David Price should have signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. His bank account would be smaller, but it sure seems his baseball life would be fuller.
It bugs me that it’s come to this, because this string of weird mini-melodramas is on us as well as it is Price, the accomplished, bunny-eared lefthander who signed a $217 million contract with the Red Sox before last season, an offer that blew away all others, including the Cardinals’ reported runner-up pitch.
Boston prides itself on being a tough sports town, with a collective gruff, prove-it-to-me approach that is sometimes charming — it’s a blast when a new player instantly thrives off the vibe, like Pedro Martinez upon arrival in ’98 — but can also be arrogant and detrimental.
This mind-set is especially prevalent among Red Sox fans, and sometimes it is a misguided pride. When good players come here and struggle with their performance and the atmosphere — Edgar Renteria being a notable one — we wear it like a badge of honor.
“He couldn’t handle it here. Not cut out for the intensity. We’re the toughest and most knowledgeable fans in America! Roar!” (Spills Sam Adams Summer Ale on authentic Brock Holt jersey.)
I don’t know, seems like Renteria did pretty well in Octobers, plural. Sometimes maybe it’s us, too.
Price did get too much grief last year, certainly more than he deserved, though the reasons are obvious. He made a mediocre first impression, posting a 5.76 ERA in March and April despite winning all three of his decisions. And he made a brutal final impression in October, allowing five runs in 3⅓ innings in a 6-0 loss to the Indians in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.
Both developments confirmed preconceived notions: That he wasn’t cut out for an intense market, and that he was habitually less than his best self in the postseason, save for striking out J.D. Drew in a crucial spot way back in Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series.
It was an uphill battle for him after that slow start, especially because we love to harp on players’ steep salaries around here. Remember when Avery Bradley’s four-year, $32 million deal with the Celtics seemed rich? He’s a steal now. Professional sports are awash in television money, and salaries are rising. Might as well be the performers who get paid.
It became easy to forget that for much of the summer, Price won that uphill battle: In the four-month stretch from May 12 to Sept. 12, he lowered his ERA from 6.75 to 3.81, winning 14 of 24 starts with a 3.07 ERA. He was what he was supposed to be for much of the year, just not at the bookends. In the end, a pitcher with 17 wins, a 3.99 ERA, and 228 strikeouts in 230 innings was a tremendous asset.
An optimist — yes, contrary to what you might hear on your radio, there are some among us — might have hoped for a smoother second season after the adjustment. It didn’t seem too much to ask; John Lackey is a recent example of a free agent who struggled upon arrival but who eventually ended up with a prominent spot on a duck boat. Instead, it’s gotten worse, so much worse, to the point that Price’s opt-out after the third year of his deal looks like an oasis in the distance.
It’s not about his pitching. He’s been decent since returning from his spring training elbow scare, allowing three runs or fewer in each of his last four starts. He has walked just one batter while striking out 12 over his last two starts, a sign his stuff is there and his command is coming around.
But even as he’s finding his way on the mound, he seems as lost as ever performing in this market, and it’s hard to see how it gets better. He seems to have a desire to be universally liked, and that’s just not going to happen. Heck, we had a radio host around here who referred to Pedro Martinez as Pedro the Punk in his glorious heyday. For better or worse (probably the latter), it’s part of playing here.
Price seems incapable of tuning out the noise, which does him no favors. What’s worse is that in picking his battles, he seems to pick the wrong ones. His confrontation with CSN’s Evan Drellich earlier this year signaled that Price not only pays attention to small criticisms on social media, but that he doesn’t discern between different types of media and their roles — the beat reporters from the radio hosts, the columnists from the talking heads.
It’s understandable why he doesn’t; the lines are blurred, and the same personality can be thoughtful in one format and a shrieking banshee in another. Drellich is opinionated, but he leans toward the reasonable no matter the medium.
But even if the nuance escapes Price, his confrontation with NESN analyst Dennis Eckersley on the team’s flight to Toronto defies common sense. Eckersley’s bona fides are as legitimate as any analyst in any market in baseball — he’s a Hall of Famer who en route to Cooperstown endured a remarkable number of professional and personal peaks and valleys.
But he was always accountable; his willingness to take the blame despite being let down by his defense during the “Boston Massacre” series with the Yankees in 1978 is the stuff of legend. He handled the Kirk Gibson home run in the ’88 World Series with impeccable grace.
Eckersley was candid as a player, and that is the reason he is a truly exceptional analyst. He says what he truly believes, usually without a filter. Reportedly it was Eckersley’s one-word comment upon seeing a NESN graphic with Eduardo Rodriguez’s unsightly pitching line in a rehab start — “Yuck” — that set off Price. Eckersley was reacting viscerally, just as the viewers were. It’s what informed fans want: an honest response.
Maybe Price thought he was being a good teammate. If so, it was woefully misguided, and according to a source who witnessed the confrontation, Price’s behavior was “sickening.” Further, the notion — prevalent in the Red Sox clubhouse through the years — that Eckersley shouldn’t be critical because he’s an ex-player and knows how difficult the game can be, is a nearsighted one. That’s exactly why he should be critical. He knows.
Coincidentally, Eckersley succeeded later in his career in St. Louis, the place Price should have gone. Eckersley had his best times in Oakland, pitched a no-hitter for Cleveland, and even had some moments for the ’84 Cubs.
But it’s Boston where he won 20 games in ’78, where he ended his career with a last hurrah on a wildly likable ’98 Red Sox team, where he settled down post-career to become a respected and popular broadcaster.
Boston has been an ideal fit for Eckersley’s sensibilities. I don’t think we’ll ever say the same for David Price. Some of that is our fault. Mostly, it’s his.
Follow Chad Finn on Twitter at @GlobeChadFinn.