Why It Seems Like Old Times: The Red Sox Are a Mess

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

[sidebar]BASEBALL IS DIFFERENT. It’s a strange, weird world with its own social structures and habits of business. It’s a place where overweight pitchers, instead of humbly copping to indulging in midgame fried-chicken banquets, bellyache about clubhouse snitches (ahem, Mr. Beckett). It’s also a world where grown men frequently undress in front of total strangers. And really, those were the two main things that led to me standing in Bobby Valentine’s office one day this past February while he was stripping down (he’s a briefs man, ladies).

The Red Sox’s beer-and-Popeye’s-fueled September collapse, you might have heard, led to the ouster of manager Terry Francona and then the departure of general manager and local hero/Christ figure Theo Epstein. Ben Cherington, Theo’s longtime apprentice, slid quickly into his old boss’s place, but trouble ensued when ownership rejected his apparent preferred candidate for manager. Soon after, Valentine, an old favorite of team president and CEO Larry Lucchino, surfaced as the leading contender for the job. When Valentine was finally hired, the Red Sox brass insisted that the whole thing had been Cherington’s decision, not Lucchino’s. A few dozen small children even accepted that argument uncritically.

Call me crazy, but as a lifelong Red Sox fan, I loved it. All of it — including the collapse itself. Unless you happen to be the kind of fan who gets jazzed by Adrian Gonzalez’s prayer circles (and who didn’t love last year’s inaugural Faith Day at Fenway Park?), the club by last year had gotten boring with a red, capital B. Then the Sox blew a nine-game wild-card lead in a single month, and suddenly, chaos and intrigue — once the hallmark of the Red Sox — were back again. And just when it seemed impossible for the team to top that spectacular flameout and all the controversy that followed, they hired Bobby Valentine. This was a guy who, despite a universally acclaimed baseball mind, was heretofore best known for making outrageous statements, often about his own team. Oh, and also for that time he was kicked out of a game while managing the Mets, only to slap on a fake mustache and sneak back into his dugout.

“Only the terminally naive believe they can hire Bobby Valentine and then live a stress-free life,” Globe columnist Bob Ryan wrote the day after the hire became public, imagining management waking up to headlines such as “Bobby V blasts Beckett.” The consensus on Valentine, in other words, was that he’s something like an active volcano: on most days, a great attraction and a wonder to behold, but also capable of spewing lava and burning down the entire village.

OF COURSE, Valentine hasn’t melted down yet (as of press time!). And if nothing else, he’s been pure energy since coming to town. He’s been everywhere and done everything, including a photo shoot for this magazine at Fenway Park. When he came down the ballpark concourse to meet us, he was practically bouncing. I’d tagged along for an interview, so when he sat down to get his makeup done, I asked him how he’d spent the off-season. He said he’d been getting to know people, flying all over to fulfill charitable commitments, watching video, and “devouring a lot of statistical analysis.” So rest easy, any of you who worried he wasn’t a Moneyball acolyte.

As the shoot began, he could hardly stay still. While sitting on a stool for a portrait, he swung his leg back and forth restlessly, like that kid stuck in class dying to be on the ballfield instead. During a short break, while everyone else was breaking, he picked up the camera and examined it. After a while, he seemed to grow bored with just sitting there in front of the camera. So he started loudly singing notes to himself and then yelled, “Okay!”

Which gets me back to why I found myself, a few minutes later, talking to him while he was changing, rather than, I don’t know, sitting at a table or inside a restaurant. Bobby Valentine is the type who likes to find every possible use for every moment. He isn’t into wasting time, even if it’s while he’s buttoning his shirt.

A FEW WEEKS LATER, down in Fort Myers, reporters immediately noted how Valentine had picked up the pace from Camp Francona. There was no lazy shagging of balls in the outfield — everybody was in continuous motion. Especially Valentine: He bounced from working with catchers to pitchers to position players. He also made headlines with some comments about Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. This is the new business as usual.

