A tribute to Derek Lowe (and his shoes)

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The Red Sox came out of that affirming, redemptive 2004 postseason with their first World Series trophy in 86 years … and, as weird collateral, an inordinate amount of famous footwear.

Curt Schilling‘s bloody sock — a symbol of sacrifice in our neighborhood, a source of skepticism in certain boroughs — is on display in the Hall of Fame. So are Dave Roberts’s turbo-charged spikes.

But do you know the story of Derek Lowe‘s shoes, the ones he wore during his masterful, franchise-altering performance in Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship series?

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The tale should be a bigger deal, one told and retold as October 2004 slips farther away and the subtler memories require jostling to prevent them from fading out all together.

Instead, like Lowe’s superb postseason performance itself, it recaptures our attention much later than it should when we’re daydreaming about all of the amazing moments and accompanying anecdotes from that exhilarating month.

So far as I can tell it was only recently that it came to light, with an outstanding interview FanGraphs’ David Laurila conducted with the pitcher last June.

Here’s how Lowe told it:

My shoes didn’t make it. My game shoes didn’t make it to Game 7. I’m not blaming the people in New York, but they had a tendency to lose stuff at the wrong time. I got to the game and I had zero shoes. Zero.

They went to Sports Authority and all they had were Reeboks with no toe on them. I wear Nike. If you look at the tape, you’ll see that my shoes were completely black, because I wasn’t supposed to wear anything besides Nike. I pitched Game 7 wearing off-the-shelf Sports Authority shoes. And I won.

He won. Damned right he won. He beat the Yankees, on their turf, in Game 7, in arguably the biggest and in retrospect the most pivotal game in Red Sox history, on two days’ rest. He did it with the 2003 heartbreak still aching and the specter of a whole new route to devastation — lose the first three, win the next three, and then punish the believers with a soul-stomping Game 7 loss — trying to escape the backs of everyone’s mind.

He did it with cool, almost casual efficiency for six one-hit innings, the drama left for the icon who replaced him:

Pitching IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA BF Pit Str Ctct GB FB LD
Derek Lowe, W (2-0) 6 1 1 1 1 3 0 2.92 21 69 44 22 13 3 0
Pedro Martinez 1 3 2 2 0 1 0 5.40 6 20 15 11 2 3 1
Mike Timlin 1.2 1 0 0 1 1 0 6.23 7 31 15 5 3 2 1
Alan Embree 0.1 0 0 0 0 0 0 3.18 1 2 1 1 1 0 0
Team Totals 9 5 3 3 2 5 0 3.00 35 122 75 39 19 8 2
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/18/2013.

And he did did it with no-toed, Reebok shoes, store-bought in New York and long overdue for a trip to Cooperstown.

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* * *

Of the 50 players who wore a Red Sox uniform in 2004 — where have you gone, Jimmy Anderson? — only four remain in organized professional baseball as far as I know.

There’s David Ortiz, of course, still shooting off fireworks like this is July 2004. Bronson Arroyo is still cranking out innings and Goo-Goo Dolls covers in Cincinnati. Kevin Youkilis, who arrived in 2004, is among the platoon of aging, injured Yankees this summer. And don’t look now, but Manny Ramirez is verging on a return at age 41, putting up a .910 OPS for Round Rock of the Pacific Coast League.

The rest have moved on to … well, life. Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield and the unparalleled Pedro Martinez work for the Red Sox. Brian Daubach is a minor-league manager. Kevin Millar and Curt Schilling are on television and Gabe Kapler is offering baseball insight on various mediums. Trot Nixon is wearing a dirty hat somewhere.

Others have slipped into obscurity — wouldn’t it be great to see Pokey Reese once again? — while others float along in denial. Johnny Damon exists in that space where his reality hasn’t yet collided with actual reality — he recently said he’s not retired, unaware that the game has made the decision for him.

Some can’t read the writing on the wall. Some refuse to see it. Others don’t even see the wall. Lowe? He never had any illusions about his place in the game. Released by the Rangers in May, he announced he is “officially no longer going to play the game” Wednesday with a typically matter-of-fact farewell announcement.

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“Like I told my dad, I’ll never retire. If you’re not playing, it’s completely self-explanatory,” Lowe said. “I’m not going to go to the Hall of Fame, so I don’t feel like I need to have a retirement speech.”

