Best season ever? Hard to top 2004 Red Sox

December 27th, 2021

The ecstasy -- and history -- the Red Sox created in 2004 started with the agony that happened at the end of ’03.

As we dissect that magical 2004 season -- perhaps the most impactful in team history -- let’s not forget what happened the year before. It is a vital component to the story.

Those 2003 Red Sox, led by a power-packed lineup and a “Cowboy Up” mentality, were five outs from reaching the World Series for a matchup with the Florida Marlins.

But as got in trouble -- and past the 100-pitch mark when he typically started to lose his effectiveness at that point of his career -- manager Grady Little stood still. The Yankees came storming back from a three-run lead to tie it in a furious bottom of the eighth. Three innings later, Aaron Boone sent the Red Sox home with a walk-off homer against venerable knuckleballer .

The most stinging defeat the Red Sox had experienced since 1986 -- that one took place in another New York City borough -- led ownership and the front office to bear down with the type of determination that would change the franchise forever.

Operation Schilling

What wound up as the successful quest to halt the championship drought at 86 years started the week of Thanksgiving when a second-year general manager named Theo Epstein wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to acquiring from the D-backs. While the sides had agreed to a trade in principle, it was contingent on Schilling waiving his no-trade clause and signing an extension with Boston.

With the deadline imposed by MLB looming, Epstein and assistant Jed Hoyer gave up the major holiday at home with their families and flew to Arizona to negotiate directly with Schilling, who was his own agent. They even had Thanksgiving dinner with Curt and Shonda.

“Curt was so engaged the whole time and had a real glint in his eye, like he could imagine himself in a Red Sox uniform,” Epstein recalled to a few years back. “I felt it was fate that we would get a deal done and that he wanted it, but we were really far apart on money and I was concerned. Once he invited Jed and I to stay for Thanksgiving dinner, I got more hopeful. Once we finally agreed after three days of grinding talks, Jed and I went into Curt’s home office to print out the term sheet. There we saw a dog-eared copy of 'Negotiating For Dummies' and laughed our asses off.”

Epstein got his man, and the importance of the move should never be overstated. To that point, the Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series since 1918. Much of that heartbreak had come at the hands of the Yankees. Schilling had just teamed with Randy Johnson to beat the Yanks in a classic 2001 World Series. He had the bravado of knowing what it took to conquer the Yankees when they needed it the most.

With Schilling in place to lead the rotation with Martinez, the Red Sox hired Terry Francona as manager to replace Little. Though unproven at the time, Francona had the perfect temperament to run a veteran-laden and talented team.

Though a mega-trade that would have sent to the Rangers for Alex Rodriguez fell through when the Players Association wouldn’t let A-Rod reduce the value of his contract, Epstein made another big move when he signed free agent . The Red Sox now had a closer they could go to without fear in the ninth inning – the lack of which punished Little the previous year.

When they got to Spring Training, the Red Sox were a swagger-filled group led by not only their two prized new acquisitions but also a blossoming slugging star in and a dominant hitter in Ramirez. They also had a rock-solid catcher and leader in and care-free producers like and who made the clubhouse a fun place for anyone who inhabited it. Then you had the grinders like , and .

The midseason rut

The combination of added motivation and key new acquisitions helped the ’04 Sox bust out of the gate with a 15-6 record in April.

Everything was great, right? Not so fast.

May started with a five-game losing streak. Something in the air just wasn’t right. Perhaps part of it was disenchantment from the once-iconic , who was well aware the team contemplated trading him in the offseason to make room for A-Rod. Garciaparra also had an Achilles tendon injury, and when he did finally debut on June 9, he lacked his usual mobility on defense.

For three solid months, from May 1-July 31, the Red Sox spun their wheels and played .500 baseball.

“We just hadn’t gotten on fire. I started off real slow. We had guys start off real slow, here and there,” Millar said. “I remember we just couldn’t get going yet. But that’s the beauty of a baseball season, is that it’s a cliché, but you have a lot of games left and a lot of stuff going on.”

