Make no mistake. This is not 2004.
This is no scruffy, scrappy team of underdogs, shrugging off decades of heartbreak to become the lovable darlings of the baseball world as they swept to a World Championship. After all, you can only break an 86-year string of misery once every 86 years.
The 2007 version of the Boston Red Sox -- with just 28 percent of the team held over from three years ago -- may be scrappy, and they might be a tad scruffy, but they're not underdogs. Not with that payroll, not with that record, and most certainly not with that air of confidence we saw on display the last three games.
And perhaps because this is not 2004, the Sox' seven-game dispatch of the Cleveland Indians to become American League champions for the 12th time was much more enjoyable. There was no first-time-ever comeback to produce, as if by magic, from the lips of Kevin Millar and the bat of David Ortiz. No back-to-back record-setting extra-inning games that left a nation of fans weary and exhausted before Curt Schilling ever took the mound on an ankle held together by sutures.
No, none of that. There was a comeback, of course -- a fitting way to dismiss the critics once and for all who had criticized this club for not coming back enough during the regular season. But instead of a motley collection of irreverant adults who maybe hadn't quite realized their respective ages yet, this club has been infused with a dose of workmanlike professionalism, perhaps borne solely from the feeling that the Boston Red Sox have indeed been here before -- and succeeded.
Consider that no team has ever come back from a 3-1 or worse deficit in a best-of-seven series more than once in baseball history. The Boston Red Sox have done it now three times -- and twice in four years. In the clubhouse, an old hand in Jason Varitek and a new face in Mike Lowell kept the club on an even keel. On the field, the heroes were many -- from Curt Schilling's Game 6 mastery when we had just begun to doubt his postseason abilities to J.D. Drew's series-changing grand slam in that same game long after nearly everyone had given up hope on him. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis turned it on for the final three games, providing the spark after David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez began to return to earth.
It all starts and ends, of course, with Josh Beckett, who outpitched Cy Young rival C.C. Sabathia twice and took home the series MVP. He was masterful, he was dominant. He has provided a postseason thus far unseen in the annals of Red Sox history. His Game 5 silencing of the Cleveland bats brought the series to Boston, where Fenway's crowds might yet convince sabermetricians that homefield advantage can indeed be a valuable tool.
The Sox were not nearly as close to elimination this year as they were in 2004 -- when they were three outs away against the greatest closer in the history of the sport. Down three games to one in 2007, the Sox trailed 1-0 in the top of the first in Game 5. It was the last time all series they would face a deficit on the scoreboard.
Perhaps the biggest change is simply the attitude among Boston's ever-expanding fanbase. I think that's something to regret. Three years ago, a World Series title was an elusive dream. Now it's a realistic expectation. The innocence, the unblemished joy is gone, replaced by the knowledge that the unreachable is no longer so.
Yet who would rather it be different?
More games must still be played. There is time yet to dissect the Colorado Rockies. For now, the Boston Red Sox are simply American League champions. Just like -- yet so different from -- three years ago.