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When Sox won the Series 5 years ago, a big part was overcoming media pressure
The greatest season in modern Red Sox history opened with the team’s two aces sniping at Boston’s sports media, chroniclers of the franchise’s ancient culture of doom.
“You have the right to remain silent,’’ read the T-shirt Curt Schilling draped over his locker as spring training started in 2004. “Anything you say will be misquoted and then used against you.’’
Pedro Martinez arrived firing a similar salvo. As twinkle-eyed children, coaxed by parents and grandparents, screeched for his autograph at the spring training complex, Martinez tromped past and said only this: “Don’t believe the media. They don’t know [expletive].’’
The Sox, their fans, and the city’s sports media were a different people then. Fenway Park was a monument to postseason misery, a place where dreams soared in summer and died in October. Globe lightning rod Dan Shaughnessy popularized the theory that the team’s 86-year legacy of futility was tied to a curse, and a tenacious Boston broadcast correspondent went out of his way to perpetuate the myth among a generation of Sox players.
WBZ’s Jonny Miller greeted every new player in the Fens by asking him to declare whether the team’s chronic misfortune was born of some ghostly voodoo risen from Babe Ruth’s grave. His tape recorder whirring, Miller followed up by posing the same question every spring training to every player on the Sox roster: “Do you believe in the curse of the Bambino?’’
On the fifth anniversary of Sox Liberation Day (Oct. 27, 2004), the magical season that produced the club’s first World Series triumph since 1918 may best be remembered for Terry Francona’s long-haired band of “idiots,’’ Schilling’s bloody sock, Martinez’s trout-sized Mini-Me (Nelson de la Rosa), Jason Varitek’s rivalry-stoking shove of Alex Rodriguez, shots of Jack Daniel’s, and “Fever Pitch.’’
But 2004 also was the season the Sox declared victory over the “mediots,’’ as Schilling called Boston’s baseball reporters, many of whom had filed accounts of the team’s most wrenching October failures and were seen by some players as agents of gloom, keepers of the curse. Few “mediots’’ were more ubiquitous than Miller, who made a pastime of tweaking the Sox about the championship famine and asking after particularly grievous losses, “What do you say to the fans who are lining up on the Tobin Bridge?’’
Japan, Korea, Cuba, the Dominican Republic: Where a player was born - or which language he spoke - never mattered. Miller grilled him about the curse.
Then everything changed. Under a total eclipse of a blood-red moon on a cathartic October night in ’04, the Sox finished off the Cardinals in St. Louis to capture their first world title since the invention of television. Never again would the curse question pass Miller’s lips in the Sox clubhouse.
Even after Jonathan Papelbon stirred memories of the franchise’s most cataclysmic collapses when he blew the final game of this year’s American League Division Series against the Angels - Shaughnessy watched a door in the center-field wall mysteriously swing open in the bottom of the ninth and wondered if “ghosts of Octobers past’’ were at play - Miller bit his tongue.
“They took away one of my lines,’’ Miller said of the ’04 Sox. “I can’t ask about the curse anymore.’’
If so, Miller’s negativity sprang from experience. He and the Sox go back to 1958, when his family first bought season tickets at Fenway. A lifelong Newton resident who earned degrees from Boston University and its College of Communication, he has covered the team since 1972. Like many reporters on the Sox beat in ’04, Miller had endured the team’s October heartaches in 1967, ’75, ’78, ’86, and ’03. He remembers Bill Buckner trudging through the runway at Shea Stadium after his historic error in ’86, and he was the first reporter to question Tim Wakefield after the knuckleballer surrendered Aaron Boone’s walkoff clincher for the Yankees in ’03.
“Will you remember this for the rest of your life?’’ he asked Wakefield.
Miller’s fixation on past calamities, shared to lesser degrees by others covering the team in ’04, motivated some of the Sox. The only remaining players from ’04 are Wakefield, David Ortiz, Varitek, and Kevin Youkilis, all of whom won World Series rings again in ’07.
