DENVER - With Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon perched on the mound with two outs in the ninth, poised to win his first World Series, on the cusp of completing a dream he and his brothers had rehearsed throughout their childhood on the sandlots of rural Louisiana, the inevitable happened.
He started getting ahead of himself.
"I couldn't help it," he said. "I started having this vision of the guys running out of the dugout and tackling me. You wait your whole life to have that happen. And then all of a sudden you are there, with these guys who you have spent so much time with - more time, really, than your own family. And you want to celebrate with them, because only they know what a long road it's been for all of us.
"But I had to get that out of my mind real quick. I had one more out to get."
When Papelbon punctuated Sunday night's 4-3 victory by striking out pinch hitter Seth Smith with a fastball that topped off at 94 miles per hour, the bench emptied, just as he envisioned. They all came barreling toward him: Curt Schilling, whose gutty Game 2 victory may be the final performance of his Red Sox career; his friend Jon Lester, whose future as a major league pitcher and a cancer survivor is boundless; David Ortiz, who fought through an arduous season of hurt and pain to remain the constant force in an often ferocious lineup; Bobby Kielty, whose only at-bat in the World Series resulted in a home run that will forever define him in Boston sports lore.
The 2007 Boston Red Sox became champions on the strength of superstars and bit players, of high-priced sluggers and
Chemistry is often a fleeting concept. Sometimes it manifests itself in the personalities of a few; other times a team adopts a mantra (see: Idiots, 2004) that takes on a life of its own. But there are other ways than slugging whisky in the clubhouse together to establish camaraderie. You can hail from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, or Madras, Ore., or Kyoto, Japan, or Hyde Park, Mass., and discover the common ground of winning with the right leadership.
And that's precisely what this team did, in spite of their diverse backgrounds and approaches to the game. Whether it was Jason Varitek representing the textbook professional or Manny Ramírez signifying the carefree eccentric, these players discovered a way to embrace each other's values.
"On the field," said manager Terry Francona, "they have an immense amount of loyalty toward each other."
It began with the smallest of gestures, like Schilling vowing to learn Japanese to make Daisuke Matsuzaka's transition to this culture and this baseball team easier. It ended in the final game of the World Series, with Ortiz draping his massive arm around Matsuzaka in the dugout, imploring him to wave to the fans in the stands of Coors Field with a piece of gum blown into a huge bubble perched atop his cap.
The smiling Japanese pitcher obliged, beaming with joy.
It was Big Papi at his finest, defusing pressure and creating a sense of belonging. His personality radiated that way throughout the clubhouse in 2007.
"When I first got there, we had a lot of selfish guys around," Ortiz explained in the afterglow of winning his second World Series ring. "I didn't think it was going to work that way. It looked like it was going to be impossible to walk into this two times."
The slugger pointed to the manager as a catalyst. Francona demanded accountability and enforced it behind closed doors. He promised his players he would never chastise them publicly, but he expected professionalism in return. He approached his job with honesty and compassion, but without ever allowing his compassion to stand in the way of a difficult decision.
To wit: When it was time to play without the DH, he sat Kevin Youkilis and plugged Ortiz into his spot at first base. When discussing this move, Francona said Youkilis probably would see some time in late innings as a defensive replacement.
"But it won't be a matter of fairness," he explained. "Look, I wish Youk could play. But we'll make that switch because it's right for the team, not because I feel bad he's not in there."
The manager dealt with a number of difficult personnel decisions in leading this team to a championship. He sat veteran center fielder Coco Crisp in favor of a rookie who had but 33 major league games under his belt. He left veteran Tim Wakefield off the World Series roster when the two of them determined the knuckleballer's health was too uncertain. He bypassed altogether pitcher Julian Tavarez, who served as an everyman and ate up innings in the regular season.
None of those players became a distraction by expressing their displeasure, a rarity in today's world of large contracts and still larger egos.
"If you are worried about playing time at this point, then you definitely need to go to another team," said Youkilis. "That's not going to fly in here."
He's right. It won't. It was one of the many things Mike Timlin explained to the young stable of pitchers who spent time in the bullpen listening to the wisdom of a pitcher who had won three (now four) World Series rings.
When Papelbon was on the mound putting the finishing touches on this satisfying season, Timlin stood in the dugout next to Lester, a 23-year-old kid who was simply overwhelmed by what was about to happen. Lester fidgeted nervously, jumping up and down like a small child waiting for permission to eat an oversized lollipop.
"He was bouncing all over the place," Timlin reported. "He said to me, 'How can you stand there so calmly?' I told him, 'Hey, I'm feeling the same thing inside that you are, but I've been here before.'
"I can't tell you how much I enjoyed his energy at that moment."
When Smith struck out and Papelbon gleefully threw up his hands and tossed his glove into the air, the old pitcher and the young pitcher in the dugout quickly embraced.
Then they sprinted to the mound together, to enjoy the moment with their team of champions.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.