Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, and Tim Wakefield are the last men standing. They’re the only three remaining from a Red Sox squad that last won on Opening Day.
Backed by a Pedro Martinez gem (seven innings, two hits, no runs, 11 strikeouts), the Red Sox beat the Seattle Mariners, 2-0 on April 4, 2000 in Seattle’s spanking new Safeco Field. Since then, the Sox have reeled off five straight losses to open their respective seasons, perhaps most memorably Martinez’s nine-hit, seven run disaster against the Blue Jays in 2002, and Chad Fox’s inauspicious debut in Tampa a year later.
Jose Offerman still patrolled second base the last time the Red Sox won on Opening Day. Gary Gaetti was the designated hitter. Mike Stanley manned first and names like Bryce Florie and Rob Stanifer awaited the call in the bullpen. Teammate Manny Alexander had yet to be fingered in his own steroid scandal, perhaps a precursor to the eye-opening reality for which the baseball landscape is under fire today.
There is, of course, one common bond between each of those five consecutive losses. While the sky in your neck of the woods may have been somewhat normal, it was indeed falling to the ground in Red Sox Nation.
Perhaps, nay, definitively, no other fan base of professional sports puts as much stock into the initial game of a season as Red Sox fans. In the standings, an opening win or loss means literally nothing in the context of a 162-game season. In the hearts and minds of the followers, the game serves as a measuring stick of sorts, an uncertain signal for what to expect from Boston baseball as we creep into summer.
Today, that journey begins anew for the Red Sox and their fans. It’s a vastly different squad we’re following than just one year ago, even more discerning from the one that raised the World Series trophy on a now-defunct Busch Stadium infield just 18 months ago.
Curt Schilling will get the nod, the third straight different Opening Day starter for the Red Sox (Martinez in 2004, David Wells in 2005) and his first start to open the season for Boston in his third season with the team.
It is indeed a crossroads for Schilling, the hero of 2004 who failed in his comeback last season from ankle surgery. He went 8-8 with a 5.69 ERA in 2005, pitching out of the bullpen and in the rotation, never at any given time looking like the dominant force that won 21 games in 2004. A year later, the spring results are OK, yet not enough to convince Red Sox Nation that its ace is healthy and ready to take the reins on the season.
Which is why today matters. Perhaps even more than it would have regardless of Schilling.
With a healthy Curt Schilling, the Red Sox are potentially the best team in baseball. Without a healthy Curt Schilling, they are perhaps just another also-ran. Of the two most popular question marks on the 2006 Red Sox -- Schilling and Keith Foulke -- the affirmative answer matters so much more only in the ace of the starting staff. Theo Epstein has options should Foulke fail: Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Hansen are readying themselves if needed to close out games. If Schilling proves himself no better than the roller coaster ride he was last season, where does the general manager find another ace that can solidify his rotation? Outside of Roger Clemens, at least.
Red Sox fans get their first glimpse at what might be today in Texas, where Rangers fans regrettably get their first glimpse at what tortures they must face in the searing heat of summer once again. Clemens will be on hand, just watching the game from a private box in Arlington, likely scouting which of the two teams he’d rather join come June.
Schilling’s performance could help open his eyes, give Clemens a hint of what kind of rotation this could be mid-summer. Schilling, Beckett, Clemens, Wells, and Wakefield? That’s cancel-all-your-summer-trips nasty right there. In Texas ... what, he might get to supplant Kevin Millwood as team ace? That’ll get the pulse racing.
Of course, the bullpen won’t be such a selling point. Relief pitching remains a deterrent, David Riske and Rudy Seanez not exactly Timlin in the eighth and Williamson in the ninth. Foulke remains a mental and physical anomaly, and based last season's disaster, if he struggles in the first month we have to wonder for how long he will have his closing job.
But the bullpen is a concern only for its inhabitants, not its prospects, with Papelbon, Hansen, and Manny Delcarmen ready as reinforcements. What will likely bring back memories of Grady Little’s worst nightmare in 2003 as we progress here early in the season will look vastly different by the time you’re planting tiny American flags in your yard. A weak aspect will be the focus of a summer-long retooling, as it has every season since Epstein took over.
With Schilling, what we see is what we get. And what you see on April 3, might be a good indication of what you can expect on Aug. 3.
And so, the six-month journey begins, the destination unknown though a preferred date has been marked. It has been six years since the Red Sox last won on Opening Day, a streak that is the longest in baseball. To spark the annual love affair between this team and New England, being on the right side of the score always helps.
All eyes will be on Texas today. And they’ll be focused just a little bit more intently on Schilling. The Red Sox go as their ace goes, and today we get an inkling as to just where that might be.