“A lot of us weren’t from here and didn’t grow up on the curse,’’ Youkilis recalled in the final week of the ’09 season. “We had a lot of veteran guys who had seen a lot of baseball and kind of knew the whole curse thing was b.s. We had a real determination to prove it never existed.’’
Shaughnessy and Miller became faces of the opposition. As the author of numerous editions of “The Curse of the Bambino,’’ Shaughnessy played the most visible role, while Miller operated behind the scenes. Miller is virtually unknown to Boston sports fans largely because he lives with cerebral palsy, which has impaired his speech and motor skills, generally precluding him from on-air appearances. His specialty is collecting sound bites and news items for WBZ.
Miller was the first reporter former WBZ sportscaster Bob Lobel met when he arrived in Boston in the late ’70s. They worked together until Lobel accepted a buyout last year.
“Jonny’s got a handicap that wasn’t his fault, and he’s done remarkable things to overcome it,’’ Lobel said. “He not only has tried to be like everybody else, but he has tried to be better than everybody else.
“He’s done it with a tremendous amount of courage and humor.’’
Financially secure, Miller receives little compensation for his work, which he does for the love of it. A past recipient of the Tommy McCarthy Memorial Good Guy Award from Boston’s baseball writers, he long has been widely admired for his determination - he walks with a cane, in obvious pain - as he competes against much younger, healthier reporters while they crisscross the country one grueling baseball season after another.
The stunt came as little surprise to some of Miller’s colleagues. The previous summer, he hoodwinked an Associated Press reporter in Milwaukee who was too lazy to ask the Sox public relations staff for the name of a doctor scheduled to examine pitcher Casey Fossum. Peeved that the reporter unprofessionally sought the information from the media rather than an official source, Miller identified the physician as Win Bates, who in fact was a sportswriter for the Brockton Enterprise. The AP promptly circulated a copyrighted story citing Fossum’s appointment with “Dr. Win Bates.’’
Sometimes, Miller’s humor fell flat. In September of ’04, with Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon filming “Fever Pitch’’ in Fenway’s box seats, Barrymore’s history of teen drug problems inspired Miller to raise a placard that asked, “When Will Drew Be Back In Rehab?’’
He apologized for the Barrymore caper, but he remained a provocateur in the Sox clubhouse. It was Miller who sent Derek Lowe into an epic tizzy in the summer of ’04 by asking the badly-slumping sinkerballer to reflect on his apparently fragile emotional state.
“How’s your head?’’ Miller inquired, prompting Lowe, in a rambling soliloquy, to famously complain about critics casting him as a “Mental Gidget.’’
It was Miller who suggested to the long-maned, bearded Johnny Damon that he looked like a murderous Charles Manson.
When the Sox played an interleague series in Atlanta, prompting Francona to replace first baseman Kevin Millar with Ortiz, the designated hitter, for two of the three games, it was Miller who asked Millar how it felt to “get shafted.’’
“In the history of the wild card, no team has blown a four-game lead starting Sept. 1,’’ he informed Damon. “Are you confident you won’t be the first?’’
Damon, one of the most media-friendly players in the game, struggled to maintain his composure.
“You’re filling us up with all this stuff we don’t really need to know about, Jonny,’’ Damon said. “We’ll stick with the positive right now.’’
So they did. Defying the club’s tortured history, the Sox clawed their way to October glory, sweeping the last eight games of the playoffs after falling into an 0-3 hole in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
In the bubbly aftermath, dirt dog Trot Nixon delivered a message to Schilling’s “mediots.’’
“Everybody thought it was a curse,’’ Nixon said. “But to us it was just a five-letter word.’’
Shaughnessy closed the book on it. Miller dropped it. And the Sox, free at last, entered a new frontier in which jarring playoff losses like this month’s knee-buckler to the Angels no longer turned winters into soul-twisting reflections on 1918 and the Bambino.
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.