These are dark days in Boston baseball. Rarely in Red Sox history has the Olde Towne Team been this disregarded and disliked in its own town. The natives of Red Sox Nation are restless and unrelenting in their resentment of the Sox.
A once coyly skeptical fanbase has become completely cynical of anything associated with Yawkey Way, even reduced concession prices. After an epic collapse in 2011 and a last-place implosion in 2012, full of backbiting and bad baseball, the 2013 Red Sox are carrying the considerable baggage of their deplorable predecessors.
But I’m here to implore you to misremember the past, if not forgive it. Give these guys a chance. Life begins anew in the spring, so do the 2013 Red Sox on Monday at Yankee Stadium. While you were seething, the Red Sox have actually constructed a likeable, rootable team.
Surly, entitled, and standoffish are so last year. This year’s Sox are professional, accommodating, and amicable, capable of not only winning games but winning back hearts and minds.
I knew something was different with the Sox when I walked into the clubhouse at JetBlue Park during a Red Sox-Yankees spring training game March 3. Mike Napoli, he of the degenerative hip condition, had hit his first home run of the spring. I was looking to interview him.
As I wandered around the clubhouse, new catcher David Ross approached, extended his hand, introduced himself, and asked me who I was looking for. He then pointed out Napoli’s locker, and said he thought he was in the training room.
It was like having a clubhouse concierge. I was stunned.
I experienced other random acts of professionalism from Sox players during my brief stay in Fort Myers, like Clay Buchholz turning down the music in the clubhouse so Daniel Bard’s words could be recorded by reporters.
The point is that winning baseball isn’t just adding up OBP, WAR, and UZR. If that were the case then Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett would still be here instead of playing parts in the big-budget blockbuster being made in Los Angeles, “Dodger Blue,” which will either be an epic action flick or a disaster movie.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington and the boys in baseball operations knew they had to disinfect their disaffected clubhouse and restore accountability, amicability, and that nebulous attribute, chemistry.
Talented teams don’t need chemistry (the Bronx Zoo Yankees of the late 1970s come to mind). It’s not a must. But it’s painfully obvious when a team lacks it, like a runner wearing one shoe.
Cherington knew his clubhouse needed an extreme personality makeover. That as much as raw numbers drove the decisions to bring in players like Ross, outfielder Shane Victorino, pitcher/clubhouse jester Ryan Dempster, and DH/outfielder Jonny Gomes, who might be the most talkative Sox player since Mr. Cowboy Up, Kevin Millar.
The Sox overpaid for Victorino (three years, $39 million) and Gomes (two years, $10 million), but they valued character over brand names.
Buchholz admitted the clubhouse has a different feel.
“Yeah, it’s just relaxed. Everybody is relaxed,” said Buchholz. “The new personalities that were brought in, I think it jells really well with everybody in here. It’s been fun. It’s fun to come to the field and be able to laugh and cut up and get your work done, sort of hang out and take some tension off of yourself and off of everybody else. It’s the same way with the [pitching] staff, so it’s been fun.”
Does a good clubhouse vibe matter to players?
“Yeah, absolutely. You’re under such a microscope up there [in Boston],” said Buchholz. “Everything that you do, someone might think it’s good, someone might think it’s bad. There are two different opinions about it.”
This is too savvy a baseball market to be seduced solely by congeniality.
What would make the Sox likeable, first and foremost, is winning. They’re more capable of that than you think.
Manager John Farrell might be the Pitcher Whisperer, and his coaches actually talk to him. That’s already a step ahead of Bobby Valentine.
Lester and Buchholz, the Lost Boys of the Red Sox rotation, have pitched like men determined to rediscover their games and reclaim their reputations this spring.
More so Lester than Buchholz, who for a 15-start stretch last year was 8-2 with a 2.69 ERA. The Sox’ Opening Day starter, Lester has dropped weight and the peevish attitude.
I think I set a record getting this far into a Red Sox preview piece without mentioning Jackie Bradley Jr. The kid is a winner, period. He could be the Red Sox version of Derek Jeter, except he’ll deserve his Gold Gloves.
A healthy Will Middlebrooks is rootable. Napoli could earn cult status in this town with his made-for-Fenway swing. With Wes Welker in a Broncos uniform, Dustin Pedroia inherits the title of most admired Little Big Man in Boston sports (apologies to Brad Marchand).
Jose Iglesias with a glove is like Christopher Nolan with a camera, bound to show you something you haven’t seen before.
There are questions.
The Joel Hanrahan move was my favorite pure baseball transaction of the Red Sox’ offseason, but whether he can handle the crucible of closing in the American League East is unclear.
David Ortiz’s Achilles’ tendon/heel hang-up is beyond disconcerting. He could be the baseball version of Andrew Bynum.
At worst this team will do something last year’s didn’t — lose with dignity.
If you want to dwell on fried chicken and beer, the mutiny against Bobby Valentine and 69-93, you might be missing out.
Boston has made a cottage industry of remembering the past, but that doesn’t mean we should always live in it.
The Sox have aired their dirty laundry the past two seasons. Give these guys a clean break.