Fall can usually only mean one thing: The Boston Red Sox breaking their fans’ hearts. At least, that’s the way the story is supposed to go. Fortunately for some and unfortunately for others, something different happened in 2004, and the Boston Red Sox finally managed to overcome their arch nemeses, the New York Yankees, on their way to their first championship win in 86 years.

I’m not sure if you heard about the long drought they suffered through, given how little the media mentioned the fact that the last time the BoSox won was in 1918. You may not have heard this, though: They say baseball is a game of numbers and they’re right. 86 years had gone by since 1918, the last time the Red Sox won a championship. The last time they were in the finals was in ’86, as in 1986, 18 years ago.

In the past, unlike the BoSox, the Yankees had consistently shown up when it counted — in the postseason. Make no mistake about it: The Red Sox had experienced some degree of success, but for as far back as memory served, they had failed to come out on the top of the heap. When it came to Boston, the killer Bs that most people thought of were the Bambino, Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner. Some painful memories there.

So, when the Boston Red Sox managed to overcome a 3-0 deficit and become the first team in baseball history to come back to win the ALCS series in Game 7, we needed to pause and ask: How did they finally do it?

Well, as it turns out, winning in baseball isn’t all that different from winning in business. And 2004’s edition of the Red Sox provides an interesting case study for both arenas. Let’s examine how they achieved their long-awaited success via some fundamental tenets of business.

Winning happens when it counts
Throughout the 2004 season, even though the Red Sox arguably had a better team than their rivals, the Yankees performed better, finishing the year atop the division. They continued to prove their superiority by manhandling the Red Sox in the first three games of the series. But then the Red Sox showed what they were made of by winning when it counts, when their backs were against the wall.

Winning takes chemistry
From the early days of spring training, Boston came across as a team of players who got along, hung out and played together. On the other hand, the Yankees, in the words of New York Times writer George Vecsey, were becoming the Red Sox of old: “25 players and a whole bunch of separate cabs.”

As Derek Jeter repeated throughout the postseason, the 2004 edition of the once-mighty Yankees was nothing more than a diluted version of the teams that won championships in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. If the Yankees did not warrant the title of “dynasty team” back then, no one did. But by 2004, the Yankees had become a mishmash of stars rather than a cohesive unit. The difference in chemistry between the two clubs undoubtedly affected the outcome and, despite all the heartbreaks of the past, the Red Sox turned the tide and defeated the mighty Yankees.

Have the patience to climb your way up…

Winning has to start somewhere

Red Sox owner John W. Henry made his fortune by recognizing trends and riding them until they reversed. Years after the 1994 lockout turned so many fans away, he recognized an emerging trend in baseball: a renewed interest in and enthusiasm for the game. Henry had already been an owner in pro baseball by virtue of a stake in the Florida Marlins. But he knew that ownership of the Marlins — who do not own their stadium and have rarely benefited from a very loyal fan base — represented at best a good stepping stone into baseball, a world with considerable barriers to entry.

The purchase sum for the Marlins was ordinary and the team even more so, especially considering the fact that, in spite of their having clinched a championship title in record time, former owner H. Wayne Huizenga had been forced to dismantle the Marlins roster to save money. When Henry, a math whiz and commodities trader, bought the team from Huizenga in 1999 for $150 million, it was because he recognized an opportunity. Henry saw that he needed an entry point into one of the most conservative leagues in pro sports but that, once in, he could bide his time and flip his asset.

Winning requires recognizing weakness

Henry was brilliant at recognizing trends, and he also had an eye for recognizing weaknesses. Baseball had one glaring weakness: the franchise in Montreal. Ironically, Montreal was once one of the crown jewels of MLB, notably in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But the fact remains that there was never an owner in Montreal with the fortitude or the stomach for the high stakes game of pro baseball. Exasperating the situation further was the fact that the American greenback at one time traded for $1.60 CAD, making any would-be owner think twice about buying the team.

Montreal did eventually find an owner in Jeffrey Loria, but he got in and out of the franchise so fast that fans to this day still don’t know what hit them. Loria traded in his ownership of the Montreal Expos in a three-way swap between himself, John W. Henry and Major League Baseball. Loria got the Marlins, the Expos were dumped on MLB and Henry acquired the BoSox. On his end of the bargain, Henry had to pony up a record $700 million for the Boston franchise but, unlike Florida, Boston did own its stadium and had a TV network to leverage the games to boot. The investment paid off, as the Red Sox followed in the Marlins’ footsteps by winning the World Series just a year after the Marlins had won it all — in 2003, with Loria at the helm.

