The Evil Empire, Part II?

1193246164Let’s get this out of the way before the World Series starts tonight. The question before us as the Red Sox aim for their second championship in four years is this: Have they morphed into the Yankees? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Not quite.

What we have here in 2007 is a well-paid baseball team made up primarily of high-priced free agents, equally well-paid vets other teams couldn’t afford, and a few kids sprinkled in. There’s only one other team that can afford this payroll, and it ain’t the Royals. What we also have is a new fan narrative that is effectively being written right before our eyes. Told you it was a long answer.

To start, the Red Sox as Evil Yankee clones has been a consistent storyline with the national media since the Bronx Bombers imploded early in the playoffs. It makes for a quick and easy column (read: lazy and half-assed) for out-of-town types.

The natural impulse on the part of Red Sox fandom is to recoil in horror at the very thought, but the New York Times Bill Rhoden, who is most certainly not lazy nor half-assed, approached the topic in a column over the weekend.

The door is open for the Red Sox, with a rich baseball tradition and a high payroll, to replace the Yankees as the team the nation loves to hate. The question is whether the Red Sox, after years of being the object of sympathy and even pity, can adjust to being despised.

With the Yankees’ empire in decline, the implications for Boston are significant and perhaps terrifying. The Red Sox could sign Alex Rodriguez, and he and pitcher Josh Beckett could be anchors of a Boston dynasty.

The possibility is there for the spending: no more just missing the brass ring, but rather grabbing that ring season after season. But does Red Sox Nation really want to do this?

In other words, do we want a zero-sum game for our baseball team? Do we want to adopt the so-called Steinbrenner Doctrine that the only acceptable outcome for a season is winning the World Series?

(Note too that Rhoden nailed it vis-a-vis ARod’s impending free agency. If the Red Sox sign him, all bets are off. That’s the deal with ARod. Anything less than 50 home runs, 100 wins and a World Series is a disappointment, even though he has never played in one, let alone won it. Strange world.)

When Theo Epstein assumed the general manager duties he stated the team’s goal as winning 95 games, and thus competing for a playoff berth every year. Note that Theo never said anything about winning championships year in and year out. That was very smart.

The patron saint of enlightened GM’s and fans, Billy Beane, once famously remarked that his shit doesn’t work in the playoffs. Beane took a lot of heat for that remark but it is absolutely true. You build baseball teams for 162 games and what happens in October is, in fact, a crapshoot. It sounds like a convenient excuse for failure, but it is simply acknowledging the obvious when you have teams like the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals that can, and did, win it all.

The assumption is that the Red Sox front office is smart enough to know that, and won’t fall into the Yankee trap. Their blueprint is to bring along the farm system, which has produced spectacular results thus far, and augment the home-grown talent with a few key free-agent signings.

Because their financial resources are what they are, a few key free-agents turned into $70 million for an outfielder with the pulse of plankton, a $36 million shortstop who can’t hit, and a $103 million pitcher who may, or may not, be any better than a No. 3 starter. Again, not many other teams can do that.

This is what Red Sox fans have in front of them. No longer will the team skimp and cut corners to bring home a winner. They are not scrappy underdogs taking on the monolith for the good of humanity. The Red Sox are favorites, and prohibitive favorites at that, in every series they play.

The subtle change has already begun. At any point during the Cleveland series did anyone shudder and think, “This is where the bad stuff starts happening?” The bad stuff went away in 2004 the moment Tony Clark’s triple became a ground-rule double, Mark Bellhorn’s double became a home run, and ARod karate-chopped Bronson Arroyo. Not even a botched pop-up by Julio Lugo can alter history now.

Brian McGrory theorized today in the Globe that we have lost our angst and that is messing with our identity. McGrory’s theory is that this is a bad thing.

To that, we say “Grow up.” One, it’s that kind of nativist thinking that has long held the city back. Two, in the paraphrased words of Manny Ramirez, who really should be the patron philosopher of the post 2004 Red Sox: “It’s only baseball.”

When the Patriots transformed themselves from laughingstock losers to impenetrable football machine, the region happily went along for the ride. There was no angst over the loss of identity to the Tony Eason era.

The Red Sox are extremely well-positioned, as Rhoden noted, to become the force in baseball for the next five years, if not longer. There is no reason, however, to expect the team to act like the Yankees, all button-down and corporate with a prudish and over-inflated sense of self-importance.

For years Red Sox fans allowed themselves to be defined as either (depending on your point of view) pathetic losers, or noble survivors of a grand struggle. The struggle is over and that time has passed.

The moment is here to define ourselves. Here’s one suggestion: How about we all enjoy this run, lest we turn into that which we despise.