FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Because last year ended with humiliation, this year has begun with humility.
The shadow of September 2011 loomed over the entirety of the Red Sox offseason and it now has stretched into the spring. A 7-20 season-ending collapse served as the catalyst for massive organization changes, and for the last two weeks in Fort Myers, spring training has been as much -- if not more -- about looking back to what happened five months ago as it has been to looking ahead to the 2012 season.
The tenor has been all the more striking given its contrast to the tone that prevailed last spring. Then, the question was not merely about whether the Sox were good enough, but instead about whether the team was capable of transcendent accomplishments.
The Sox exuded confidence, even cockiness, throughout last spring. There was the suggestion by Josh Beckett that the team might have the talent to win 100 games. Yankees GM Brian Cashman had declared the team the favorite in the AL East, a perception that the Sox’ owners tried to deflect diplomatically even as it was impossible not to be engulfed by enormous expectations.
There were virtually no roster questions. Instead, the baseball world was dazzled by the more than $300 million in commitments that the Sox had made (at least in principle) to Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez and Bobby Jenks. The extent of the team’s roster “competition” related to the identity of the last two pitchers in the bullpen. Other than that, there was little cause for skepticism about the Sox.
This spring has been dramatically different, for any number of reasons. Any sense of arrogance surrounding the team has disappeared completely.
It is an organization that has been through dramatic change, with a new GM (Ben Cherington) and manager (Bobby Valentine) and a coaching staff that has only two members (hitting coach Dave Magadan and bullpen coach/catching instructor Gary Tuck) in the same positions they occupied a year ago. As for the players, it is a roster whose core superstars remain unchanged but that features questions about playing time allocation and personnel at shortstop, right field, two rotation spots and multiple bullpen roles.
Red Sox principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and CEO/president Larry Lucchino met with their team on Saturday morning and then spent 20 minutes talking with the media. The topics visited during the media session included the following:
-- The content of the owners’ address to the team;
-- Whether the team will be “more focused” this year;
-- The job done by Cherington;
-- Whether the team’s clubhouse alcohol policy had been changed;
-- Henry’s plans for addressing the comments he made suggesting that he was against the signing of Crawford;
-- Where things stood between Henry and deposed manager Terry Francona, the latter of whom suggested in a recent article that he’d made several unsuccessful efforts to reach Henry by phone;
-- The team’s payroll and whether a spending limit had been reached;
-- The rationale for the trade of Marco Scutaro;
-- Whether the owners were satisfied with the compensation they received for the departure of Theo Epstein;
-- The feelings of the owners about the revelations of consumption of beer and fried chicken in the clubhouse;
-- The degree to which the Liverpool Football Club commands the attention of the owners and keeps them away from the Sox;
-- How Valentine might differ from Francona;
-- Whether Crawford’s shifting spot in the batting order was an issue in his struggles;
-- Whether there is concern about the direction of the organization;
-- The importance of owner involvement in the affairs of the team;
-- Lucchino’s role in the baseball operations department.
To summarize: The session was dominated by questions of governance and management. The only questions about the actual players in uniform who will now determine how far the Sox go related to why the Sox got rid of one player (Scutaro), how the principal owner planned to handle what had been perceived (not quite fairly) as criticizing another (Crawford) and the question of whether the Sox were satisfied with the player whom they got back (Chris Carpenter, who almost certainly will open the year in the minors) when they let an executive (Epstein) leave.
Thanks to one pitiful month that led to a meltdown for the ages, the Sox are viewed as a team dominated more by questions than certainties. Whereas last year it was only the strength of the team that glinted under the Florida sun, this year it is the memory of the flaws that were exposed at the end of the year that has assumed the greatest prominence.
Just as the preseason view of the 2011 team was inaccurate, the likelihood is that the prism through which the 2012 Sox are being examined at this stage is also distorted.
That being said, the Sox appear to be driven by the sudden recasting of their role. The transformation of their perception from favorite to flawed is one that the team is willing to embrace.