Valentine and the volatility he represents are fitting symbols for this new age of Red Sox skepticism. After all, the trust is gone. It’s not just because of the collapse and the fried chicken and the beer. No, it’s because an anonymous source leaked lurid details about Terry Francona to the Globe. It’s because the owner, John Henry, went on talk radio after the season ended and, during a bizarre 70-minute performance on 98.5 the Sports Hub, managed to throw Carl Crawford, Theo Epstein, and his entire baseball operations staff under the bus. It’s because even though we’ve been told who picked the new manager, we’re not really sure we believe it. It’s because Theo — the one guy you always somehow trusted, even when he was dishing out heinous contracts to Crawford and John Lackey — has taken his gorilla suit and moved to Chicago. And finally, it’s because Francona — who managed to escape blame for the collapse, despite his team unraveling around him — now works for ESPN. It’s funny when you think about it: Francona used to drive fans crazy by sticking with his guys, no matter their struggles (think Mark Bellhorn in ’04 and Dustin Pedroia three years later). And then, in the end, the fans stood by Francona, despite having a million reasons not to. Boston fans aren’t easy. That type of faith is as hard-earned as it is remarkable. And now it’s gone.

It didn’t help that this off-season was disastrous on a number of fronts. Forget all the melodrama — what about the players? The Yankees loaded up with a stunning trade for young pitching phenom Michael Pineda…and the Red Sox traded shortstop Marco Scutaro to Colorado to save money. So all of a sudden, we’re economizing? At the same time, the Olde Towne Team is short a proven right-fielder and — at least while Crawford recovers from a wrist injury — a left-fielder. Worse, when Crawford recovers, he will be the left-fielder again. And the best thing you can say about the back end of the starting pitching rotation is that it’s slightly less unsightly than the back end of  Vince Wilfork.

There’s a chance, of course, that Ben Cherington knows what he’s doing. It’s even highly likely. He wasn’t Theo’s top lieutenant for nothing. And there’s even a chance that Larry Lucchino will leave him alone to do his thing (okay, that’s a bit less likely). We just don’t know yet. The jury’s out. But for the first time since Henry and Tom Werner bought the team in 2002, we’re not giving them the benefit of the doubt. That’s because they appear to be struggling: The Red Sox have finished in third place two straight years, and even worse — at least from their perspective — the owners have lost control of the team’s image.

But like I said, I think that’s a good thing.

It’s clichéd at this point to say that Red Sox fans have become overconfident since 2004. But that only states half the issue: The real problem is the lack of doubt. Thanks to Henry and company’s heretofore competent management, we’ve lost that old sense that, no matter what, something is going to go wrong. These days at Fenway Park, we expect comebacks. When “Sweet Caroline” comes on in the middle of the eighth (God help us), fans belt out a rousing rendition, regardless of the score. I was at a game a few years ago where the Sox were down something like seven runs and fans still sang at full-throat. Pre-2004, if the Red Sox were down more than a run that late in the game, we’d all be sitting there eating our hats and filled with dread. Now we sing Neil Diamond. I mean, are we okay with us?


But back to the collapse: I actually liked waking up angry at the Red Sox. It was refreshing to be reminded that a baseball team had the unique capability of ruining my day for no good reason. I enjoyed the sideshow of the team in disarray. If winning had caused me to go numb, losing was like a sharp pin prick reminding me that I cared. I don’t think I’m the only one in town who feels this way. I sense that the old skepticism is back all across New England. It feels great.

So yeah, considering the way 2011 ended and the off-season unfolded, the Red Sox are a mess right now. The picture only gets grimmer when you look at the rest of the American League: The Yankees and the Rays are still strong in the East, and in the West, the Angels picked up Albert Pujols and the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers remain menacing. In the Central, the Detroit Tigers signed Prince Fielder to pair with Miguel Cabrera in perhaps the heaviest and heaviest-hitting infield in baseball history. To my eye, the Red Sox are probably the sixth-best team in the league entering the season.

But you know what? They’ll be entertaining. With all his energy, Bobby Valentine can’t help but be interesting. He’ll say stuff. He’ll do stuff. We’ll bitch and moan about him, but he’ll keep us glued to the TV like a fake mustache to his lip. He may even get Josh Beckett to pitch faster. But at the very least, thanks to ownership’s bumbling and Valentine’s hiring, we’ve returned to the days of the Red Sox as a soap opera. The team may never be able to be an underdog again, but somehow, they just might surprise us and overcome all this turbulence. That victory would, once again, be sweet.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/03/fenway-park-turns-100-seems-like-old-times/