The 2005 Boston Red Sox Deserve A Better Legacy

The 2005 Boston Red Sox aren’t among the most renowned of the franchise’s recent ascendancy. They didn’t win a World Series, as happened in 2004, 2007 and 2013. They didn’t suffer a gutwrenching loss like in 2003 or endure a major collapse like in 2011. But the 2005 Boston Red Sox were a special team, one that overachieved and deserves a better legacy than the one they have.

Late 1980s Boston Red Sox

When the 2004 season completed, the Red Sox had ended their 86-year drought without a World Series title and stood toe-to-toe with the New York Yankees. Over the previous two seasons, the two rivals had met in the American League Championship Series each year and each team had a seven-game win. They stood as evenly matched as one could imagine.

The offseason between 2004 and 2005 was not kind to Boston. Pedro Martinez, the staff’s #2 starter behind Curt Schilling, departed via free agency. Schilling himself was hurt much of the year and inconsistent when he did pitch, the fallout from his epic “bloody sock” game in Yankee Stadium the previous October. Boston’s closer Keith Foulke fell apart physically. And New York strengthened themselves in free agency with the addition of lefthander Randy Johnson, a four-time Cy Young Award winner.

Any one of these changes should have been enough to tip the balance of power in a close rivalry. Taken together, they should have created a seismic shift in New York’s favor. But that’s not what happened.

The Red Sox crushed the baseball from the start of the season to the end. Eight of the nine lineup positions had players finish with an on-base percentage over .350. The one that didn’t, second base, was filled by August acquisition Tony Graffanino, who promptly hit .319 for the last month-plus.

Johnny Damon had a stellar first half, though injuries slowed him up after the All-Star break. Jason Varitek hit 22 home runs. Bill Mueller had a .369 on-base percentage, while Trot Nixon was at .357. Kevin Millar and John Olerud were a productive first-base platoon, churning out on-base percentage.

All of that in of itself would have given Boston a nice offense. But that was only where it began. The duo of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz were at their peak working together in the middle of the lineup. Manny hit 45 home runs and drove in 144 runs. Ortiz launched 47 bombs and drove in 148 runs. The numbers were astonishing and they covered for a problematic pitching staff.

No Boston starter had an ERA below 4—Tim Wakefield’s 16-12 record with a 4.15 ERA marked him the staff ace this season. Matt Clement started the year strong, but fell apart after the All-Star break. Bronson Arroyo was up and down. David Wells, their former nemesis when was with New York, pitched well down the stretch, but still had a 4.45 ERA for the year.

Schilling fought with everything he had, an even volunteered for work as the closer when bullpen depth founded, he just never found the consistency, unable to string together consecutive strong starts. It was as though his body wouldn’t allow it, as he recovered from ankle surgery and he finished the year 8-8 with a 5.69 ERA.

It added up to a team that led the league in runs scored, but was 11th in ERA. Nonetheless, they hung in with the Yankees, who never put their own pitching together. Boston took first place from the fast-starting but slow-finishing Baltimore Orioles on June 24 and led the AL East by as many as five and a half games on August 10.

By September 21 though, New York pulled even after Boston dropped two of three in lowly Tampa Bay. The Red Sox trailed the Yankees by one game when the two teams got together at Fenway Park for the final three-game set of the season.

There was more than AL East bragging rights on the line. There was playoff survival. The Cleveland Indians were tied with Boston at 93-66 for the lone wild-card spot, and that meant the Yankees were far from home free at 94-65. Cleveland would be hosting the Chicago White Sox, who had the best record in baseball.

1970s Red Sox

Wells pitched Friday night’s opener and gave seven strong innings. Boston led 2-1 in the sixth, when Damon singled and stole second. Walks to Ramirez and Ortiz set up a bases-loaded walk, an error and a sac fly that brought home three runs. Boston won 5-3, pulled even in the AL East and took a one-game lead on Cleveland, who lost.

It was on Saturday that things turned bizarre. Cleveland lost, and that meant the Boston-New York winner would clinch a playoff berth. That’s not the bizarre part. The Yankees led the head-to-head series with the Red Sox 9-8 coming into Saturday, meaning that a victory could clinch the season series, which was the tiebreaker.

Thus, when New York won 8-4, they clinched the AL East. The scene at Fenway Park was surreal. Fans and players were geared up for a best-of-three (including the provision for a Monday playoff in New York if necessary) to settle the division. Yankee players had to be informed that they clinched the division. Red Sox players wondered why the bubbly was broken out.

Boston still had to clinch its playoff spot and they did so easily on Sunday. Schilling pitched six strong innings and Ramirez helped break the game open in the fourth with a massive three-run home run to centerfield. The Red Sox won 10-1 and broke out their own champagne.

Thus, one of sport’s greatest rivalries, which was then at its peak, ended not with a showdown, but with both teams celebrating on back-to-back days, each finishing with 95-67 records. The Yankees “won” the AL East, not by a Bucky Dent-like moment, as happened in 1978, but by the vagaries of a tiebreaker system, as though this were the NFL.

Both teams would lose in the Division Series—the White Sox were an outstanding team and swept the Red Sox en route to a World Series title. The Yankees lost to the fundamentally sound and well-drilled Los Angeles Angels.

My question is this—why are the 2005 Boston Red Sox not honored as co-champions of the American League East, with an attendant banner on Yawkey Way. In 2001, when the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros tied in the NL Central, the Cardinals hung a division championship banner even though they had to play as the lower seed in the playoffs. If we criss-cross sports, college football honors co-championships even when a tiebreaker necessitates choosing one of the teams for a bowl spot.

The counter-argument is that MLB is more akin to the NFL, where no one who loses a tiebreaker is ever considered a co-champ. The answer to that is this—the NFL is willing to live and die on its tiebreakers. Even if no wild-card is coming out of a division, the league is willing to let teams be eliminated on tiebreakers. MLB is not. If Cleveland would have won three in a row and played their way into a playoff spot, the Yankees and Red Sox would have played a one-game playoff to settle the division title. If the tiebreaker system is so sacrosanct, why would this be the case?

Furthermore, when MLB finally changed the playoff system in 2012, to put a second wild-card team in the playoffs and make the two non-division winners play a one-game playoff, they also revised the tiebreaker system. If this system had been in place in 2005, the Red Sox and Yankees would have each clinched playoff spots, but they would have still played an extra game to decide who won the AL East and who would have to play Cleveland in the wild-card game.

All that adds up to why to the 2005 Boston Red Sox deserve recognition as co-champs of the AL East and a banner outside their home park. Why does this matter? Because legacies matter. If they don’t, let’s padlock the doors to Cooperstown.

The legacy of the 2005 Boston Red Sox is that of overachievement, and yes…of a division title. Let’s give them their due.