The man who traded Red Sox icon Nomar Garciaparra--or, in the local dialect, just plain Nomah--is free to safely walk the streets of Boston again. All it took for general manager Theo Epstein to show his face in public was the greatest late-season run in franchise history, a 17-game stretch in which the Red Sox played so ridiculously well that after a Fenway Park security guard threw a textbook flying tackle on a field intruder last
Friday night, Boston manager Terry Francona deadpanned, "I guess all facets of our game are strong right now."
"You have to understand," Epstein says, "we were taking a lot of heat in the days after the trade. It was very unpopular. I was getting accosted on the street. So I stayed in, and then I joined the team in Tampa, just to get out of town."
The Red Sox are now the hottest property in baseball--Nomah, no less. With a 16--1 burst through Friday, Boston remade itself into a pitching-and-defense juggernaut, seized control of the American League wild-card race, picked up eight games on the shaky first-place New York Yankees (page 46) in the AL East and outdid itself in producing melodramatic script material. At week's end New York, despite possessing a 21/2-game division lead, seemed to be in first place chasing Boston. The teams have six games remaining against each other: three at Yankee Stadium the weekend of Sept. 17--19 and three the following weekend at Fenway.
The author John Cheever once said, "All literary men are Red Sox fans. To be a Yankees fan in a literate society is to endanger your life." Of course, Cheever died in 1982 at the age of 70, meaning that the final Red Sox world championship in his lifetime--and the last there is--came when he was six. Boston's quixotic quest for a title is precisely its appeal to the literary-minded. Had the drought begun a tad earlier, Aeschylus would have been a Sox fan, too. Imagine: Youkilis Unbound.
So it was that author and Sox devotee Stephen King threw out the first pitch last Saturday (the toss was, appropriately, an absolute horror) before a game against the Texas Rangers during which parts of a Farrelly brothers movie were being shot. The flick involves a guy's love for his girl and the Red Sox, not necessarily in that order.
As for the real Red Sox, you can't make this stuff up. On July 31 Boston was third in the league in batting (.280) and pitching (4.12 ERA) but was 41--40 over its previous 81 games, the equivalent of half a season. Reason: The Sox also led the league in unearned runs allowed. Garciaparra, hobbled by a sore right Achilles tendon, played a poor shortstop when he happened to be in the lineup. (He missed 63 of the Sox' first 101 games.) He also never seemed to have recovered from his angst over his conditional trade to the Chicago White Sox last winter, a swap that evaporated once the Red Sox could not finalize a deal with Texas for shortstop Alex Rodriguez.
On July 24 Red Sox front-office officials met with Garciaparra, who is eligible for free agency after this season, to see if his future in Boston could be salvaged. According to a team source the shortstop did not address the specifics of his situation but mostly complained about the Boston media.
Ownership, convinced that Garciaparra would not return to Boston, gave the green light to Epstein to trade him. Just before the July 31 trade deadline Epstein sent Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs in a complicated four-team deal. The Sox wound up with shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz--both Gold Glovers--and swift outfielder Dave Roberts. Mientkiewicz's arrival allowed Francona to get Kevin Millar off first base and into rightfield or into the batting order at DH, minimizing the harm he could do with his glove.
"The defense went from a glaring weakness to a strength," Epstein says. "And the only compromise was [losing] a little bit of offense--and we think we have plenty of that. We're still leading the league in runs."