FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It began last September, two days after their season had flamed out in Baltimore. Six months later, the gradual dismantling of the Red Sox continues, unabated.
The manager is gone, and so is the general manager who hired him. The pitcher who very nearly set the franchise record for most wins in franchise history retired two weeks ago, and Thursday, the catcher -- stalwart and team captain -- followed him out the door. Together, they had parts of 32 seasons together in Red Sox uniforms.
In 2004, when the franchise rid itself of the ghosts and ended the title drought, it was said: These are not your father's Red Sox anymore.
Now, just eight years later, they're not even those Red Sox anymore.
Time marches on, and with it, inexorably, go the veteran players.
For the longest time, Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek were as much a part of the Red Sox as Fenway itself. Now, they each have the dreaded ''ex'' in front of their names: ex-player, ex-captain, ex-Red Sox.
When Varitek arrived, the Red Sox hadn't figured it out yet, but they were getting there. In 1999, just his second full season, they reached the ALCS, only to demonstrate how far they still had to go.
Varitek was part of the learning curve, the long, slow climb to the top of the mountain. As he learned behind the plate, the pitching got better, too. The two were not unrelated.
The arrival of Curt Schilling in 2004, to go with Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, created arguably the best rotation in modern Red Sox history and Varitek was the one in charge, a year before he was given the captaincy.
He cajoled, pushed, and shaped them, and when Varitek leaped into Keith Foulke's arms after the final out of Game 4 of the 2004 World Series, it was, in every sense of the word, a leap of faith.
Months earlier, Varitek was responsible for an epochal turning point in franchise history. A mid-summer grudge match with the Yankees had turned ugly and Varitek, no fan of Alex Rodriguez to begin with, had had enough of Rodriguez's angry declarations toward Red Sox pitchers.
Varitek intercepted any bad intentions A-Rod had after being hit by a pitch, and gave the Yankee third baseman a facewash with his catcher's mitt.
To this day, eight years later, that image -- Red Sox catcher puts Yankee star in his place -- is the screen-saver, the bedroom poster, the avatar of Red Sox fans everywhere.
The picture said something. It said the Red Sox would not be pushed around by the Yankees, that they would not bow to their tormentors. Three months later, in St. Louis, it was as if Varitek's line-in-the-sand moment was ultimately validated.
After two World Series in the span of four seasons, success for the Red Sox dried up. The trajectory has plain and unsettling. From the 2007 title, the Sox went to Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS, to getting swept in the 2008 Division Series to two straight playoff DNQs.
In the interim, Wakefield and Varitek were both marginalized as players, their contributions diminished. Wakefield returned to spot starter, Varitek to backup catcher, and this spring, they read the proverbial writing. It was time to go.
Now, the Red Sox are someone else's team. Perhaps they belong to Dustin Pedroia, as vocal as Varitek has been stoic and quietly steady. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, they will soon belong to someone who has not yet played a major-league game -- say, Will Middlebrooks, or perhaps someone still in the lower minor leagues.
Whomever becomes the face of the franchise, it's doubtful that his career will last in Boston as long as Varitek's did. It's virtually certain that that career will not span eras the way Varitek's did, with as many defining moments, or transcendent events.
Should the Red Sox win a third championship in this young century, it won't have the same impact as the first one in 2004, or for that matter, the one that followed in 2007, guaranteeing that the first was not a fluke.
You may not recognize what's left of those Red Sox. But you surely will not forget them.