The battle to win back the hearts, minds, and wallets of Red Sox Nation is underway.
It’s a cold February night. The lobby of Two International Place is filled with lawyers, investment bankers, and assorted politicos who are there at the invitation of developer Don Chiofaro. They chomp on Fenway Franks as they await the night’s big draw: “A Conversation with Red Sox Management.”
It features Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, general Ben Cherington, and John Farrell, the new Sox manager who flew back from Florida to participate.
With a replica of Fenway’s famous scoreboard behind them, Sox radio announcer Dave O’Brien leads the trio through a series of basic questions: Can pitcher John Lackey deliver for the Sox after Tommy John surgery? (They’re hopeful.) How excited are they about the return of Pedro Martinez as a team adviser? (Very.)
But the specifics of this Q-and-A aren’t the point; the presence of Lucchino and his colleagues is what matters. They are selling the Sox in a way it was hard to envision as necessary after two championship wins. As Lucchino explains afterwards, “There is a grass-roots campaign to restore faith in the team and in the team’s commitment to winning.”
Message to Terry Francona: The Sox ownership he maligns as unserious about baseball in the book he wrote with Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy is very serious about it now. The ball club endured two depressing seasons of bad play and too much dugout drama.
There was too much “Sweet Caroline” and not enough sweet victory. The Sox brand is hurting, and the owners know it. Fixing it means fielding a likeable, competitive team and selling it to fans.
According to a recent Globe report, season-ticket renewals are down 10 percent from this time last year. Although those tickets will eventually go to fans on the waiting list, the renewal lapse is a warning to a team that’s used to sell-outs.
Sox management has done roadshows before, but there’s a new urgency to exciting longtime fans. A similar event hosted by Mayor Tom Menino at the Parkman House preceded this one. The group has also been to Providence and more road trips are planned throughout New England.
Community outreach has always been part of the Sox strategy. Now it’s taking on new twists. Jackie Robinson’s son, David, joined the Sox in visiting Boston middle schools to celebrate his father’s legacy during Black History Month. A radio ad features an announcer with a Boston accent who talks about what it takes to turn things around — hard work that involves taking lots of practice ground balls. It’s a clear acknowledgment that the Sox can’t live on “pink hat” fans alone. Just like any political candidate, they need their base.
The Sox are also victims of their own success. For 86 years, fans lived and died with a team that always broke their hearts. With World Series wins in 2004 and 2007, a new generation of fans came to expect triumph, not heartache. And the owners came to expect adulation. Over the past 18 months, they learned just how tough a town Boston can be for losers.
As they map out their turnaround strategy, the stakes are high. There is no joy in Mudville, even in front of a friendly downtown crowd. Cherington is the most serious; Farrell is more relaxed. Lucchino is the most candid about acknowledging past problems. He tells the crowd he can’t wait to paint a different picture of the Sox and finds the World Series trophies, which were brought to the event, “a little dated.”
They can repackage the team, but can they repackage the magic?
Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are still crowd-pleasers. Can they stay injury-free? Will Middlebrooks is everybody’s favorite newcomer right now. Can he handle the pressure? Is the starting pitching good enough? Will Jon Lester get back to his old form? Will Clay Buchholz stay healthy? Can Mike Napoli replicate the huge season he had in 2011, or will his hip injury keep his batting average down?
Winning is the best revenge and the ultimate marketing tool.