They at least got a jolt on July 24 when threw a pitch up-and-in on Rodriguez in a Saturday afternoon Yankees tilt at Fenway. You see, A-Rod picked the wrong member of the Red Sox to pick a fight with in Varitek -- the heart and soul of the team. As Varitek lifted Rodriguez off the ground with his catcher’s glove, mayhem ensued.

By the end of the day, Mueller belted a walk-off two-run homer off Mariano Rivera that brought some serious spark back to the Red Sox.

“Billy Mueller hit the home run off Mariano, we get in a fight, we win the fight,” Millar said. “A lot of good things happened that day. That was probably the game that turned around our year. Not the fight, but just that game, when Billy walked off Mariano, it didn’t get better than that.”

It would get much better three months later. But before that could happen, Epstein had to take center stage for the first time since the winter.

The trade that changed everything

With the hours ticking down to the 4 p.m. Trade Deadline on July 31, Epstein couldn’t get the team’s shoddy infield defense out of his mind. He viewed it as a fatal flaw. So he did what would have once been unthinkable by trading Garciaparra in a four-way trade that brought shortstop and first baseman to Boston. In a separate transaction that seemed minor at the time, the Sox also acquired veteran outfielder from the Dodgers for a Minor Leaguer named Henri Stanley.

On the surface, Epstein had acquired two hitters who both had .246 averages the day of the trade in Cabrera and Mientkiewicz. Roberts wasn’t much better at .253. In other words, the trade was a tough sell to the fans initially.

But Epstein got defense and speed to round out the team. And he took a pill that night to help himself sleep after trading former megastar Garciaparra.

It took a week for the new parts to start fitting together, and once they did, the Red Sox never looked back.

The team played like a wagon the rest of the way, closing the regular season at a 40-15 clip.

Those final six weeks were something to behold. As the wins piled up, the hair kept growing longer and lower on the players’ backs. They were developing a personality, and Damon dubbed the team a bunch of “Idiots.” Cabrera developed elaborate handshakes for each player. The Red Sox were pitching, hitting and fielding and felt unstoppable.

“All of a sudden when we get to bigger ballparks or something, we could [put in defensive replacements] for guys. We could use our offense,” Francona said. “Because we had a good offense. We could use it and then we could substitute guys, we could pinch-run, so we kind of had the best of both worlds, and we used it. Everybody felt included because they all knew they were part of the team, and it really worked. Once we got on a roll, we were using everybody. It’s a fun way to play.”

A severe pothole

The 98-64 Red Sox went into October as the AL Wild Card, finishing three games behind the Yankees in the East. When the Division Series started, it was as if the regular season had never ended. Boston bashed the Angels in a three-game sweep that culminated with Ortiz walking off the series with a homer over the Green Monster in the 10th inning of Game 3.

That set up the ALCS everyone wanted -- Red Sox-Yankees. At last, Boston could erase the pain of the season before.

But it sure didn’t start out that way. Schilling pitched with a ruptured tendon in his right ankle and got belted around Yankee Stadium in Game 1, leaving his status for the rest of the series very much in doubt. With “Who’s Your Daddy?” chants ringing down around him from 55,000 strong at Yankee Stadium, Martinez was outdueled by Jon Lieber in Game 2. Fenway home cooking would do the trick, right? Not in Game 3. The Red Sox were tattooed, 19-8, in Game 3, and were staring at a 3-0 hole in the series.

How bad could things get?

Here was Dan Shaughnessy’s column lead in The Boston Globe on Sunday, Oct. 17. “So there. For the 86th consecutive autumn, the Red Sox are not going to win the World Series.”

It was hard to disagree.

‘Don’t let us win tonight’

But during batting practice prior to Game 4, Millar started to set a tone, telling anyone who would listen, “Don’t let us win tonight. If we win tonight, we have Pedro in Game 5, Schilling in Game 6 and anything can happen in Game 7.”

