In the bad old days, the Boston Red Sox were good for a catastrophe every decade or so: Bucky Dent. Bill Buckner. Pesky holding the ball. Grady leaving the mound. The Curse of the Bambino.
For 86 years, the Red Sox struggled to win but had no trouble finding new ways to lose, a streak many thought was over when the franchise won it all in 2004. With this year's unprecedented September collapse, though, the Red Sox have written a new chapter of tragic lore for a generation of fans too young to remember the flops of the past.
"This is one for the ages, isn't it?" general manager Theo Epstein said moments after the collapse was complete. David Ortiz agreed: "It's going to stay in a lot of people's minds for a while."
Almost a month after they squandered the remnants of a nine-game September lead, the Red Sox are still falling apart and the city is still wallowing in its grief like it did before two World Series titles that were supposed to put an end to the notion that the franchise was jinxed.
Manager Terry Francona is gone, Epstein is on his way to the Chicago Cubs and the players are calling every radio station with an open phone line to defend themselves from reports that they grew fat on beer and fast food-fried chicken in the clubhouse rather than root on their teammates.
"To be honest, we were doing the same things all season when we had the best record in baseball," pitcher Jon Lester told the Boston Globe. "Was it a bad habit? Yes. I should have been on the bench more than I was. But we just played bad baseball as a team in September. We stunk."
The Red Sox led the AL East on Sept. 1 and had a nine-game lead over the Rays for a wild-card spot but went just 7-20 over the month to finish one game behind Tampa Bay and miss the playoffs. It was the worst September collapse in baseball history, and it brought back the memories of the classic Boston choke jobs.
All of the same old ingredients are there: The blown lead, the overpaid talent, the out-of-touch management and of course, the finger-pointing in every direction because, in Boston, the answer is never a bad pitch or a misplayed fly when the second-guessers on talk radio can spend an extra month arguing about who ordered the Cajun fries.
This time, much of the blame is focused on Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Lester. But it's not because they were part of a starting rotation that went 4-13 with a 7.08 ERA in September.
Instead, it's because of a report in the Globe that the three starters would spend their off-nights in the clubhouse eating fried chicken and drinking beer. The players and management denied a separate TV report that the pitchers also drank beer in the dugout.
"Enough is enough," Beckett said in a statement released by the team after the reports that the beer-swilling also took place in the dugout during games. "I admit that I made mistakes along the way this season, but this has gone too far."
The Globe also quoted anonymous sources saying the club grew concerned that Francona was "distracted" — perhaps because was living in a hotel, separated from his wife, or perhaps because he was taking painkillers to deal with multiple operations on his knee. Francona said his personal life did not affect his performance.
"I wasn't terribly successful this year," he told the paper, "but I worked harder and spent more time at the ballpark this year than I ever did."
Nor was management spared by the 2,500-word front-page article: Epstein's big-ticket free agent signings hadn't worked out — with Lackey the biggest bust -- while ownership tried to buy the players' loyalty with US$300 headphones and a party on John Henry's yacht, "Iroquois."
(In a separate article, the owner of the nearby Popeye's franchise said fans have also blamed him for the collapse. Owner Jon Stilianos told the paper that he also served players on the opposing team but noted that the Red Sox players "really liked the corn on the cob.")
Red Sox players have defended their behaviour, saying it was no different down the stretch than it was over the 4 1/2 months that preceded it, when the team went 81-43 to take over the lead of the AL East. Plus, they say, the 2004 team was lauded for a frat-house culture that helped it win the franchise's first World Series since 1918.
But comparing this year's team to the 2004 "idiots" is like comparing the Deltas of Animal House to their stuck-up rivals at Omega Theta Pi: One was an irrepressible band of misfits; the others went off to their private little clubhouse while the pledges struggled to keep the team afloat in the pennant race.
In fact, Kevin Millar was criticized when he revealed after the 2004 Series that the team took mini-shots of Jack Daniels to get psyched up during the playoff series against the Yankees. Even so, that was a bonding ritual; Beckett, Lackey and Lester seemed instead to be isolating themselves from their teammates with their beer and fried-chicken playdates.
This year, it was 25 ballplayers, 25 cabernets.
Francona said at his exit interview with reporters that he knew something was wrong even before the collapse was in full bloom and, in retrospect, he was right. It was still only May when Lackey blurted out, after another terrible start, "Everything in my life sucks right now, to be honest with you."
And it was there in September, when Beckett snapped at a radio reporter after a slump-snapping win over the hard-charging Rays — that's right, a win — and said, "It's just a game."
"Yeah, we need to win," Beckett said, "but it's not the most important thing going on in my life. Maybe to some people, but not for me."
The Red Sox started the season 0-6 and 2-10, but after a 14-0 victory over Toronto on Sept. 6 they had an eight-game lead over Tampa Bay in the wild-card race. Still, Francona sensed that they weren't focused on winning, and he called a team meeting.
It didn't work.
They lost their next five games — winning just five times total the rest of the month — as they coughed up the wild-card lead and failed to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
In most cities, that would be the end of it.
Not in Boston.
Francona's contract option was not picked up — it's still not clear if he quit or was fired — even as the team insisted he was not to blame for the collapse. Henry, who missed the news conference because he slipped on the stairs of his yacht and hit his head, later crashed a radio show to deny the widespread assumption that the team was smearing Francona on his way out the door.
Pitching coach Curt Young was allowed to take the same job with the Oakland Athletics, and other coaches are waiting for GM-in-waiting Ben Cherington to settle in so he can pick a manager to replace Francona. Cherington will also have to decide what to do with free agents like captain Jason Varitek and closer Jonathan Papelbon, while trying to unload Lackey, who was 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA in the second year of a five-year, $82.5 million deal.
Designated hitter David Ortiz, a hero of the '04 championship, one of the most popular players on the team and still a productive hitter at the age of 36, caused a stir when he said he would consider playing for the Yankees next year. "I don't know if I want to be part of this drama for next year," he told ESPN.
But after picking up the Roberto Clemente Award at the World Series this week, he backed down from the comments that he would play for the rival Yankees — the most incendiary a Red Sox player can utter.
"Of course, I would like to come back," he said in St. Louis before Game 2 of the Series. "They have a lot of things going on right now. So once they go through all the stuff, GM and managing things, I think they're going to start talking to the players.
"So, we'll see. We've got time."