The Red Sox annihilated the moribund Baltimore Orioles, 13-2, at empty Fenway Park on Friday. It was the Red Sox’ 120th Opening Day, and by any measure it goes down as the most unusual sporting event in our city’s history.
It was the first real game involving a Boston team since March 10, when the Bruins blanked the Flyers, 2-0, in Philadelphia and the Celtics beat the Pacers in Indianapolis. Since then, we’ve consumed grainy rebroadcasts of the Larry Bird Celtics, the Tom Brady Patriots, and the Curse-busting Red Sox of 2004.
For the sake of television, the Red Sox and Orioles went though all the traditional pre-game rituals. There was red, white, and blue bunting on the upper deck facade, and four rows of cardboard-cutout fans filled the Monster Seats — it looked a little like the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album — but the official attendance was 00,000 when Nathan Eovaldi threw a 100 mile-per-hour first pitch to Baltimore center fielder Austin Hays at 7:33 p.m.
When Kevin Pillar made a nice catch on Hays’ subsequent fly to deep right, there was fake crowd noise to express appreciation. Before the night was done, we heard a lot of balls — all hit by the Red Sox — bang off the Green Monster.
Welcome to COVID-19 professional sports, where everybody may know your name, but nobody is around to applaud.
Get used to it, sports fans. Have a seat in front of your TV and don’t touch that dial unless it’s been sanitized. In every sport, this is going to be the season of no fans, with the only cheers and boos piped in off a video game.
There has never been a Red Sox opener this late, and at 60 games, there has never been a Major League season this short.
Players from both teams were introduced to the non-crowd before the game, followed by a moving Black Lives Matter presentation featuring social justice commentaries on the big video board while players held a black ribbon that stretched from short left field to short right field.
The entire Orioles team knelt during the presentation. Six Red Sox knelt: Jackie Bradley Jr., Alex Verdugo, Michael Chavis, and three coaches. Bradley, Verdugo, and the coaches all took a knee for the national anthem. Every Oriole stood.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Boston youth sports champion Robert Lewis Jr. threw ceremonial first pitches. And then it was Game On for the Red Sox, for the first time in almost 300 days. With no cheers from the hometown fans as the Sox scored 10 times in the third and fourth innings.
“We need to find different ways to get the adrenaline going,” said de facto captain Xander Bogaerts. “We’re going to have to be our best cheerleaders. It’s new for us. It’s challenging.”
A lot has happened to the Sox since they staggered to an 84-78 record last year. Chaim Bloom was brought in to replace fired general manager Dave Dombrowski in October, then popular manager Alex Cora got caught up in two cheating scandals and was fired before spring training. This was followed by a PR disaster: The appalling deal that sent Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers. (”Let’s re-visit this conversation in 12 years,” Tom Werner told WEEI on Friday.)
When the reeling Red Sox finally got to Florida, they had an interim manager in Ron Roenicke and immediately lost their ace, Chris Sale, to Tommy John surgery. Then came COVID-19, and everybody was sent home March 12.
Do not be deceived by Friday’s lopsided opener. For the first time in recent memory, the salary-dumping, resetting Sox start their season as clear non-contenders.
“This year is much different,” said Bogaerts. “We’re underdogs, playing without pressure.”
When the shortstop was asked how his team was supposed to compete with a sub-par pitching staff, he acknowledged, “Obviously, we don’t have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.”
True. And yet this misfit team with no realistic chance for success could be artificially held aloft by a 60-game mini-season and an inflated playoff plan. MLB announced Thursday that 16 teams of its 30 teams will qualify for the postseason in 2020. Never has the bar been this low. We could see the first sub-.500 team in the baseball playoffs in almost 40 years.
It’s becoming a little like the old NHL, when 16 of 21 teams made it to the postseason. Qualifying for the baseball playoffs in 2020 will be like signing up for Facebook. Anybody can do it, even a Boston ballclub with an embarrassing pitching staff.
“I think a lot of people are sleeping on us,” Eovaldi said Thursday. “I think we’re going to come out and surprise a lot of people.”
Eovaldi smothered the Baltimore bums, giving up one run and five hits over six innings of the easy win. The Zer-O’s lost 223 games the last two seasons. They are the Washington Generals of big-league ball — a perfect opponent to make the Red Sox look respectable on this first weekend of the season. All you need to know about the once-proud Orioles is that they had salami-bat shortstop Jose Iglesias batting third Friday. Where have you gone, Boog Powell?
The Orioles have far worse pitching problems than the Red Sox. Immortal lefty Tommy Milone was Baltimore’s Opening Day starter — where have you gone, Jim Palmer? — and the Sox staked Eovaldi to a 10-0 lead, the first four on third-inning doubles by Bradley, Jose Peraza, JD Martinez, and Kevin Pillar. By the end of the night, Bradley had three hits and a walk — pretty sure JBJ has got his swing problem fixed — Peraza had four hits, and Martinez knocked in three runs. The Red Sox hit eight doubles. I haven’t seen this much stat-padding since Rajon Rondo left town.
The game was played in a tidy 3:18. The stands were empty at the finish, just as they were at the start. There was nobody there to hear “Dirty Water.”
“Everybody knows we have to get off to a good start,” said Roenicke beforehand. “If you get off to a bad start, you’re in trouble.”
In a 60-game season, every single game is like three-game series. There will be no bad start for the 2020 Boston Red Sox.
They play the Orioles again Saturday and Sunday.