Opening Day at Fenway Park ushers in a new season of hope. As John Fogarty sings in Centerfield, his iconic paean to baseball, “We’re born again. There’s new grass on the field.”
On opening day in 2013, Red Sox Nation was excited. After the Bobby Valentine debacle of 2012, management cleaned house. They brought in a group of seasoned veterans guided by the steadying hand of John Farrell. Gone were the flashy but mercurial likes of Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez. Gone too were their outrageous salaries. John Henry and company let it be known that, from now on, statistics would be less important than intangibles like character, commitment and heart. Good club house chemistry would have priority over fielding a bunch of self centered prima donnas.
The recipe worked. Our new crop of bearded boys of summer went out and won their division, then won the playoffs and finished by winning the 2013 World Series. Jubilation was the order of the day. Best of all, the sense that ownership was often distracted by other business interests was now dispelled. Perhaps Valentine was just an aberration and these guys really did know how to run a ball club?
It wasn’t long after opening day 2014 that the doubts began again. We had lost All Star outfielder Jacoby Elsbury to free agency. Everyone knew it was coming but we took it in stride, believing that management had a plan, which they did. His name was Grady Sizemore, a former All Star in his own right who had been away from baseball for two years due to injuries. Sizemore was magnificent in spring training, batting over .300 and catching everything hit his way. The press waxed enthusiastic. Fans started holding up signs reading “Jacoby WHO?”
But once the season started, Sizemore looked more like the broken down former player he really was. His fielding was atrocious and he turned ice cold at the plate. He was gone by the end of May and our hopes turned to management’s Plan B, Jackie Bradley, Jr.
JBJ proved to be stellar in the outfield but struggled mightily at the plate. Against major league pitching, he couldn’t bat his own weight. As his average dropped below .200, Red Sox Nation started getting restless. We knew there was no Plan C.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia was the starting catcher for the 2013 championship team. He was young and a bit raw but he was competent behind the plate and got some key hits for the team, especially in the playoffs. But his contract was up at the end of 2013 and he wanted a multi-year deal. In line with their new team policy of not doling out long term contracts like candy at Halloween, the Red Sox said no and shipped Salty out of town.
In his place they acquired A.J. Pierzynski, a veteran catcher who is known through out baseball as one of the worst clubhouse guys ever. As the Red Sox struggled through losing streak after losing streak early in the year, responsibility for their poor performance began to focus on A.J. By the end of June, he was unceremoniously dumped from the team. After his departure, word leaked from the locker room that he was strongly disliked by the other players. Which begs the question, if management is so concerned with clubhouse chemistry, why on Earth did they bring in Pierzynski in the first place?
Things got worse. The losses were piling up. As the All Star break approached, the Sox were in the American League East cellar and falling fast. Manager John Farrell, who could do no wrong in 2013, started looking more and more like a man without a clue.
The Red Sox are very high on Xander Bogaerts, a 21 year old being touted as the starting shortstop of the future. He began the year well, but when third baseman Will Middlebrooks went down with an injury – again – Bogaerts was moved to third. The Sox went out and got Steven Drew to play shortstop, the very same player they refused to sign before the start of the season.
The move unsettled Bogaerts both defensively and at the plate. Meanwhile, Drew couldn’t hit above .110. Finally, after just 6 weeks with the team, the Red Sox traded Drew to the Yankees for some guy no one ever heard of. The team whose new watchword was “frugality” paid Drew $10 million to be a stop-gap player. Rumor has it they had to eat most of his salary to get New York to take him off their hands. The carefully constructed fable that ownership and management had a clear plan and were in firm control of the future was beginning to unravel.
By mid season, the Red Sox had only two bright spots on the team – Jon Lester, our #1 starting pitcher and John Lackey, our #2 hurler. Lester is a fan darling. He played for Boston his entire career, overcoming cancer along the way. Lackey was out for all of 2012 after Tommy John surgery but battled back to give the Red Sox quality start after quality start.
We all figured the Sox were going to make some major moves as the trading deadline approached, but none of us predicted that Lester and Lackey would be the ones to go. They were the anchors of our pitching staff, the guys we could rely on and build around for next year. With all the underachievers to pick from, why did we part company with our two brightest stars? Why not Clay Buchholz, who has been injured for much of the past two season and was having an awful year in 2014? Why not Will Middlebrooks, the guy at third base who has been promising much but delivering little for the past 4 years? It made no sense.
For the last half of the season, a parade of rookies was brought up from AAA Pawtucket. Many of them performed surprisingly well, with one or two potential All Stars in the group. But they were all in their early twenties and still learning their craft, which is what the minor leagues are for. They were rushed up to the big club to fill holes in the roster created by management’s incompetence.
Many a bright prospect has been ruined by being asked to perform at the Major League level prematurely. Have the Red Sox mortgaged their future just so they could limp to the finish line this year?
By the time Closing Day came around (not soon enough for most of us) the 2014 team ended the season with a record of 71 wins and 91 losses, its worst performance in recent memory. Team owners promise the fans that they have “a lot of money to spend” during the off season and that we shouldn’t worry; 2015 will be better. A lot better, in fact. But should we believe them?
John Henry and company have made it clear that they will not overpay for players and will not get stuck with long term contracts for older players (which they define as anyone over 30). That’s one way to run a team. Tampa Bay and Oakland have been following that plan for years. The problem is, it you think like a small market team, you will become a small market team. Small market teams don’t fill the stands for every game or have lucrative dedicated cable TV channels.
The Henry Group wants to build a team for the price of a Toyota Corolla but sell it to the fans as if it’s a Ferrari. Good luck having that as the basis of your business plan. What these steely eyed, “baseball is just another business” types fail to understand is that the fans want to identify with the players on the field. We loved having Carl Yastrzemski patrol left field for 15 season. We love players like Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Jason Varitek who play their entire careers in a Red Sox uniform. We want to be able to recognize a batter’s face rather than having to plug his uniform number into Google to find out his name.
Sometimes they may be bums but they are our bums, players we have grown up with and formed emotional attachments to. It’s not about statistics; it’s about identifying with those 9 players on the field and living our lives vicariously through them.
That’s why we follow sports. It’s too bad they don’t teach that in business school.
Baseball has always been one of my favourite sports to watch. Being from Seattle, I tend to cheer for the Mariners.