AL East Champs! Sox Clinch In Unique Fashion

BOSTON—With the Yankees beating the Orioles by three runs in the ninth inning and Mariano Rivera on the mound in Baltimore late Friday, Mike Lowell figured he could joke about the possibility of the Red Sox—whose magic number to win the AL East fell to one earlier in the evening with a 5-2 win over the Twins—winning the division while sitting in street clothes in a half-empty locker room.

"I'm still gonna party," Lowell said. "I don't care what [teammates] do—they want to go home, that's their problem. [He'll] have to change [clothes] again."

When the Orioles loaded the bases with two outs, Lowell was asked what he'd do if Jay Payton hit a grand slam. "I'd probably punch all of you and douse all you guys with [champagne]," Lowell said.

As it turned out, Lowell had plenty of teammates with whom to share in the euphoria. Payton laced a three-run triple to tie the game before Melvin Mora's two-out, bases-loaded bunt single an inning later gave the Orioles a 10-9 victory that clinched the AL East for the Sox.

The Orioles' win set off a celebration as wild as it was surreal both in the stands and in the clubhouse. The several thousand fans that remained at Fenway to watch the final innings of the Yankees-Orioles game on the scoreboard roared as Tike Redman raced home with the winning run. Seconds later, the scoreboard flashed the words "Champions of the American League East" and aired live scenes of the Sox whooping it up.

Most Sox players stuck around to watch the end of the game, and many of those who didn't raced back to join the celebration. A team that has sometimes seemed suffocated by its self-seriousness had no difficulty reveling in the moment. Jonathan Papelbon, wearing only a T-shirt and a protective cup that left his rear end exposed, poured beer on owner John Henry in a clubhouse choked with the smell of champagne, beer and cigars.

"Why are you dry?" Papelbon yelled.

Later, Theo Epstein was sprayed with beer and champagne by Papelbon and Curt Schilling—the homegrown closer and the imported ace who represent the Sox' commitment to both building from within and maintaining a nine-figure payroll.

Terry Francona, the manager who seems to age a year with every defeat, smoked a cigar as he reclined in a cushy desk chair just outside his office and looked relaxed for the first time since February. He was showered with beer and champagne by Papelbon, Curt Schilling and clubhouse attendant Pookie Jackson.

"I don't think I've ever been a part of something like that," Francona said. "That was the most surreal situation, Theo and [pitching coach] John Farrell and John Henry and [chairman] Tom Werner in there. It was like a bunch of 13-year-olds. Never seen so many old men, myself included, cheer for a bunt. Getting to watch these guys do this is as gratifying as it can get."

For days, Francona and most of the Sox players dismissed questions about the possibility of winning the AL East. "If we win tomorrow, good," Francona said less than 90 minutes earlier when asked how it felt for the Sox to be in control of their own destiny.

He and the Sox didn't have to wait until today to finally tell the truth: They really, really, really wanted the AL East. The Sox, who have led the division for a team-record 164 straight days and had the largest lead of any divisional leader for most of the season's first four months, would not have to settle for the wild card and would not hear about another historic comeback by the Yankees, who are 71-39 since May 30 and moved within 1 ½ games of the Sox twice in recent days.

"We have things to do, but there's no getting around how excited we are," Francona said. "We were really excited when we found out we were going to the playoffs, but there's no getting around the fact that we really did want to win the East. I think for our fans, for the ownership, for the organization, this is really something special."

The division crown is the first for the Sox since 1995. Indeed, the fashion in which the Sox clinched the AL East—and ended the Yankees' nine-year reign atop the division—represented yet another crack in a Yankees aura of invincibility already diminished forever by the Sox' comeback from a three games to none deficit in the 2004 ALCS.

"They just dropped a game, you know?" Mike Timlin said. "They dropped a game for us. It was awesome to see. The Yankees usually don't do that. But it happens. It happened the right way and we were just happy we could be here."

The Sox hope Friday is not their final celebration of 2007. The loss by the Yankees and a win by the Indians earlier in the evening assured the Sox will face the Angels and enjoy the home field advantage in the AL Division Series.

"This was a very big accomplishment," Francona said. "We need it to just be the beginning."


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE.

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