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Credit where credit was due

They are all professionals, so there's no harm in offering a hearty pat on the back for the conquerors. But it's another thing entirely to dole out such kudos when your team was just administered a three-game flogging that tore at your baseball soul.

Darin Erstad just couldn't help it. He had done his best atop the Anaheim Angels' order, batting .500 and giving those bashers below him the opportunity to make some October magic. Yet after witnessing the Angels' third straight American League Division Series defeat to the Red Sox, an 8-6, 10-inning decision at a frolicking Fenway Park Oct. 8, the first baseman was nonetheless effusive.

"These boys are winning the World Series, by the way," he said from a somber Anaheim clubhouse. "That's the deepest team I've ever seen. They have every piece of the puzzle. I don't see anybody beating them."

That's coming from a champion's perspective, too. Erstad found out firsthand in 2002 the grit and determination needed to slip a World Series ring on your finger. And he recognized those same qualities across the Fenway lawn.

Yankees manager Joe Torre may have more respect for the Red Sox than any other contemporary in the major leagues, trading wins and losses against his AL East rivals like stock shares. His perspective is one of a kind -- he's been booed during routine pitching changes in Boston; he's received a standing ovation from the Fenway crowd in his first game back from treatment for prostate cancer. Above all, he knows what kind of team it takes to not only thrive in a market as frenetic as Boston's but overcome any unseemly obstacle, be it an 86-year championship drought or a 3-0 series deficit.

"We always respected their ball club. We knew they had a ton of ability," said Torre following the Yankees' fourth straight loss in the American League Championship Series that launched the Red Sox into the World Series on an unprecedented high. "The fact that when they get on a roll they can do things like they do to us. You watched it when they ran off those 20 out of 22 or whatever it was in August, and they are very capable.

"You know, we had a couple of games, if you go back in the series, where we had situations the way we wanted it, leads late in the game and we just could not close the deal. We certainly never took them for granted, even up 3-0 because we know how explosive they can be."

It's a sentiment matched by Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa. He, too, has spent more time in the winning locker room following a playoff game against the Red Sox than from the losing perspective. His Oakland squads of 1988 and 1990 dealt Boston two of its swiftest postseason exits ever with four-game ALCS sweeps. But he never took the Sox for granted, not from the A's bench, not from the St. Louis bench. And certainly not after watching Boston pull itself from the boneyard to the pinnacle in the span of 11 days.

"Give them credit, congratulate them on being the world champions. I mean they outplayed us in every category, so it ended up not being a terrific competition, but give them credit and congratulate them," he said.

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