TORONTO - On the final day of their final road trip of the 2008 regular season, the Red Sox had no choice but to wait. Boston assured itself of a tie in the American League wild card race pending the outcome of New York's night game with the Baltimore Orioles. Even in this age of instant gratification, Sox manager Terry Francona was among those who promised to be in bed when the results came in.
So this is what it has come to, Sox followers: Qualifying for the playoffs quite literally puts us to sleep. The Yankees ultimately defeated the Baltimore Oriooes by a 7-3 score in New York, but the Red Sox are still just one small stepn from a return trip to October. With one more Boston victory or one more New York loss this week, the Red Sox once again will participate in the postseason for the fifth time in six years while guaranteeing a legitimate chance at a second straight World Series title and third in five seasons.
My, how things have changed.
"There are a lot of good teams out there,'' Francona said in the aftermath of the Sox' 3-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. "Once you win, I don't think it gets any easier ... but I don't think the first time was easy. That's why you just go play. If you're good enough, you're good enough.''
Said Sox first baseman Sean Casey following Friday night's victory in Toronto: "Anytime you get to the playoffs, it's not easy. We cherish the fact that we're this close to being in."
And so, apparently, this is what winning does to you: It makes you expect success and it completely changes the standards. Five years ago, when the 2003 Sox qualified for the playoffs, the celebration might as well have been a toga party with Otter, Bluto, D-Day and Flounder. Sox newbies Kevin Millar and Todd Walker were among those who jogged across Boylston Street and into The Baseball Tavern like former pledges just initiated into the brotherhood that Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy so aptly dubbed Red Sox Nation.
Now? Now the Sox wonder whether they should celebrate at all. Last year, when the Sox secured a playoff spot in Tampa, they did so with a relatively tame, tasteful champagne toast. (The division-clinching party was another matter, with Jonathan Papelbon quite literally dancing in his underwear.) Following Friday's win at the Rogers Centre, one Sox player openly wondered how the team should celebrate a return to the playoffs whenever it is that the Sox clinch, if only because players recognize what many of us frequently fail to.
Namely: Do not take these times for granted.
More than anyone else, Red Sox fans should know that. In going 86 years between world titles, the Sox failed to qualify for the playoffs 75 times during an 85-year span. There were an assorted variety of near-misses along the way, from the one-game tiebreakers in 1948 and 1978 to virtually the entire decade of the 1970s. Major League Baseball has initiated multiple realignments along the way, leading to the creation of a wild card berth that sometimes seems as if it were created solely for the Sox, a franchise that often seemed to be stuck in the purgatory between first place and second.
In the 14 seasons since baseball instituted the wild card, assuming the Sox qualify tonight or tomorrow, this will mark the Red Sox' eighth trip into the playoffs. If the Tampa Bay Rays preserve their lead in the American League East, six of the Sox' appearances will have come via the wildcard. Because a Boston appearance in the playoffs would eliminate New York, this year's qualification grants the Sox ascension to elite status throughout Major League Baseball.
Think about it: Since the start of the 2003 season, no team in baseball will have qualified for more postseasons (or won more World Series) than your beloved Boston Red Sox.
Independent of whether the Sox win a world title, isn't that an achievement to be celebrated?
Nonetheless, we all recognize that things will never be the same here for the simple fact that the 2004 championship was a cataclysmic event. In Boston, the `04 title was baseball's version of the Big Bang. An entirely new universe was born. The moment that Keith Foulke fielded Edgar Renteria's one-hopper and flipped it to the sure-handed Doug Mientkiewicz - has he let that ball go yet? - it was as if the Red Sox signed the check and sealed the envelope on the final mortgage payment of their torturous past.
No more debts to pay.
Maybe now we can really start enjoying ourselves.
So here we are, nearly four years later, and a relatively carefree existence has manifested itself in a most unusual way. We do not really worry if the Red Sox are going to fail anymore; we worry about only how much they will succeed. Can they make the playoffs again? Can they win another division title? Can they get back to the World Series? Can they repeat as champions?
Of course, all of those questions were on our minds months ago and they remain on our minds now. Francona was asked during spring training about the difficulty in claiming consecutive world titles, and the manager essentially said then what he said following today's shutout win at Toronto.
"Winning [once] is hard," Francona answered.
Indeed it is.
Entering the final week of the 2008 regular season, the Red Sox have 91 victories and now trail the first-place Rays by 1 1/2 games. They lead the wild card race by seven games in the loss column with precisely seven games to play. Since the start of the 2002 season - the Sox missed the playoffs that year, but won 93 games - the Sox have averaged better than 93 victories a year; in 2006, their biggest failure, they won 86.
Last fall, in sweeping the Colorado Rockies, the Red Sox became the seventh World Series winner of this millennium and the only franchise with multiple titles. Of the previous six world champions, only two have reached the postseason in defense of their world title (the 2001 Diamondbacks and the 2005 Sox) and not a single one has won a postseason game. Baseball is a game designed to break you down, after all, and any weaknesses are impossible to mask over the span of one full season, let alone two.
Francona and Casey are right.
Winning is hard and it is to be cherished.
No matter how easy the Red Sox have sometimes made it look.
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