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Monday, February 27, 2006
Red Sox look, sound much different in 2006

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Beeeeeeep.

Miles away from the spring headquarters of Red Sox Nation, the former King of the Idiots was conducting his 73rd interview of the day on Sunday when his cell phone began to shake.

Beeeeeep.

Stark: Things are a lot quieter this spring, and that's not such a bad thing.

"Look at this," said Johnny Damon, breaking into a long, how-perfect-is-this kind of laugh. "It's Kevin Millar."

Well, it was a text message from Millar, anyway. And, according to Damon, here's the best translation of that message we can pass along:

"There's nothing quite like our clubhouse in Boston."

It's funny how nobody notices that like the men who don't get to hang out in that clubhouse anymore. And there sure are lots of famous ex-Idiots who fit that description. You might have heard something about that.

Damon is a Yankee now. Millar is an Oriole. Bill Mueller is a Dodger. Doug Mirabelli is a Padre. Mike Myers is a Yankee. And ... well, you're catching on.

Just 16 months after the final out of the 2004 World Series landed in Doug Mientkiewicz's glove, only 10 Red Sox remain who played in that World Series.

And the Red Sox who have assembled this spring in balmy Fort Myers could not feel or look more different if they played on ice skates and took batting practice with curling brooms.

For one thing, you're no longer in any significant danger of having an eardrum shatter just from being around them. No more Millar, ragging on his main man Manny. No more Damon and his legion of shrieking admirers. No more authors and poets and documentary crews like the ones that once descended on those curse-demolishing Idiots.

It's almost as if someone pointed a clicker at the 2006 Red Sox and turned down the volume.

"Yeah, it's definitely not as loud," said pitcher Matt Clement. "But I expected that."

The Red Sox enter spring training with with an entirely new look.

Somehow, though, there is something different about the new Red Sox that you can't measure with a decibel meter. What this feels like, finally, is The End of the Idiocy.

"The Idiots ... that's gone," said Damon, peering back at the universe he just left from the scenic overlook of this strange new solar system he has just entered. "That carefree attitude -- it's gone. And it's a shame."

A shame. Those were his words. But is it really a shame? We're not so sure.

If you're Johnny Damon, if you're Kevin Millar, if you're a baseball player who misses what you had, if you're a fan of a team you'll never forget, it is in fact a shame. A shame that time can't stop. A shame that there's no way to freeze the magic.

But even if you are one of those people, it's also something else:

Reality.

In life and in sports -- especially in sports -- no one gets to stop the planet from spinning. Not even teams that win a World Series that zaps 87 years worth of ghosts.

Yet many people tried to stop it anyhow. And that was, in many ways, the theme of the 2005 Red Sox.

Historians will tell us they spent last year playing a whole new season. But for the people who worshipped them, and even for many of the people wearing their uniform, 2005 felt more like a six-month episode of "2004 -- The Next Chapter."

"It really did," said Curt Schilling. "It was like having a second bachelor party."

The Idiots ... that's gone. That carefree attitude -- it's gone. And it's a shame.
Johnny Damon

That play-an-encore dynamic isn't supposed to happen in sports. But it did. Not everyone in that Red Sox clubhouse understood that. But Schilling, a one-time member of another beloved World Series team (the 1993 Phillies), knew exactly why it did.

"There's an afterglow that hangs around," he said. "And rightly so. What this team did was special. How many times do you see things happen in sports that aren't supposed to -- where you say, 'No way that can happen,' and then it does? That's what this team did [when it won that World Series].

"We created memories that millions of people will remember forever. How many people walked around asking, 'Where were you when Mientkiewicz caught the ball?'"

It's only human nature to plant your feet and try to hang onto the moments that make you happiest. But for the men who run the Red Sox, the greatest moment of their careers also led to the most complicated offseason of their careers.

How, after all, do you explain the concept of turning the page to customers who want to bookmark that page for the next 11 centuries?

"What happens," said assistant GM Jed Hoyer, "is you don't want to change the mix just to change it. But you also don't want, for sentimental reasons, to stick with the same mix and have your team get old. It's a very fine balance."

And the Red Sox walked both sides of that high wire. On one hand, they wound up bringing back their entire starting lineup, except at shortstop (where they substituted Edgar Renteria for Orlando Cabrera). But the sheer force of free agency did force them to shake up their pitching staff, particularly the part when they waved goodbye to somebody named Pedro.

Nevertheless, because of the weight of what they'd accomplished and the raging popularity of the players who had made it possible, they undoubtedly made fewer changes than they ordinarily would have.

How, after all, could they break up The Idiots?

So it wasn't until October 2005 -- when the White Sox swept them in the AL Division Series, and the World Series party finally ended, and those lights finally went up -- that it officially became time to close the door and begin the journey into The Rest of Their Lives.

Now that that door has closed, though, how you view it depends on which side of the foyer you wound up on.

As Damon watched Bernie Williams stroll past him in his new home, he observed, pointedly: "If you do well here, they're going to keep you here."

But in Boston, he said, "They let you walk when it's time to walk. Look at Pedro. There's no reason he shouldn't have been back there. His situation was similar to mine, I think."

