BY DAVE D'ONOFRIO Special to The New Hampshire Union Leader
Boston Red Sox former catcher Carlton Fisk at a press conference before Game Six of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Fenway Park. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)
BOSTON -- HAVING delivered one of the most dramatic scenes in baseball history on its very stage, Carlton Fisk was asked by the Red Sox to participate in first-pitch ceremonies before Game 6 of the 2004 World Series.
But the Sox swept, and the game never happened.
So, when the team returned to the Fall Classic three years later, again with Game 6 slated for Fenway Park, they again slotted in their former catcher.
But the Sox swept, and the game never happened.
So, when Boston clinched the pennant again this year, part of the Charlestown, N.H., native was okay with his old club letting St. Louis stick around. “Why don’t you lose a couple of games?” he admitted to thinking — and because they obliged, he was there Wednesday night, putting on a fake beard and joining old friend Luis Tiant to kick off the occasion that 38 years earlier made Fisk a fixture of most broadcasts of postseason baseball that has aired since.
He sees it, too. He sees the ball come off his bat and sail toward the corner above the left-field wall, then he sees himself hopping down the first base line as he tries to wave the ball fair. Then he sees that it must’ve worked, as the ball clangs off the pole, giving the Red Sox a 12th-inning walkoff win to force a Game 7 against the Reds.
When he sees it, he still looks at it mechanically — and he still thinks it was a pretty good swing. He also thinks, “who was that young guy?” And part of him thinks he would’ve preferred the moment came later in his career, so he could appreciate the moment a bit more.But when he sees it come on the TV, he watches it.
“I don’t ever get tired of seeing it,” he said.
Fisk is around Fenway a fair amount these days, appearing in the Legends Suite at some home games, and follows the team regularly. Being from New Hampshire, and electing to go into baseball’s Hall of Fame wearing a Red Sox cap, he is very well familiar with the history of the franchise.
And for that reason, he said before Wednesday’s game that it’s mind-blowing to see where the success this team has had in recent years.
“It really is. It really stands out in that they’re doing it with different kinds of clubs, too,” he said, acknowledging that after a young team got to the Series in 1975, it expected to be back and came away feeling good about having battled the “Big Red Machine” — but Fisk was in Chicago before they did. “That’s something that is only up to the baseball gods whether you get back or not, and to have the Red Sox win their first in ‘04 after 80 or however many years ... then the Red Sox win again in ‘07. And then they’re going to win again in ‘13. So what a decade for this club.”
One of the more remarkable aspects of this Red Sox season has been that with the organizational reboot required after the collapse of 2011, then the plummet of 2012, this was supposed to be a bridge year. The club hoped to be competitive, but they were building to something beyond 2013. They were in transition.
As a result, several key players began the World Series knowing this might be their last chance in Boston, depending how aggressive the team chooses to be on the trade market, or in its efforts to keep together a group that has had so much success, and repeatedly reiterated how much it enjoyed playing with each other.
In that sense, it’s not dissimilar from the last Sox team to face the Cardinals in the World Series — the 2004 champs. After that squad swept St. Louis, it faced decisions on a variety of key pieces, including starting pitchers Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, catcher Jason Varitek, shortstop Orlando Cabrera, and outfielders Dave Roberts and Gabe Kapler.
Varitek was the only one in that group that the team brought back. And Lowe wasn’t the least bit surprised.
“When you play in this city, all you have to do is listen to WEEI and read the paper, and you’ll know who is coming back and who isn’t coming back,” the now-retired righty said in a visit to Fenway before Game 2. “In June or July they started talking about Johnny (Damon)’s age, and they started talking about my off-the-field stuff, and (Martinez’s) aching shoulder, and they never said anything about Varitek.”
There was little sentimentality in those decisions made by Theo Epstein, and the toughest choices now facing Ben Cherington will come with those players for whom free agency awaits. That group most notably includes Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew — and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.
If Lowe’s read is right, Ellsbury will be allowed to walk, and get a payday pushing nine figures elsewhere. Napoli had a three-year agreement reduced to a one-year deal when the Sox took issue with his ailing hip last offseason, so he may be tempted to explore his options.
Saltalamacchia was one of the AL’s better offensive catchers this season, but his struggles reduced him to a backup role in the postseason. Drew, meanwhile, might be squeezed out as the Sox move forward with youth on the left side of the infield, in Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts.
The pitching staff also bears watching. Exercising a $13 million option to retain Jon Lester is a no-brainer, but with six big-league starters under contract next season, and Brandon Workman, Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa pushing for a spot in the big-league rotation, the Sox may look to move one or more arms.
Lester and John Lackey could be intriguing options because both are about as valuable as they’ll be after this postseason and their respective contract situations. Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster both have deals expiring after 2014, so they’re both movable, and Felix Doubront doesn’t yet make $1 million. Any of them could conceivably be dealt, and even if they’re back, there’s a chance the crew around them could look a bit different when they arrive at Fort Myers in February.
And Lowe says that has probably made this October even better.
“There was no better way for me to leave,” said the pitcher, “than with a World Series.”
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.