is a symbol of what the Sox want -- players who want to play here for a fair wage and win a championship, a philosophy not unlike the Patriots.
"Like other fans, we really enjoyed the ride the Patriots had," Sox CEO and president Larry Lucchino said. "I felt particularly close to the Kraft family. They've been great to us since we arrived, particularly John Henry and Tom Werner as well. But they have certainly raised the bar and the level of expectation. The fans, having had such a great ride, would love to have another great ride as well. To some degree, our season last year was so positive and so exciting in the postseason. I know the Patriots had a little bit to grapple with that, too, with focus on the Red Sox and excitement toward the Red Sox. I would also say we learned something from the Kraft family, the management, the coaching of the Patriots, about what it takes to succeed, at least in the NFL. I think those lessons are transferable."
Nixon said he didn't mind giving up his free agency and the opportunity to earn more money in the open market, saying his desire to stay with the Red Sox, the organization that drafted him in the first round of the 1993 draft, was paramount.
He has spent the offseason in North Carolina working on hitting against lefthanded pitching from a batting machine. He said he's also been nursing his injured calf by seeing doctors and massage therapists with the hope of preventing further injury to the muscle in camp. He said he "lost a few pounds" and hopes to play at around 225 pounds during the season.
"You're never too good or old to learn something," said Nixon. "I want to continue to go uphill. I know what I need to do. Against lefthanded pitching, I think I'm making great strides in the offseason. I have a pitching machine that allows me to face lefthanded pitching every day. I want to play as good a defense as I possibly can. I made strides last year on how pitchers pitched me in the past and going up there with a plan. [Former Sox hitting coach] Dwight [Evans] kind of told me to go up there with a plan, and I think I figured out what he was talking about this year."
Epstein called Nixon "one of the best fastball hitters in baseball. And now, having seen a steady diet on offspeed stuff, he's adjusted. He combined patience and power in a way we really like. There's no easy way to get Trot Nixon out anymore. I'll say this about Trot, he had some big hits against lefthanded pitching down the stretch. Off hand, that home run against [Yankees lefty] Gabe White. His production is getting better."
Nixon is one of 52 players Epstein plans to bring to spring training for new manager Terry Francona. The GM said the Red Sox are done making moves barring something unforeseen, feeling he has a good handle on the "28 or 29" guys who will compete for 25 roster spots. Epstein feels with a veteran team and few jobs up for grabs, 52 players is enough for Francona and the coaching staff to work with.
It looks as though Epstein will be busy with the other six contracts through spring training, but inevitably he feels some of them will be playing in the final year of their contracts.
"I can't predict the future," Epstein said, "but I think today is a positive indication, that with the right approach, deals that make sense for the player and the club can happen. I don't know what the future holds. I know our goal is to field a very competitive team every year, and not just in 2004. Those teams will include a lot of players from the 2003 Red Sox, but there's also going to be change. It's inevitable in baseball. You can't have all 25 guys locked up in multiyear contracts. With Trot signing, we have 11 players who have multiyear contracts through the 2005 season. That counts a couple of options and vesting options. So that is some security. We just want to combine continuity and stability and flexibility."
And Nixon, who feels the Sox are "one of the best if not the best team on paper," feels all of the controversy surrounding Ramirez and Garciaparra in the offseason will dissipate.
"They are dear friends. They are true professionals. They understand in this game you have a chance to be traded or released any time. They'll be fine," Nixon said.