The Yankees nearly didn’t let the Red Sox win that night. Rivera, the best closer in the world, had a 4-3 lead to open the bottom of the ninth. Over the next half-inning -- and the next four days -- Red Sox history was about to change forever.

Millar worked a lead-off walk. Roberts came off the bench and stole second. It turned out to be the most monumental stolen base in history. Mueller -- forever underrated -- smashed a game-tying single up the middle. And in the 12th inning, Ortiz did what he always seemed to do -- hammering a walk-off homer deep into the night.

In Game 5, the Sox were again in danger of extinction, trailing, 4-2, going into the eighth. Papi led the charge back with a solo mash against Tom Gordon over the Monster. Millar followed with a walk. Roberts again came off the bench with those fast legs and Gordon seemed unnerved. Nixon smashed a hit-and-run single to right, and Rivera was called on with runners at the corners and nobody out. Varitek’s sacrifice fly tied the game, and the Yankees had to start thinking their trip to the World Series was no longer inevitable.

Fast forward to the 14th inning, and Ortiz delivers yet again -- this time with a walk-off single to center.

The next day at Yankee Stadium, it was “bloody sock” time. Schilling went through a barbaric medical procedure the day before the start so he could pitch. His loose ankle tendon was sutured back into place. It was gory. And beautiful for the Red Sox. With Schilling leading the charge, the Red Sox forced a Game 7.

And Millar had already said that anyone could win Game 7. “Anyone” wound up being pitching on two days’ rest, and doing it masterfully. Not bad for someone who had been demoted to the bullpen at the start of the postseason.

Damon took care of the rest, belting a grand slam and a two-run homer to end his series-long slump. The Red Sox romped, 10-3, becoming the first -- and still only -- team in history to come back from a 3-0 deficit in the postseason.

The sting of 2003 had turned into the sweetest feeling imaginable as the Red Sox again cried at Yankee Stadium -- but this time the tears were of joy.

“It was pure elation, and this odd sense that we couldn’t believe what we had just done but we also knew we were going to do it -- if that makes any sense,” Epstein said. “One year earlier in that same clubhouse, you could hear a pin drop. Now, you couldn’t hear anything the celebration was so loud.”

Beating Finland

It was on to the World Series against a Cardinals team that had been loaded enough to go 105-57 during the regular season. It didn’t matter whom the Red Sox were playing, though. At that time, the momentum of what they had just done against the Yankees was overpowering.

As Epstein aptly put it at the time, “Time to play Finland.” He was referring to the legendary 1980 Team USA hockey squad that shocked Russia in the semifinals of the Olympics and then beat Finland to win the gold medal.

The first World Series game at Fenway Park was close, thanks in large part to one disaster-filled inning by Ramirez in left field. But Bellhorn snapped a 9-9 tie with a homer that clanged off the foul pole in the bottom of the eighth, and the Red Sox won.

Game 2 was the bloody sock sequel, and Schilling again came up aces.

Martinez dominated in the first World Series start of his career in Game 3. Ramirez, en route to World Series MVP, belted a titanic homer and threw out Larry Walker at the plate. Just like that, the Red Sox were up, 3-0 in the World Series.

Game 4 marked the first time a World Series game was played under a lunar eclipse. But the Red Sox winning it all seemed even more rare.

And that’s what they did, led by the same Damon (leadoff homer) and Lowe (seven shutout innings) combo that had extinguished the Yankees one week earlier. The Red Sox didn’t trail at any point of the 2004 World Series.

For the first time in 86 years, the Red Sox were champions.

The parade was one for the ages.

“I saw this guy jumping off the bridge in Charles River, into frozen water,” Martinez said. “Someone dropped a ball and hit me straight in the forehead, boom. I had such a headache. Oh man. It was worth it though. It has continued on. Every time I come in, people receive me like it’s just another day for the parade.”

There have been three more parades -- in 2007, ’13 and ’18. But it all started with ’04, a season that will never be forgotten.