And by that, he clearly wasn't just referring to the fact they both hopped on the "Hit the Lotto Shuttle" to New York. But to the men who had to make that call, this was as much a business decision as it was a gaze-over-the-horizon juggling act.

"You have to find a balance," Hoyer said, "between hanging onto a guy who helped you win the World Series and setting up the Red Sox to have success in the future. ... Decisions have to be made. We have a budget. And we have to make decisions about 2008 and 2009, not just about 2006. If you always make decisions for the short term, the long term won't be pretty."

So the Red Sox made the painful choice not to match the extra $3 million per year the Yankees were offering Damon, as beloved as he was. It was a decision that could well transform both franchises -- because Damon just might be that pivotal a figure.

How Damon puts his stamp on the Yankees will be one of the most riveting stories of 2006 (and beyond). We'll let Bob Klapisch contemplate that one. But it took no more than, oh, 4.7 seconds this spring to feel the aftershocks of Damon's absence on the Red Sox.

Watching the Red Sox take the field without him this spring could not have felt more strange. It felt like it once felt to watch "The Tonight Show" without Johnny Carson -- because Damon was more than just the face of the Red Sox. He was the voice of the Red Sox. Not to mention the hair of the Red Sox.

When he arrived in Boston in 2002, "playing baseball for the Red Sox was just looked at as a job," Damon said. "But [as guys like he, Millar, Mueller and others came aboard] that instantly changed. ... [We were] guys who acted like playing baseball was supposed to be fun.

"The Red Sox have always had their fans, and they're always going to have their fans," Damon said. "But we were able to make fans in other parts of the country. People always used to look at baseball players and say, 'Why don't they enjoy their job?' We let people know we liked what we were doing."

Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter
Johnny Damon, right, has adopted a brand new look now that he's a Yankee.
Which made for great lovability -- and quotability. But now that so many of their most notable fun-seekers have moved on, there's a bigger question to ponder:

What does re-enacting the movie "Major League" every night have to do with winning? Just because the Red Sox didn't put together a 2006 team that Comedy Central can love, why should that have anything to do with how we now evaluate them as a baseball team?

"We have a lot of different people, [but] that's not bad," manager Terry Francona said. "We had some pretty special, unique people here who aren't here. But that doesn't mean we won't be a good team. I think we'll be a very good team. We also don't need to have imitators of the guys that were here. Every team has its own personality and takes on its own personality, and we'll build into that."

"I think there are a lot of formulas to win," said Clement. "You can line up the last 10 teams that won the World Series. They're all different. You had Boston and the way this team did it. You had the Yankees and the way they do it. You had the ['03] Marlins and their young personality. And then you had the ['05] White Sox with Ozzie [Guillen], where he was outspoken and the players weren't. And that worked, too. So obviously, there are a lot of different ways to do it."

On the other hand, there may only have been one way the 2004 Red Sox ever could have done it. And they had the perfect collection of fearless knuckleheads to believe nothing was impossible.

Asked if any other group could have climbed out of that 0-3 ALCS canyon against the Yankees, Damon replied: "No chance. No chance. No chance."

"If we weren't the way we were, we wouldn't have come back," he said. "We would have gotten swept the next night."

And Francona seconded that motion. That, he said, "was the one group of guys that had a chance."

But no sane person would put together a baseball team by trying to figure out what mix would be most capable of pulling off that Houdini act again. The idea is never to get into a mess like that in the first place.

So we need to recognize all of the forces that have converged to bring this team to this moment -- to a whole new look, new feel, new ambiance. The time had come to thank that group for the memories and sprinkle in some new ingredients. That time is now.

"What happened to us happens to every champion," reliever Mike Timlin said. "We've seen it in basketball. We've seen it in football. We've seen it in boxing. You see it in every sport. Every champion tends to not necessarily relax, but I think maybe you win and you feel like you can take a deep breath."

The occupants of that Red Sox clubhouse last year now say they were aware that the team around them heaved that deep breath and never recaptured the same sense of urgency. What they saw, they say, was a team that needed to change its mix.

"When I was in Toronto and we won back-to-back [World Series] in 1992-93, our team changed," Timlin said. "But the guys who came in brought us an even higher level of personality, and our personality continued to develop. Change is part of baseball. It's part of any business. If you don't change, you're stagnant -- and that's not good."

So what we have here is a team that finally can chase greatness on its own terms. Unencumbered by curses. But also no longer tangled up in the afterglow of the team that annihilated those curses.

For once, could the Red Sox actually be (gasp) normal?

"Now," Timlin said, "we get to finally go, 'OK, the euphoria is gone. We did win, and we're very happy about that. But now we need to develop a new feel and do it again.' So don't talk now about what we did. It's time to talk about what we can do."

It's too soon, though, to know yet what they can do. We know Coco Crisp isn't Damon, and Josh Beckett isn't Pedro, and J.T. Snow barely even belongs to the same species as Millar. But there's enough talent to win 100 games -- if everything goes right. And there are enough questions for this team to finish third -- if nothing goes right.

They won't lead the league in hair. Or punch lines. But they seem more interested in leading the league in something slightly more important, anyway.

They may not be The Idiots anymore. But sooner or later, we'll all figure out something to call them.

"In eight months," said Schilling, "I hope they'll be calling us 'Champions.' "

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.