Vivid 10-year-old memories flooded Fenway Park on Wednesday, the reunion of the 2004 Red Sox championship team conjuring thoughts of games and moments within games that still seemed as if they just ended. Yet the coming together of the diaspora of former Red Sox -- from Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon and Derek Lowe to Cesar Crespo and Jimmy Anderson and Phil Seibel -- also offered a reminder relevant to their current Red Sox brethren.
The construction of a championship roster is akin to a game of Jenga. More often than not, by the time a title is secured, the pieces of that roster fit together perfectly, constructing something surprising, magnificent.
But the Year After represents a challenge to that construction. A seemingly stable structure has a few pieces removed and replaced. Sometimes, the net result is a stronger, taller product. And sometimes, the whole thing collapses into a big mess. No one, of course, willingly pulls the piece that topples the whole thing, but the problem is that it's anything but obvious which part (or parts) will prompt the collapse of a seemingly sturdy structure.
Invariably, championship rosters change. After the 2004 title, the Sox let a number of key free agents walk -- Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Orlando Cabrera -- and the resulting roster moves (with the likes of Matt Clement, David Wells, Wade Miller and Edgar Renteria) simply didn't come together in the same fashion, particularly given some of the challenges that players had in trying to live up to their 2004 performances.
Curt Schilling's season was wrecked by the long, hard road to recover from the trauma he willingly inflicted on his ankle to pitch in October. Keith Foulke was likewise ruined by injury, perhaps the result of the postseason workload he endured in 2004. Mark Bellhorn went from a revelation to a bust who was released mid-year.
In retrospect, it was remarkable that after a somewhat sideways journey through the first two months of 2005 (the Sox were 31-27, four games back in the division, in early June), the team managed to find enough duct tape to win 95 games and reach the playoffs (where they were summarily dispatched in three games by the White Sox). That '05 team was simply ... different.
"It was definitely a season of a grind. Any time you go that deep in the postseason, it's doubly difficult being on top heading into the next year," said Jason Varitek. "That team found a way to grind through it and get ourselves an opportunity to get into the playoffs. We were just a little bit beat up and not quite as good."
"It fits but it doesn't run right, you know what I mean? The cogs line up but they don't run smoothly. You need the extra oil in there to get it to really run smoothly. That's what's so special about some of those World Series teams. They just meshed at the right time," said Tim Wakefield. "Obviously it didn't work. It's kind of tough to do that. That's what I think made it so special in '04. The core group of us had played together for five, six, seven years. When you take that away in '05, it's not the same. You try to replace that, but ..."
In both instances, the offseasons after the championships were guided in no small part by an eye to the future. The free agent exodus that followed 2004 permitted the Sox to land a boatload of draft picks that helped lay the foundation for future championships thanks to the drafting of Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz. This offseason, the Sox again secured an extra pick (for the departed Ellsbury) while also affording everyday opportunities to Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks and Jackie Bradley Jr. (with a wide-open lane for Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart in the coming seasons).
It may well be that this period of struggles for the Red Sox represents a building block for more future success -- perhaps in 2014, perhaps in a subsequent year. But right now, just as proved the case for the '04-'05 Red Sox, the transition from 2013 to 2014 has often felt like it was delivered with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel.
"I'm a firm believer that you kind of ride your horses till your horses can't really perform, but also I think it's hard for management, too. I think they also saw a different model they went for in the 2013 team and it worked. I think maybe they went for that model again and it hasn't worked yet this season. Maybe it turns around," said Kevin Youkilis. "But Jacoby's one heck of a player. You're not going to be able to replace Jacoby. You hope you do. ... But you can't replace him as a player. You can't replace certain guys. You hope guys come in and fill certain roles to make the team better overall."
There's a lesson to be drawn from the aftermath of both the 2004 and 2013 teams, something that permits an even greater appreciation of both championship runs. There is typically something extraordinary about the achievement of a title, in which player after player performs up to -- and sometimes beyond -- his career track record. In that setting, the sum becomes larger than the parts to achieve something that, a decade later, is worthy of celebration, a party that reunites all the participants. (It's not hard to imagine a pretty good party at Fenway in about 2023, for which Jonny Gomes will show up in a combat helmet.)
But the new year brings changes that in turn opens up roster holes that in turn beget other holes -- players shifting in lineups, pitchers changing roles ("Didn't [Curt Schilling] try to be the closer that year? That didn't work too well," mused Wakefield) like some sort of shell game in an effort to cover deficiencies but in the process, simply creating more.
The stable ground that characterized a march to greatness thus becomes uncertain until ... Jenga. One false move can topple everything.
"I'm not stunned [by the 2014 team's struggles]," said Wakefield. "[Daniel] Nava got sent down this year. He didn't perform the way he did last year. Or Will Middlebrooks isn't having the year that he was expected to have. You lose a key free agent in [Jacoby] Ellsbury. It's like '05 -- same scenario. It's tough to replace that. Now you're relying on younger kids to fill those shoes. You talk about the bottom third of the lineup now, it's tough. You're asking Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts to be five-year veterans. It just doesn't work that way. That's the difference that I really see. It just takes time. There's got to be patience."
Yet the patience can only last for so long before yielding to urgency. Despite the fact that the Red Sox -- even with their first three-game winning streak of the season -- are now 23-29, eight games out of first place in the American League East, five games back of the second wild card spot, there is a sense that the season hasn't reached a point of no return.
"I believe this team here right now is still good, is still going to have a chance," said Varitek, who is now a member of the Red Sox front office. "You just have to concentrate on the short term instead of the big long term. They're starting to do that, but they need health."
Perhaps the Red Sox are just now starting to find themselves as a team, with players like Bradley and A.J. Pierzynski and holdovers like Gomes just now finding ways to mesh their talents in a way that can start yielding victories that come more steadily than they have to date. That, at least, is the hope of a 2014 Red Sox team that has thus far offered a familiar object lesson in the turbulence that often accompanies turning one championship-caliber team into another.
"We believe we're a better team than what we've shown and the last three days we've played a little better. But we've got a long way to go and we've got to continue to play like this because there's still a lot of ground to make up," said Pierzynski. "There's still over 100 games left so it's not insurmountable. I know I've seen teams fight their ways out of this before, but we still believe in this clubhouse and locker room, so that's all you can really do -- go out and play and see what happens."