2003 was Theo Epstein’s first year as general manager, and he really hit a home run with the pieces he put together. He picked up a new third baseman in Bill Mueller, who won the batting crown in his first year for the Red Sox. He secured a new second baseman in Todd Walker. He picked up pitcher Bronson Arroyo off waivers from the Pirates, and signed veteran reliever Mike Timlin to the team. He ruffled a few feathers in the process but kept Kevin Millar from going to the Chunichi Dragons Japan, and brought him to Fenway instead. And on December 16, 2002, he noticed something that no other team’s baseball operations people seemed to: a relatively obscure hitter named David Ortiz was released outright by the Minnesota Twins. Epstein was looking for someone to back up Jeremy Giambi at first base and DH at times. The investment was only $1.25 million, but he’d acquired a more powerful bat than he probably expected – someone whose home run totals climbed and climbed every year from 2000 through 2006, setting a Red Sox team record in 2006. And Theo did all this before Opening Day of 2003. The Red Sox planned to use a “closer by committee” rather than one gunslinger of a closer, but – despite its logic - that plan sputtered early after a few disappointing outings. The Sox were nonetheless 6-4 before the home opener – when Pedro gave up an embarrassing 10 runs to the Orioles and lost, 13-6. Fans watching from the brand-new, and highly coveted, Green Monster Seats atop the left-field wall were pleased to see the Sox win the next seven games – their longest winning streak of the season. The crowds began to come out, and a sold-out Fenway Park on May 15 saw Pedro hold the Rangers scoreless through six and his teammates pulverize Texas, 12-3. From that date forward through the end of the 2010 season (and as of this writing), Fenway Park has been packed out – by far the longest streak of sold-out games in baseball history. Given how the season played out, and 2004 as well, it’s remarkable to note that as of June 9, although they were holding onto first place, only one team in the majors had a worse earned run average, and the Boston Globe wrote that the Sox were “on pace to post the worst ERA in franchise history” with a 5.26 mark. The offense was making the difference. But on June 9, they Red Sox hired Dave Wallace as their full-time pitching coach and that started to turn things around. The offense didn’t need any turnaround. On June 27, the Sox scored 10 runs before they even made their first out, and scored a total of 14 runs in the bottom of the first inning against the team that would go on to win the 2003 World Series, the Florida Marlins. Boston saw every one of its first 10 batters reach base, and before the inning was done, Johnny Damon had already tied a major-league mark held by Boston’s Gene Stephens since 1953: he had three hits in one inning (and was primed for a cycle he didn’t attain – Damon singled, doubled, and tripled all in the one frame). On the Fourth of July, Boston hit seven home runs against the Yankees and won, 10-3. Then the next day David Ortiz hit two off New York’s Roger Clemens, and Boston won again, 10-2. The team banged out a club-record 238 home runs by year’s end – 37 of them off the bat of Manny Ramirez (who drove in 104) and 31 off Ortiz’s bat (he drove in 101). Nomar Garciaparra’s 105 RBIs (helped by 28 homers) led the team. And Kevin Millar hit 25 HRs, knocking in 96. Six Sox hit 20 or more home runs. Millar’s three-run eighth-inning home run over the wall on August 9 was the 10,000th home run hit in the history of Fenway Park, and won the game, 6-4. Millar said, “I'm also the guy who was the 300th guy to strike out against Randy Johnson two straight years.” Just when they needed some fresh life, Millar urged his teammates to “cowboy up!” – which became the phrase of the season, and a homemade video of Millar lipsynching and gyrating to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was played on the Diamond Vision scoreboard in center field. The Sox won six of seven, and “Rally Karaoke Guy” was born. They’d been on the road, of course, when the first in a series of annual concerts was staged at Fenway Park – on September 6 and 7, Bruce Springsteen himself, and the E Street Band, rocked two more sold-out nights. Bill Mueller’s .326 won the American League batting title. The Red Sox set the major-league mark for extra-base hits in a season, for total bases in a season, and had the highest slugging percentage of any team ever - .491 – even including the 1927 “Murderer’s Row” New York Yankees. Eight Red Sox players had 80 or more RBIs, tying a major league mark; another mark was tied when nine players had 100 or more hits. When they clinched the Wild Card at home on September 25, they went a little wild. Millar and Derek Lowe (17-7) even ran the block to Boylston Street in their cleats and uniforms and started tending bar at the Baseball Tavern. The postseason and its aftermath? That’s another story altogether.By Bill Nowlin
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- Bill Mueller, Bronson Arroyo, Dave Wallace, David Ortiz, Derek Lowe, Jeremy Giambi, Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, Manny Ramirez, Mike Timlin, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Todd Walker, Vern Stephens