FORT MYERS, Fla. — Red Sox players sat still for a 30-minute media training session before their workouts Saturday morning at Fenway South. The tutorial was hardly necessary. Most of these young guys know how to present themselves to fans, and how to work with the no-longer-carnivorous Boston baseball media.
Seriously. The 2017 Red Sox have a raft of homegrown young stars who are polite, cooperative, and careful with their words. If you are a baseball fan, you see the sound bites on TV every night during the regular season. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi, and the rest of them all sound as if they majored in public relations.
“I think individually we all grew up the right way,’’ said Bogaerts, an Aruba native who first came to the big leagues when he was 20 in 2013. “The Red Sox are one of the top organizations in the game and you’ve got to bring that with you. You can’t be disrespectful or impolite; that just doesn’t fly around here.
“Everyone, from Day 1, that’s what they teach here. Discipline is No. 1. Show up on time. Little stuff like that — that you can control. It’s easy to do.’’
Bradley, a Virginia native who debuted in the majors when he was 22 in 2013, said, “I think we have a lot of respect for everyone. I was always taught at a young age to treat everyone the way you want to be treated.
“We all know everyone has a job to do. I went to college as well and they prepare you for that as well. It’s something you become acclimated to at a young age. I just try to be myself.’’
It’s totally respectful . . . and a tad boring. Sometimes I wonder if these guys learned it watching Crash Davis teach Nuke LaLoosh how to speak without really saying anything in “Bull Durham.’’ No doubt this is something Sox management likes. It’s certainly a departure from a decades-old tradition of immaturity, bombast, churlishness, conceit, and playfulness that was part of the DNA of so many young Red Sox stars of the 20th century.
Ted Williams was the original bad boy of Boston baseball. We speak of Ted today in revered tones because of his war record, his tireless Jimmy Fund work, and his graciousness as the Father Christmas of baseball in his later years. But in the early part of his career, Williams’s feud with the local press was legendary. Ted could say “writer” and make it sound like a four-letter word.
His hatred of the press was downright Trumpesque. Ted’s war with the media lasted until the day he retired, when he fired one last zinger toward the “knights of the keyboard,” who he believed had been unfair to him.
When Ted was gone, the torch was passed to Carl Yastrzemski, Tony C, Billy C, and Reggie Smith, who feuded with their managers (and with one another) in a very public fashion. They begat Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Oil Can Boyd, Roger Clemens, Mo Vaughn, and Nomar Garciaparra — players who had a rough ride on the learning curve of Red Sox PR 101.
Was any young star less equipped for fame than a 22-year-old Rice? Jim Ed was shy and stoic, a black man from South Carolina playing MVP-caliber baseball in a city that was racially torn by school desegregation. Silent Rice was ever-compared to golden child Freddie Lynn, a wildly talented Californian who knew how to play the game. Rice did not suffer fools gladly and hated to talk about himself.
“The players have to feel comfortable, and if they don’t feel comfortable with you, they’re not going to tell you anything,’’ Rice recalled. “Now the Red Sox have that meeting to try to tell the players to get along with the press. But you can always catch a guy on a bad day, and all of a sudden he becomes a bad guy.’’
Boggs loved to talk about himself and said things that still strain credibility. He told us he willed himself invisible to escape from a parking lot knife fight. He got run over by his wife in the family Jeep. He announced, “I’m the white Irving Fryar.’’
Oil Can was a sweet kid from Meridian, Miss. He had his own language, like Dennis Eckersley. He had the greatest nickname of all time and exuded charisma. He also was combustible. At one time or another, he feuded with everyone.
Clemens could never communicate. He was unnecessarily difficult, and when he did talk, he rambled and got himself into jams. When smart and savvy Pedro Martinez succeeded Clemens as the Sox’ Cy Young ace, the press box joke was that not only did Pedro, a native of the Dominican Republic, surpass Roger in most pitching categories, he actually spoke better English, too.
The Sox no longer have a character like Vaughn, who had big appetites, rolled his vehicle while driving home from a strip club, and referred to his Sox bosses as “joint chiefs of staff.’’
Finally, there was Nomar, who came to the big leagues with a predisposed hatred of all media. Nomar ordered the “do not cross” red line to be put down in front of lockers in the clubhouse, and habitually sneered at all those who threatened to violate his routines or his space.
Today the red line is gone, and so is the metaphorical moat that separated Sox stars from the fans. Boston baseball’s baby bulls of 2017 are telegenic, accommodating, and trained in eye contact. Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley, and Benintendi all came back to Boston for the annual baseball writers’ dinner, and all four helped out the ball club with the Winter Weekend at Foxwoods.
“I think the organization has done a good job with media training as the players come up through our system,’’ said Red Sox PR boss Kevin Gregg, now in his fifth year on the job. “It might be a little generational, too.
“They’re just good guys. Give credit to their parents. That, and I think there’s consistent messaging on what’s the right thing to do.’’
The Sox no doubt love the lack of controversy this produces.
“It’s not done for that purpose,’’ said Gregg. “And the advice is not heeded by everyone.’’
True. Call me a dreamer, but with Chris Sale, Pablo Sandoval, and Hanley Ramirez in the fold, I’m hoping there’s still a chance for some old-fashioned clubhouse chaos here in Camp Tranquility.