No party hats, but a worthy celebration
Five playoffs in six years. Not bad. Not bad at all.
The Red Sox made it official last night, clinching a spot in the playoffs for the fifth time since 2003.
We were getting a little worried. The Sox whittled their magic number to 1 Sunday but failed to clinch Monday in a game that should have been a mortal lock (Josh Beckett vs. Zach Jackson). When the Yankees took a 2-0 lead in Toronto last night while the Sox fell behind the Tribe at Fenway, it started to feel like the interminable wait for Yaz's 3,000th hit. I was afraid Heidi Watney was going to have to wear rain gear into the clubhouse for one more day.
No problem. The Sox rallied for three runs off Cliff Lee in the fifth and Jonathan Papelbon closed out the 5-4 win at 9:55, getting Victor Martinez to pop to Alex Cora. Martinez's shallow fly was remarkably similar to the final out of the 1967 Impossible Dream season when Jim Lonborg got Minnesota's Rich Rollins to pop to Rico Petrocelli.
"We've got a chance to do what we did last year, and that's all we were looking for, an opportunity," Dustin Pedroia told the crowd in a NESN postgame interview aired over the public address system.
A season that started in Tokyo and featured numerous speed bumps (a raft of injuries and the midseason trade of quitter Manny Ramírez) will extend into October. The Sox most likely will open against the Angels next Wednesday or Thursday in Anaheim.
Last night's celebration was considerably tamer than the pandemonium of '67. And it certainly wasn't as wild as last year's American League East clinch bacchanal when Papelbon wound up dancing with a Bud Light 12-pack box on his head. There was no need for mounted police to line the warning track to prevent fans from vaulting the rails.
We should never take the postseason for granted. Sure, there has been expansion of baseball's playoff system. There was a time (as late as 1968) when only one of 10 teams in each league qualified for postseason play. That's two of 20. Today, it's eight of 30 making the playoffs - not quite like the old NHL, which took 16 of 21, but it's considerably easier than it was in the old days.
Still, we could be in a place like Pittsburgh or Kansas City where baseball playoffs are merely a sweet memory, like gasoline for 29 cents a gallon.
Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and '60s remember the hungry years. One of the reasons we immortalize the 1967 Red Sox is because they brought playoff games to Fenway Park for the first time in 19 autumns. That was not the first lengthy Red Sox drought. Way back in the day, the Sox went from 1918 to 1946 without playing a postseason game.
So we are careful not to be too casual about this.
Having said all that, does anybody else find these early-accomplishment celebrations a little overdone?
The Red Sox have baseball's fourth-highest payroll. They had seven players in this year's All-Star Game. Do they really need to cover the lockers with plastic wrap and spray one another with champagne because they have officially qualified as one of the final eight teams in this year's tournament? Is this what administrators do at Harvard when they are named one of America's top 10 colleges by US News & World Report?
"I don't care for it to be scripted," manager Terry Francona said before the game. "If guys want to run around and spray champagne, that's good. If that's how guys feel, that's what they should do. Just because we've had success in prior years, I don't see why this group shouldn't celebrate what they've accomplished.
"We know we have more baseball to play."
As usual, the manager knows what he is talking about. A guy like Jason Bay doesn't know what this is like. Sean Casey and Paul Byrd don't know what it's like to win in Boston. Rookies Jed Lowrie and Justin Masterson should not be denied their first chance to celebrate. After all the Sox went through in 2008, it's no surprise they needed a moment to let loose and exhale.
For the record, there were no commemorative "Wild Card Champion" shirts and caps. No peace-sign foam fingers exclaiming, "We're No. 2!" It's still mathematically possible (though highly unlikely) for the Sox to win the AL East, so they held off on the "Wild Card" garb. It didn't seem to make sense to hand out hats and shirts that say, "We're in!" so the Sox settled for beer and bubbly. Many wore goggles in the clubhouse celebration.
Most fans left shortly after the last out, but the ones who stayed were rewarded when Javier Lopez, David Aardsma, and Manny Delcarmen ran to the bullpen to spray champagne on the cop who guards the relievers for 81 home games. Papelbon soon followed and ran to the warning track to embrace his favorite man in blue.
When Papelbon ran back toward the dugout, the PA blared, "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," but Papelbon did not repeat his Irish step dance from 2007.
Mike Lowell and Aardsma were among the first to come out to douse the fans, and by 10:15, the infield was littered with Red Sox players holding champagne bottles, toasting the fans.
There was additional reason to celebrate. The Sox' clinch party came at the expense of the Yankees - who had been in the playoffs 13 consecutive seasons.
Five postseasons in six years. Pretty good. The second season starts next week.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.