Winning takes time
In Hollywood scripts, teams turn their fortunes around at a torrid pace. In 1997, under Huizenga, the Marlins had already set a record (since broken by the Arizona Diamondbacks) for winning a World Series in the least amount of time since their birth.

In real life, however, winning usually takes more time. The mighty Yankees went through an 18-year championship drought of their own between 1978 and 1996. When Henry sold the Marlins in 2002, there was no way he could have known that the Marlins would win it all the following year. And watching his own BoSox make it to the finals just two years after acquiring them was probably more than he had hoped for.

Victory doesn’t come cheap…

Winning takes modifications
Managers seldom admit that they need to change course. When they do, their company’s stock often gets pummeled — shareholders are rarely as forgiving as the board of directors.

Sports fans are not all that different. Once Henry arrived in Boston, he went out of his way to win. Up 5-3 on the Yankees in the late stages of the seventh game of the 2003 ALCS, Boston manager Grady Little made the decision to keep his starter, Pedro Martinez, in the game. Martinez was lit up for 3 runs and the BoSox lost the game and the series. While it’s difficult to pin a seven game series loss on a single decision, Henry did, firing Grady Little. Whether or not this was the right call was not the issue; the consumers of the product — the fans — wanted to see a change. Henry knew that, even though the team was going in the right general direction, they needed some modifications.

In hindsight, he did the right thing.

Winning takes commitment
A lot was said about the Yankees stealing the Red Sox’ thunder when they acquired Alex Rodriguez in the off-season. The former MVP was certainly a valuable addition to any roster, but even this trade was trumped by another major transaction — Boston’s acquisition of Arizona pitcher Curt Schilling. By signing Schilling, Henry stated loud and clear that the Yankees would not outdo his team where it counts the most in the postseason: on the mound.

A-Rod proved to be terrific fodder for journalists, critics and pundits. Nonetheless, and in spite of Schilling’s ordinary start in the first game of the series against the Yanks, the only reason Boston eventually won was because the Red Sox had won the arms race between the two teams.

Many questioned whether or not Henry overpaid for Schilling; some wondered whether the Yankees’ signing of Rodriguez would make the Schilling signing moot. In the end, Henry emerged victorious. The Schilling signing was a reflection of both his business savvy and the price of success. After all, Schilling didn’t come cheap — Boston gave up four talented young players (pitchers Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, Jorge de la Rosa, and outfielder Michael Goss) in addition to taking on Schilling’s two-year, $25.5-million salary.

No excuses

The one thing that we did not see the Red Sox complain about was the curse — in fact, they never came up with excuses for their opening three losses. Sure, the writers and fans blamed Schilling’s injury for the first loss but, for the most part, the players took it all in stride, knowing all along that the series would be long and hard. In the end, the players took a cue from the top and showed that, when it counted most, they let their actions do the talking.

Are the BoSox the perfect case study example of success? Of course not.

Despite all of his good decisions, Henry had wanted to ship off for Manny Ramirez in exchange for Rodriguez. Ramirez ended up being named the World Series MVP. It seems that in sports, as in business, success boils down to ambition, execution and, largely, luck. In the end, 18 years after the BoSox last made it to the World Series in 1986, they erased 86 years of frustration, dating back to 1918.

E-mail of the week:

Editor’s note: This reader’s e-mail has not been edited and is presented as is.

I have started a new job and am finding it difficult to balance the needs of my fellow employees with the demands of my clients. How do you go about serving clients and closing deals when you always have to take a step back and attend to the needs of fellow employees who rely on you as well?

Part of selling is getting to the needs of fellow employees, or “internal clients.” So I am not sure that serving employees is taking a step back at all — it is a step that one needs to take in order to be a good salesperson. Listen, I hate offering one-size-fits-all or “silver bullet” solutions, and the truth of the matter is that you need to prioritize the different needs. If something is critical, you attend to it regardless of whether it is for an internal or external client.

Moreover, bear in mind that while all deadlines are important ones to meet, most deadlines are “moving averages” altogether. If you find it hard to meet everyone’s needs in time, simply learn to manage expectations. This perhaps is the best advice of all. Finally, if you are new at a company, there is nothing wrong with calling time out and speaking about this dilemma with a supervisor, colleague or even the same fellow employees about this matter. They won’t disrespect you for it — if anything, they will find your approach refreshing, and may even become more understanding and patient in their needs.

Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at www.CourseToSuccess.com. His new book, The Confessions of Alexander The Great: 33 Lessons in Greatness, is available at www.AlexanderTheBook.com.