Welcome to Opening Day. And Happy New Year.
History and ubiquitous connections to the past make it special to live in Boston. There’s very little that’s truly new. Almost nothing stands alone as its own entity.
And so it is with the ritual that is the Opening Day of the baseball season here in the Hub of the Universe.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are the Red Sox’ opponent for the franchise’s 117th Opening Day, and this represents only the third time in history that the Pirates have traveled to Boston to play the Sox. The Pirates were here in 1903 for the first World Series and they were here in 2005 for one of these goofy interleague series, which still seem silly and unnecessary. And now the Pirates are here through Thursday to face a Red Sox team that is universally favored to win the American League East for a second straight season.
The Red Sox won 93 games last year, but the season ended badly and quickly when Terry Francona’s Cleveland Indians smoked the Sox in three straight Division Series games. The takeaway from that final week of an otherwise good Red Sox season: In their final nine games, the Sox had eight losses, five David Ortiz celebrations, and an early exit from the tournament.
That’s not the goal. Sox owners talk seriously of playing “meaningful games in September and October,” and in this town that means a deep playoff run. It does not mean three-and-out against the Tribe. In this spirit, with all the chest-thumping about the big-payroll, star-studded Sox as a perennial World Series contender, we remind you this franchise has won a postseason game in only one of the last eight baseball seasons. The Sox are overdue.
The ancient Pirates of 1903 stayed at the Vendome Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue when they first played the “Boston Americans.” The Americans of those years played their home games at Huntington Grounds, where today’s backpack-wearing Northeastern students patrol the campus lawn wielding smartphones and iPads.
Here is the part I love most about Monday’s matchup: The man who threw the first pitch against the Pirates, in the first baseball game Pittsburgh played against Boston’s American League team, 114 years ago . . . was Red Sox righty Cy Young.
Monday at Fenway the man who will throw the first pitch to the Pirates will be Sox righthander Rick Porcello — who won the American League’s Cy Young Award last season.
There it is. From Cy Young to Cy Young winner. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Pine tar to pine tar. From Teddy Roosevelt to Donald Trump. From Harry Hooper-Tris Speaker-Duffy Lewis . . . to Fred Lynn-Jim Rice-Dwight Evans . . . to Mookie Betts-Jackie Bradley Jr.-Andrew Benintendi.
Want to connect 114 years of Hub hardball history? It takes only five major league ballplayers to get from Cy Young to today’s Red Sox second baseman, Dustin Pedroia. Cy Young played with Hank Gowdy who played with Johnny Cooney who played with Warren Spahn who played with Phil Niekro who played with David Wells who played with Pedroia, who’ll play second base behind Porcello today.
No one’s going to care about links to the past if Porcello is routed today. But that’s unlikely. In three career starts against Pittsburgh, Porcello is 2-0 with a 0.39 ERA. He has allowed one earned run in 23 innings. And he’s coming off a season in which he went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA and joined Jim Lonborg, Roger Clemens, and Pedro Martinez as the Red Sox only Cy Young winners.
Porcello will be followed in the rotation Wednesday by newly acquired Chris Sale, the indomitable lefthander who is expected to contend for the Cy Young Award in his first Sox season.
The great unknown in the Sox starting rotation, of course, is the estimable-but-oft-maligned David Price, who will start the season on the disabled list due to soreness in his throwing elbow. We may not see Price, the winner of the Cy Young Award in 2012, until May or June or Who Knows, and his place on the shelf underscores new scrutiny on Red Sox baseball boss Dave Dombrowski.
An admired veteran of 40 years in baseball, Dombrowski has lived a charmed life since joining the Sox in the last-place summer of 2015. He has spent big bucks and dealt blue-chip prospects and it paid off with a division flag in his first full season. But the Sox open this season with four of Dombrowski’s prime pitching acquisitions (Price, Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Thornburg, Carson Smith) on the disabled list and there’s grumbling in some corners of the Nation.
The Sox had a strange final week of spring training with unexpected injuries and a curious defensiveness at the top. It feels as if the annual pressure of getting off to a good start (which weighed heavily on manager John Farrell last year) has been transferred to the team’s baseball operations department.
Despite the loss of Ortiz, the 2017 Sox will score enough runs. They scored 878 runs last season and even without Big Papi, they are positioned to lead the American League in scoring again. The everyday lineup is fearsome. The defense is above average. The pitching . . . not so much.
Boston’s bullpen could be a hot mess (Joe Kelly as the eighth-inning guy should give you a chill). Meanwhile, the Sox’ vaunted starting pitching depth of December is diminished by the trading of Clay Buchholz and injuries to Price and Pomeranz.
From Cy Young to Cy Young winner, it’s the same story. From April into October, the Red Sox tattoo the Wall and score a ton of runs, but they still haven’t developed any pitching and we don’t know if they have the arms they’ll need to get them where they want to go. It’s the circle of life with this fabled franchise.
Welcome to Opening Day. And Happy New Year.