It's easy to determine when a Red Sox season is over: There's usually a blown lead, a shocked stadium and another team hugging on the mound.
Marking the end of a Red Sox career isn't always as simple, though. It frequently comes months after the last out, with the filing of free agency papers or an off-season trade, the goodbyes come by telephone if at all, and then the player shows up in Boston the next season in another uniform -- sometimes to applause and sometimes not -- and, just like that, he is the opponent.
It happened with Carlton Fisk, with Fred Lynn and with Wade Boggs. It happened with Roger Clemens. And, for the record, it happened with Babe Ruth, too.
Whether it will also happen with Mo Vaughn is, for the moment, a very good question.
"I haven't really thought too much of it, and I'm not going to think too much of it," the Red Sox first baseman said Saturday night after Cleveland's 2-1 victory in Game 4 ensured Boston of its 80th consecutive season without a World Series title.
"I'm not going to sit up here and say I know what's going to happen, because I obviously don't. ... When the time comes, you'll all get all the answers you need."
With the Fenway crowd outside yelling "We want Mo," Vaughn was circling the Red Sox clubhouse, hugging his teammates and perhaps even saying goodbye. He told John Valentin, a teammate dating back to their college days at Seton Hall, that he loved him.
"Absolutely," Valentin said when asked if it would be incomprehensible to play without Vaughn. "But reality is reality. I hope it doesn't happen. But if the Red Sox don't want him, then he has to move on."
Vaughn has now completed the final season of a three-year, $18.6 million contract. Fitful negotiations over the past two years have done little else than dominate headlines, as the two sides swiped at each other with ugly accusations and innuendo.
Vaughn vowed not to let it affect his performance, and if it did it was only to spur him on. He hit .337 thiyear -- second in the league -- with 40 homers and 115 RBI. He also has the 1995 AL MVP on his resume.
He is expected to be one of the prime lots in the free agency auction, and he said he would definitely file when he becomes eligible the day after the World Series ends.
"You've got to do what you've got to do," he said.
And, if he leaves, he will have no regrets about the legacy he left behind.
"You look at the numbers and you look at the way this team played," he said. "Damn it, I wasn't going to come out here and hit .250. That's not in my nature."
Saturday, Vaughn came up in the eighth inning with the Red Sox down one run and facing elimination, and he lined one high and deep to left-center. Earlier in the summer, when it's warm and humid and the air is stagnant, it might have made it. With a cool October cross-wind, it bounced off the Wall for a double.
"I always think about doing something dynamic," said the man who won the '98 home opener with a ninth-inning grand slam. "You always want to put the people on their feet. That's what the game is for."
He is nothing if not dynamic. His importance in the Red Sox lineup is immeasurable, and his presence in the clubhouse is equally large. He has been a treasure to Boston's black community, and perhaps the most popular black athlete the city has ever known.
Even his mistakes are huge. Like the barroom brawl that blackened his eye in the middle of the 1995 season, or the drunken driving arrest -- he was acquitted, but embarrassed -- this past off-season.
"To me, it's all been good times. Even the bad times have been good times. This team stood behind me in all that," he said of his teammates.
"I couldn't have done what I did all season without them keeping it all together. I didn't ever want my situation to take away from this ballclub and I think I did that.
I wanted to show myself and my critics that I could," he said. "But I'm a realist."
And, the day after the World Series ends, he will also be a free agent.
Despite the acrimonious negotiations and the team's claim that it can only afford him at a hometown discount -- the annual price could otherwise be in the eight figures -- Vaughn maintains a bemused ignorance about his future.
There were no goodbyes to the crowd, no handful of dirt from the first base area as a souvenir, no menacing glare at the general manager's box when he left the field, perhaps for the last time, for a pinch-runner in the eighth.
"I'll pick up something from the last game I ever play," he said. "When it's all said and done you grab some turf, wherever that may be.
"I've got a lot of baseball left in me."
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