Loose Sox

Long on hair and short on fundamentals, Boston's wild bunch is halfway to an unruly crown.

World Series

GAME 3: TODAY, 8:30 p.m., CHS. 45, 5

October 26, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - Imagine you're the 30-year-old general manager of the Boston Red Sox, and on the first day of spring training, your center fielder saunters through the door looking like a cross between Charles Manson and Yanni.

Johnny Damon's deep brown locks are drooping near his shoulders, and he's looking at you from behind a full-length beard, knowing this is your test.

Would you smile and compliment Damon for expressing his individuality? Or would you quickly grab for the scissors? Theo Epstein walked a fine line with that decision this spring, and it became a defining moment for the Red Sox, who hold a 2-0 World Series lead over the St. Louis Cardinals heading into Game 3 tonight at Busch Stadium.

Epstein had to consult with his new manager, Terry Francona, but he supported Damon and some of his longhaired teammates, with one caveat: Don't forget why you're here.

"He was kind of looking at me thinking, `Can I keep it? Can I keep it? Can I keep it?'" Epstein said. "I was like, `Yeah, you can keep it. As long as [Francona is] OK with it. As long as it doesn't get in your eyes. As long as it doesn't affect the way you play the game.'"

Months later, on the eve of Boston's playoff opener against the Anaheim Angels, Damon made it official. This team, which rallied around the phrase "Cowboy up," last year, was no longer the cowboys.

"We're the idiots," Damon said.

But who are they trying to kid?

Behind the crazy hairdos and the occasional indifference to baseball fundamentals - defense, bunting and base running - this is a truly talented team that has found a way to cope with New England's constant scrutiny.

It wasn't always this way. Damon can remember how uptight the clubhouse felt when he first arrived in 2002. He came from the Oakland Athletics, who thrived with a frat-house mentality. It took awhile for the Red Sox to follow.

Epstein added two other character pieces shortly after being named GM in November 2002, signing Kevin Millar and David Ortiz.

Of course, no one laughs when guys can't hit, but Damon, Millar and Ortiz became huge components of a potent lineup.

Millar coined "Cowboy up" last year. And the Red Sox did, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Oakland in the first round of the playoffs before dropping their seven-game heartbreaker against the New York Yankees.

As that epic series with the Yankees progressed, some of the Red Sox confided to then-manager Grady Little that the pressure to end the city's infamous World Series drought was almost too much. The Red Sox haven't won it all since 1918, and their fans have turned the quest into something approaching obsession.

This idiot mentality is their new way to cope.

"We don't think," Damon said. "If we use our brains, we're only hurting the team."

That quote may have sounded like something out of the movie Bull Durham, but Damon was serious.

In Red Sox Nation, it's easy to dwell on every mistake. But this team has made more errors (eight) through two World Series games than any other team since Ty Cobb's 1909 Detroit Tigers, and it still holds a commanding lead.

"We try to eliminate the thinking and let our natural abilities take over," Damon said. "I think that's why the phrase about the idiots kind of took off."

Francona got tested again during spring training, when pitcher Curt Schilling chartered his own plane for a road game on the other side of Florida, eschewing the four-hour bus ride. Later, Derek Lowe did the same thing.

Then, when the Red Sox lost to the Orioles on Opening Night at Camden Yards, starting pitcher Pedro Martinez left the ballpark before the game ended. Francona blamed himself for not making sure Martinez knew the rules.

As his players' hair grew longer, the on-field results were still decidedly mediocre, and Francona started taking some heat.

But on July 31, Epstein tweaked the team again, trading jaded superstar Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs in a four-team deal that brought shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. Beyond what those two former Gold Glove winners added to the defense, the team also subtracted Garciaparra's constant brooding.

People stopped calling Francona a pushover when the team finished on a 42-18 tear.

"You know, if this was Cub Scout Troop 14, I'd ask them to cut their hair," Francona said this week. "It's not. We're trying to play the best baseball we can, and I think these guys really have come together as a ballclub.

"If it's the hair thing or whatever, that's not important; it's the fact that they came together that's important."

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