* * *

With the informally formal announcement that he was done, memories of his seven-plus full seasons with the Red Sox came rushing to mind.

And those memories begin with his arrival, which goes down as the biggest steal in recent if not all of Red Sox history — he came over from the Mariners along with Varitek for human fire-hazard Heathcliff Slocumb on the July 31 trade deadline in 1997. It was only later than Dan Duquette, mastermind of the heist, admitted he took Lowe only after the Mariners nixed his request for Ken Cloude.

Lowe established himself as a dependable setup man for Tom Gordon in ’98, and was so effective in the postseason that after the mighty Cleveland Indians had beaten Gordon to end the 1998 ALDS, catcher Sandy Alomar remarked that the Red Sox did them a favor by pulling Lowe from the game.

The next season, he saved 15 games in sort of a bullpen-ace role similar to Koji Uehara’s now, and a year later, despite being a mellow sinkerballer who didn’t exactly fit the prototypical fire-eating, flame-throwing closer profile, he led the AL in saves with 42.

But while Lowe wasn’t particularly complicated, it was during the tumultuous 2001 season that his relationship with Red Sox fans started becoming so.

He struggled in his second full season in the closer role, his curveball too often wearing a hit-me sign, and the lowest valley came when he blew a save against the Royals on Derek Lowe Poster Day. Given how many of them rained down on the field after Jermaine Dye‘s winning home run, that poster must be a heck of a collector’s item now.

(My wife, an elite five-tool marriage prospect at that point, once ran into him in a Boston bar around this period. Unsolicited, he looked at her and her friends, swigged his drink, and said, “You know who sucks? I do.”)

The Red Sox converted him to the rotation in 2002, and it was an instant success. (Go ahead. Call him the opposite of Daniel Bard. I’ll wait.) He threw a no-hitter against Jason Tyner and the Devil Rays, went 21-8 with a 2.58 ERA, and finished third in the Cy Young balloting.

The next year wasn’t so good — he won 17 games, but allowed 50 more hits in 16.1 fewer innings than in 2002. But he did accumulate another memorable and clutch postseason moment, striking out Adam Melhuse and Terrence Long looking with the tying and winning runs on base in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the ALDS against the A’s.

That goes in the scorebook as a backward-K and a two-handed crotch-chop. Somewhere — Kansas City, I suppose — Miguel Tejada is still howling about it.

* * *

Lowe knows his own legacy, and he’s certainly right that he’s not a Hall of Famer. But the success he found in various roles in his career put him in some exclusive and accomplished company.

In 681 major league games and 377 starts, he had a 4.02 ERA, 176 wins, and 85 saves. You know how many pitchers in big league history have at least 175 wins and 85 saves? Three, all of whom have pitched for the Red Sox since 1998:

Player W SV From To G GS CG L IP H ER BB SO ERA ERA+
Derek Lowe 176 86 1997 2013 681 377 10 157 2671.1 2759 1195 794 1722 4.03 109
John Smoltz 213 154 1988 2009 723 481 53 155 3473.0 3074 1284 1010 3084 3.33 125
Dennis Eckersley 197 390 1975 1998 1071 361 100 171 3285.2 3076 1278 738 2401 3.50 116
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/18/2013.

That’s one Hall of Famer, one certain Hall of Famer, and one Derek Christopher Lowe.

To put it another way:

Who had a heck of a career? He did.

* * *

It’s hard to believe, but we’ll be celebrating the 10th anniversary of that 2004 team a year from now. Everyone but the Eternal Papi have moved on, and some of the memories have already become sepia-tinged.

But in saying goodbye this week, Lowe brought us back.

To that crazy October of 2004 and the heartbreak that followed the thrilling defeat of the A’s 12 months before.

To the goofy body language and the self-aware gift for shrugging off just about anything, to the big wins that ended in a pigpile and blown saves that brought posters from the sky and all the peaks and valleys in between, to the three straight series-clinchers in ’04.

To the unmistakable thanks-for-everything roar he received upon emerging from the dugout, a new Dodger in a Red Sox jersey one more time for all the old times, on Opening Day 2005.

And to that Game 7 in the Bronx when everything changed.

We didn’t know it then, but we sure do now. There are very few others you’d rather have on the mound under those extraordinary, pressure-packed circumstances than Derek Lowe.

The shoes, as it turned out, were a perfect fit.

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