Pretender sendoff

There will be no parade of amphibious vehicles down Boylston St., no jewelry requisitions to Josten’s, and no ceremonial trophy tour throughout the six-pack of states that serve as the home base for Red Sox Nation. There will be no long-awaited phone calls between father and son, no slew of chronicles for which to throw down the Visa at Borders, and no more waving your Red Sox World Series championship hat strolling down Bleecker St.

No longer. The Red Sox, your defending World Series champions of nearly a year, are champs no more. Thanks to the White Sox’ 5-3 win tonight at Fenway Park, the 2004 Red Sox are now just another champion of the past. Another Anaheim Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves, teams that memorably won it all recently, but failed to double their pleasure the following season.

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Certainly, the 2004 Red Sox took us on a ride that we can’t possibly ever expect to enjoy again. And by even the most fanatical account, these Red Sox didn’t stand a chance at repeating, what with a shaky starting staff and a terrible bullpen that never was fixed no matter how many strips of scotch tape Theo Epstein threw out there.

Yet still, this is unexpected. Most thought the Red Sox would get by in this series, including yours truly. But the White Sox are the better team. They pitched better, they produced runs with more ease, and Ozzie Guillen managed circles around Terry Francona. This series wasn’t lost on Tony Graffanino’s error. Sorry, folks. The Red Sox had plenty of opportunities to come back Wednesday night but didn’t, and tonight they were flummoxed by the amazing pitching of 59-year-old foe Orlando Hernandez, who was brilliant over three innings, allowing just one hit and memorably escaping a bases loaded jam in a tense sixth inning.

If you think this was a fluke, or that the better team lost, you’re wrong. Sorry.

Name one Boston pitcher besides Jonathan Papelbon, the electric rookie who all of baseball can’t wait to see pitch again in April, who provided any semblance of hope. Matt Clement got hammered. David Wells hung that curve ball that surrendered Game 2. Tim Wakefield couldn’t get out of the sixth inning, allowing four runs and suffering the loss tonight, the home run ball that haunted him all season long hurting him at the most opportune time, thanks to Paul Konerko.

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But perhaps this is the best thing that could have happened to Red Sox Nation, making the playoffs and saving face, yet going out at early as possible, as to not get the hopes of its fanatical base higher than they should reasonably have been. Too often down the stretch, someone wondered who might be this year’s Derek Lowe, coming out of nowhere to be lights out in October. When the Red Sox fell 0-2 in this series, many fans expected the comeback that came in 2004 against the Yankees, 2003 against the A’s, and 1999 against the Indians. Francona said it best this week. “That was a long time ago. A different time. A different team.”

Besides, there were three common threads in the way in mentioning those comebacks: Pedro. Pedro. And, Pedro.

The Red Sox won the 2004 World Series with a rotation that included a sure Hall of Famer, and one that Kevin Millar recently called, “the best clutch pitcher of our generation.” In this year’s ALDS, they tossed out a head case, a portly lefty, and a knuckleballer. The result was the first time Boston was swept in the ALDS since 1995. The guy on the mound who started that deciding game 10 years ago was Tim Wakefield, just as it was tonight.

These 2005 Red Sox too often lived on what they did LAST year, rather than what they were going to do THIS year in the minds of some of their fans. And who can blame them? You wait 86 years for something so unattainable and of course you want to possess the magic for as long as you can. But there’s a time to let go, and many members of the Nation couldn’t do that, expecting the script this fall season to be written similar to the last one. As far as sequels go, this one is on par with Caddyshack II.

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The fans likely said goodbye to a good number of these Idiots tonight, with free agency looming for Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, and Mike Timlin. And if this was Manny Ramirez’s last evening in a Red Sox uniform, he gave a tremendous au revoir, pounding a pair of home runs. The 2006 edition will look very different, and an early round exit in the playoffs might also help soften the blow of watching some franchise legends wave goodbye. You win the World Series with these guys, the fans want them all to stick around. You get swept in the first round, and maybe change is OK.

Much of that change will be in the form of a youth movement involving guys like Kevin Youkilis, Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, and Craig Hansen, getting a guy to replace Ramirez hitting behind David Ortiz, and most importantly, pitching. Pitching, pitching, pitching.

It was their strength in 2004 and their undoing a year later, particularly the bullpen, an area of the game Epstein and the brass have continued to have difficulty fixing, while forming the most dangerous lineup in the big leagues. This summer, the hurdle was not dealing their prospects for a quick fix. Next summer, those prospects are the fix.

Meanwhile, the White Sox move on to their first ALCS since 1993, against either the Yankees or Angels. The way they played against the defending world champs, they might want to think about planning their own Saturday morning parade route down Michigan Ave. Are they that good? No, Chicago couldn’t have played any better than it did against Boston, and it might take an even bigger step to challenge up to the likes of the St. Louis Cardinals. But they are the better, more balanced team of the two Sox.

Defending no more. They are on a one-year championship drought.

It ends in disappointment, frustration, and yes, perhaps a good amount of expectancy. They just weren’t as good this time around, simple as that. Although, if this team miraculously won 95 games with the staff it had, imagine the world beaters it is with an ace, and/or a healthy Curt Schilling. They are your 2002 Patriots. Your 1997 Yankees. In flux. Poised to come back for more.

But in 2005, they are champs no more. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing at all.

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