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The Boston Globe

Sports

Bob Ryan

For Red Sox, loyalty must be earned back

No team is entitled to sellouts

Empty seats have been scattered across some Red Sox games this month, as the team finally admitted its long-running sellout streak had ended.

Michael Dwyer/AP

Empty seats have been scattered across some Red Sox games this month, as the team finally admitted its long-running sellout streak had ended.

Bill Veeck said it wasn’t always a wise idea to sell out the ballpark in advance, especially on Sundays.

“A man should be able to wake up and decide he wants to go to the ballpark,” he said. Or something like that. That was the general idea.

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You now have that chance.

Selling out a baseball park in advance is not normal, and never was. It was an inconceivable concept until the Indians became chic and started doing it in the ’90s, when they had a great team that didn’t win any championships because, while they always had a ready supply of Nos. 3, 4, and 5 starters, and occasionally even a No. 2, they never had The Ace who gave you those two guaranteed wins in a playoff series.

But, oh, how they could bash the baseball. Mike Hargrove’s lineups were so deep that a young Turk named Ramirez could hide down there in the six- or seven-spot for a couple of years.

I recall one year when we were in town sometime in September and they placed playoff tickets on sale. The demand was so overwhelming that the computer system couldn’t handle it. That’s the kind of “problem” every front office wants.

But an idea that once was pure fantasy has come to fulfillment twice more, as both the San Francisco Giants and the Boston Red Sox have savored the experience of having the ballpark sold out for the season.

I guess now we’re down to one, and it isn’t us.

The Sellout Streak officially ended on April 10, Game 2 of the home schedule. Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino had prepared everyone for this eventuality back in Fort Myers. But he had to know that we knew that he knew that we knew the streak had ended on any number of occasions during the dreadful 2012 season. The problem, as we had learned quite emphatically when the Celtics had their own sellout streak going, is that these alleged sellout streaks can take on a life of their own, so much so that both truth and common sense become a casualty. Teams can offer up convoluted explanations involving tickets sold, season-ticket renewals, and all sorts of mumbo-jumbo, but in the end the Eye Test prevails. Teams continue to insult the intelligence of both the fans and media, but we all know better.

Anyway, who really cares?

The idea that these supposed sellout streaks have taken place in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, at a time when it is accepted general wisdom that the NFL is complete and utter master of all it surveys, is intriguing. There is a perception that baseball interest peaked sometime around the middle of the previous century.

It is certainly true that baseball had almost a monopoly of major league sport general interest. But we are talking about a totally different sports landscape. The NFL had 12 teams, the NBA had eight, and the NHL had six, with two of the franchises in Canada.

Major League Baseball itself had 16, and had only expanded west of St. Louis for three seasons. It’s a sports world no one under 50 can imagine.

We all know how much the NFL has grown, and I’m not about to dispute the idea that the NFL is America’s No. 1 sports preoccupation. But it’s not as if baseball has dried up and gone away.

At a time when baseball was dominant, the gold standard for actual ballpark attendance was a million, and even that did not become the case until after World War II. People followed major league baseball by newspaper accounts, and later, radio. TV coverage began to expand in the ’50s, but it wasn’t until the ’70s that fans could expect to see even half the games televised.

People formed their impressions of players as much by what they read as by what they actually saw. When Ted Williams broke into the bigs with a .327/31/145 season in 1939, the Red Sox drew 573,070. Of course, they were all day games, but still. When he hit that historic .406 in 1941, the Sox attracted 718,497 to Fenway. Nineteen years later, his final game was played before fewer than 11,000 people. The entire mentality was different.

OK, so where are we now? Last year, the Red Sox drew in excess of three million for the fifth year in succession. Over in the National League, every team drew at least two million. Yes, even the woeful Astros pulled in more than two million. Football is football, with eight home games and those two arm-twist exhibitions a season ticket-holder must purchase. But baseball is baseball, and it’s doing just fine, even though there is a necessity to pull in customers 10 times more often that a football team must do.

It was always insane to think about selling out a ballpark in advance, especially in the East and especially in light of a phenomenon called April. My wife and I could have gone to the ballpark Tuesday night. But we decided we had no need for any kind of survival training. We were congratulating ourselves on our prescience as we watched the six-run Oakland third, otherwise known as “The Aceves Capers.” By 8 o’clock it was time to turn to basketball and begin engaging in fliporama. Each time I returned to the ballgame the screen was filled with more and more red, the customers increasingly being disguised as empty seats. I’m not sure even Jeremy Kapstein stuck around long enough for the umps to declare the game finis at the end of the seventh. The announced attendance was 29,006, and I presume that includes the four seats I wasn’t using.

That’s April in Boston, and yet for the last several years Red Sox mania was such that people really have trekked in for night games during the month of April. It’s an amazing testament to something or other, but you knew it couldn’t last because that’s just not how baseball is.

Would The Streak be ongoing were it not for the events of both September 2011, and all of 2012? The logical answer, I suppose, is yes. Winning will do that. Even more importantly, losing disgracefully will serve as a major attendance deterrent.

Now we have the 2013 Boston Red Sox, who are, I think you would agree, the Redemption Team. Honest management mistakes were made. Neither Adrian Gonzalez nor Carl Crawford were appropriate fits for a baseball market where people actually care. Josh Beckett has parlayed raw talent and one — that’s correct, O-N-E — lights-out year into a lifetime of riches, and by late 2012 had become an intolerably negative presence in our midst. I see he’s been his usual self in LA, elevating hopes with just enough moments of greatness to make people think he’s on the verge of something big. A good guess is that he will remain a colossal tease until he retires.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. I’m not blaming it all on them. But Ben Cherington realized he had to bring in some people who would allow people to think they really enjoyed being here, and if he had to overpay a bit commensurate with their actual ability, well, you gotta do what you gotta do.

It’s early, and it really is an amazingly well-balanced division. I’m sensing that all five AL East teams will wind up winning more than they lose. I’m not much for predictions, anyway.

Tell me who’s going to stay healthy, and then we’ll talk.

The 2013 Boston Red Sox look like they are going to be good, not great. They may or may not make the postseason. But they are going to be a team you can get behind, a team you’ll want to cheer for. And if Bill Veeck were here, he’d be so pleased to know he could wake up, and, on a whim, go to the ballpark.

I’m sure Mr. Lucchino and friends liked it the other way. The thing is, no one is entitled to that kind of loyalty. Now the Red Sox will again have to earn it, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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