Boston Red Sox: Team Of The DecadeS

Will Leitch will be previewing/musing on every baseball team each weekday until the start of the season. You can pre-order his book and follow him on Twitter. Today: The Boston Red Sox.

Before last year's playoffs, there was a bit of casual discussion about whether or not the 2009 postseason would decide who the supposed "team of the decade" would be. This was bewildering to me. No matter who ended up winning — and the Yankees' tied the Red Sox's number of decade titles — it seems pretty clear that the aughts were the decade of the Red Sox. Everything that happened, the entire decade, occurred in their wake.

In the past, I've talked about the Sports Nancy Grace rule: The minute a story crosses over to mainstream cable news, inspiring people who don't care about sports to start talking about sports, it becomes uninteresting and tiresome to actual sports fans. (Examples: Michael Vick, Duke lacrosse, the Olympics.) The Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 was the exception. It really did feel like the planet shifted a little bit. (The only sports story that would make the cover of Time right now I can think of that doesn't involve an athlete murdering someone — or Buzz Bissinger writing about how dangerous football is — would be the Cubs winning the World Series. The Red Sox proved busting history can move massive product.) A Red Sox title changed how we think about championships. Obviously, championships were always the goal of any team, but the Red Sox were famous for, as Michael Lewis put it, their "undignified stagger toward the postseason." 2004 proved that the end result was always worth whatever you went through beforehand. The White Sox's title the next year was arguably just as much of an epiphany for the team's fans. But the White Sox were Barry Bonds hitting 73 only five years after Mark McGwire hit 70: We weren't ready yet for that much history again, so quickly. Plus, it was the Red Sox. The Yankees could win just as many titles and win more games, but the transformation of the Red Sox was the baseball story of the last decade. (If you think "steroids" were the baseball story of the last decade, I honestly and truly feel sorry for you.)

The 2000s were a decade of sports exceptionalism, the decade of overkill, the This Is The Greatest Super Bowl Ever and This Is The Greatest Rivalry Ever. I think this is entirely due to the Red Sox and the Yankees, and what happened in 2003 and 2004. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry transmogrified into the pulsating, tentacled megamonster it has become this decade, and it changed everything. Suddenly, a World Series between the Cardinals and Tigers, two of baseball's most historic franchises, became a dull afterthought, the replacement series that existed only after the Yankees and Red Sox didn't make it. The never-ending chase for maximum ratings caused the sports networks to ignore any team west of the northeast corridor. The Yankees-Red Sox holy war, the two richest teams desperate to outdo the other, raised baseball salaries to unimaginable levels. The Yankees and Red Sox have dwarfed everything else in baseball over the last 10 years, and none of us has been able to escape it. It is not humble and welcoming. It is loud and exclusionary. It is AROD AND JETER VERSUS PAPI AND MANNY TONIGHT ON FOXXXXXXX!!!!! This is the direction the Red Sox title pushed baseball. It was inevitable. I do not blame them for it.

At the beginning of the last decade, the Red Sox outfield consisted of Troy O'Leary, Carl Everett and Trot Nixon, and the first baseman was Brian Daubach. Today, the Red Sox go about three guys deep at every position, leaving nothing to chance. (The Red Sox are so deep, you expect them to attempt a line change in the fourth inning.) They are an enterprise now. They manufacture championships, even when they don't. No longer is the torture and pain around. In 2000, they were Daniel Plainview, ravaging the land for oil, breaking his leg, striving, failing, hungry. In 2010, they are Daniel Plainview, alone in their castle, lost from who he once was but still searching ... but just searching in a massive mansion with a bowling alley. The Red Sox are who they always were. They just have a bigger house now. The Red Sox traded up.

One suspects the fans, the true fans, would have it no other way. The Red Sox turned into what their most diehard fans wanted them to be all along: A simple dominant team unencumbered by history, megalomania over misery. I'd make that trade. Wouldn't you?

Small sections of this essay were taken from a Newsweek essay I wrote a few months ago. I'm pretty much trying to make the same point. Forgive me.