TAMPA — It would be impossible to script a more bland Opening Day. It is as if the Baseball Gods conspired to give the Red Sox an opportunity to fly under the radar for a while.
Boston’s 2018 Olde Towne Team — almost the exact same cast of characters that inspired apathy and some legitimate disdain while winning a second straight division title last year — will open its season Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m., 1,400 miles from home in the worst ballpark in the majors against perhaps the worst team in the majors while folks back in Boston are looking at snowbanks, gearing up for Celtics and Bruins playoffs, and still asking why Malcolm Butler did not play in the Super Bowl.
“We’re a pretty good team,’’ senior statesman Dustin Pedroia (recovering from knee surgery) said before the Sox shuttered their spring clubhouse in Fort Myers earlier this week.
This is true. Though it’s been a while since the Sox owned the hearts of Hub sports fans, they should be a strong entry in the top-heavy American League this year. They’ve added a 45-home-run bat (J.D. Martinez) to a team that won back-to-back division titles with bookend 93-win seasons. It’s not a stretch to expect better seasons from Hanley Ramirez (trimmer, healthier), Xander Bogaerts (10 homers last year), and David Price (six wins in 2017).
Meanwhile, Andrew Benintendi looked like a Yaz/Fred Lynn hybrid in spring training, ace closer Craig Kimbrel is in his walk year, and a full season of baby bull slugger Rafael Devers bodes well for 2018. Mookie Betts is a pocket Willie Mays, an MVP waiting to happen.
When new manager Alex Cora was asked what he liked about spring training, the rookie skipper smiled and said, “Besides the freaking best record in baseball?’’
Haha. Good one. Cora knows that Boston’s 22-9-1 Grapefruit record means nothing once the season starts Thursday against Chris Archer, the much-buffeted ace (2-12, 5.45 ERA lifetime against the Red Sox) of the Rays. What Cora may not yet know is that a 93-win, first-place season also holds little currency in Boston these days.
It’s totally unfair, but absolutely true: We are insanely spoiled in this High Renaissance of Boston sports. The Patriots have finished first a million straight years (OK, only 14 of the last 15) in their pathetic Warhol Division. The upstart Celtics had the best record in the entire Eastern Conference last year. And the Bruins (remember those meaningless Adams Division banners?) can tell you the plug-nickel value of the Presidents’ Trophy.
Baseball used to be the exception. In the American League from 1961-68, you had to beat nine other teams over 162 games to finish first, and it meant you went directly to the World Series. That’s part of the reason that the 1967 Red Sox are so beloved in this region. They won the greatest pennant race of all time, finished first in a 10-team league, and went to the seventh game of the World Series.
The 2017 Red Sox liked to brag that they were the first Sox team to finish first in back-to-back season in more than 100 years, and that is true but nonetheless meaningless, because they were choking dogs in October, just as they were in 2016. The locals were one-and-done both seasons. They amassed a single victory in seven playoff games. None of the young core guys hit, and not a single pitcher on the current Sox roster has ever won a postseason game as a starter.
Mr. October? Today’s Red Sox have a lot of Mr. Junes.
But Opening Day is about starting over, so let’s get into the spirit. This is 2018. Your Sox are tanned and relaxed, and they really like their 42-year-old manager. The clubhouse culture is great. Ping-Pong for everyone. There will be no more “It’s-not-me-it’s-them,’’ David Price/Dennis Eckersley, Apple Watch Cheatin’ tomfoolery.
The Sox have rid themselves of clueless manager John Farrell and a cast of coaches who, according to ownership, ruined the 2017 season with a poor “approach.’’ The ’18 CoraMen are ready to ride Launch Angle and First-Pitch Swinging all the way to the Fall Classic.
It’s not going to be easy. The American League is stacked at the top. The Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians — the franchises that dismissed the Sox the past two Octobers — are still loaded, and the Yankees are once again baseball’s centerfold team with a Murderers Row of sluggers reminiscent of the Ruth-Gehrig days.
But the Red Sox are also really good. They have baseball’s highest payroll ($223 million). They have the exact same team that just won 93 games, plus a guy who hit 45 homers last year. They have a new manager who is loved by all, and a friendly early schedule that gives them nine games out of the gate against teams that are trying to lose (Rays and Marlins).
It’s like a steady diet of Bills, Jets, and Dolphins. The Sox could be 9-0 when they play the Yankees at Fenway April 10.
But will you embrace them? Will you love them again? Or will you watch the Celtics and Bruins and speculate on the NFL Draft and wonder about Malcolm Butler?
Let’s see. It all starts Thursday in the dumb, dank Trop Dome.