Though the Red Sox dropped their Opening Day contest, they never flew under the radar. The team announced its dominance early, winning 17 of its first 19 games during a blazing hot streak that would set the tone for an elite ball club’s outstanding year. By the time the sun set on the 2018 slate of regular-season games, Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and company had won a league-leading 108 contests. No team has finished the regular season with a better record this millennium since the 2001 Seattle Mariners won a staggering 116 games. But as the Mariners, who fell to the Yankees in that year’s ALCS, learned, all those regular-season wins don’t matter in October, and especially not in Boston.
For a city of its size, Boston consistently punches above its weight. Not only does it host several of the nation’s top colleges and universities, but it’s also home to some of the country’s best hospitals and a technology sector poised to give Silicon Valley a run for its money. Still, for the past two decades, nowhere has Boston’s presence been more outsize than in the athletic arena. The Hub has arguably been the most dominant American sports city of this millennium, and the competition isn’t even close.
Read: The Red Sox managed to turn the Yankees into baseball’s most improbable underdogs.
Since Tom Brady, then 24 years old, hoisted the Lombardi Trophy over his head for the first time in February 2002, Boston’s four major sports teams have won nine titles. The Celtics, the Bruins, the Patriots, and the Red Sox all made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, a feat no other city’s teams can lay claim to. In fact, the last time all four of Boston’s major sports teams were locked out of the postseason was in 2000, after the Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s inaugural year as New England’s leader.
But expectations undeniably follow repeated success, and all the victory parades have stoked a feeling among some Boston fans that an entire season is a wash if it doesn’t end in confetti. Such an attitude is particularly onerous in baseball, where the 162-game regular season seems designed to identify the most well-rounded and successful team. Whereas in sports like college football, in which the thrill of an upset victory over a superior rival can sustain a fan base for an entire disappointing season, baseball’s glorious slog ensures that it’s only the stars of the postseason that ever get remembered. And winning the regular season has been far from a harbinger of World Series titles: In the 23 seasons since Major League Baseball introduced the Wild Card, the team with the outright best regular-season record has won the championship just five times. Such a historical precedent doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in this season’s Red Sox.
The Fenway faithful are far from the only contingent of fans to believe that unless their team finishes first, it may as well have finished last. Perennial contenders like the contemporary Los Angeles Dodgers, the Golden State Warriors, and the Pittsburgh Penguins foment the same expectations, because a playoff berth has become their status quo. But while a glistening stretch of sustained success should be heralded by coaches, fans, and players, if it doesn’t include a ring, those memories can be tinged with regret. Take the Atlanta Braves, who won the National League East every single season from 1995 to 2005 but came away with just one World Series trophy. John Smoltz, who pitched for Atlanta during this stretch, told ESPN in 2016 that he still believes that the team should have achieved more in the postseason. The Braves were dominant, but they weren’t a dynasty.