“I am absolutely not concerned about [the fact that some are predicting the team to finish third in the AL East]. In fact, I relish it,” Lucchino said some time after the morning press conference. “I’ve had enough of the overestimation, the hype attached to last year’s team.”
Even as he is happy to see the hype dissipate, Lucchino said that he considers the team right now to be better than the one that finished the 2011 season. He also believes that, as constructed, it is a roster capable of competing for a championship.
“When I say [championship-caliber team], I mean playoffs, because after that, everyone knows it’s a crapshoot. But do I think we have the talent to get into the postseason? I do,” said Lucchino. “But we’ve got to have a safe and healthy year. We’ve got to have highly motivated players, individually and collectively. A lot of things have to go right. We need the baseball leadership to do its job.
“But I’m optimistic and excited about 2012, not just about the ribbon cutting [at JetBlue Park, a ceremony that took place on Saturday]. It’s exciting. This is the first day of the 2012 season. I’m excited – more so than I’ve been in several years.”
In Lucchino’s view, that excitement is a reflection of what he viewed as very strong complementary pieces that were acquired to join a strong core. Despite the way in which the 2011 season unraveled, the Sox front office did not reach a sudden conclusion that its view of the talent whom it had under contract for the long-term was flawed.
“We have something to prove this year. [But] one year does not a trend make,” said Lucchino. “We have to see how well these guys perform this year. We shouldn’t reach any premature conclusions about the quality of this nucleus. I still think it’s very, very high.”
The players feel similarly. Towards that end, DH David Ortiz -- now the longest-tenured member of the club as he prepares for his 10th season in a Red Sox uniform -- decided to deliver a speech in front of his teammates and owners on Saturday to offer all present a reminder of the talent evident on the roster, and where the responsibility for the team’s success and failure lies.
“[The meeting] I think was a good time for us as players to make sure our owners don’t feel guilty about the job that they do,” said Ortiz. “I think they [did] a hell of a job last year putting a good team together. After that, it’s not on them. It’s on us. I know everybody wants to call them out -- Mr. Henry, Larry Lucchino, Tom Werner.
“At the end of the day, there’s nothing else they can do but do what they did last year and what they did this year: Pick up good players, bring them into the organization. After that, it’s on us.”
That Ortiz made such a speech offers some insight into one of the dominant themes of the early spring. Whereas the inability to reach the playoffs in 2010 was characterized (accurately or not) as the unavoidable byproduct of a string of calamitous injuries, last year’s absence from the playoffs led the Sox with no such obvious deflection of culpability.
And so, the team has been faced with a renewed sense of accountability for its failures of a year ago, and, perhaps, a new motivation to disprove the criticism and doubt. Werner and Lucchino discussed a “new chapter” for the Red Sox in 2012, while Henry described it as a “next chapter,” in tacit acknowledgment of the fact that the story of the coming year cannot be separated completely from the one that preceded it.
From the standpoint of perception, the questions have surpassed the certainties. That is an unfamiliar reality for a Red Sox team that has been favored for a postseason berth in nearly all of the last nine years, though not an unwelcome one.
“We’re looking forward to really kind of proving people wrong,” starter Jon Lester said recently. “Last year, everyone wanted to give us the World Series title the first day. This year, I think we come in the underdogs. I think that’s going to be fun. I think it’s going to be fun to see how guys react to that and how we go about our business.”
Whether they are good enough remains to be seen. Yesterday represented what is treated as a starting point for that assessment, with the first full squad workout serving as something of an evaluative launching point to examine the strength of the club.
The Sox are coming off a year of disappointment and failure. Against that backdrop, they find themselves in an increasingly competitive division and league. The Yankees have added pieces, the young Rays have players who are one year closer to their primes and teams like the Angels and Tigers and Rangers added superstars this winter.
Those moves made the Sox’ position all the more precarious. Yet the increasingly daunting landscape of what it will take to succeed also lends itself to the possibility of tremendous rewards.
“The reality is we are being challenged this year,” Valentine said recently. “We’re being challenged internally. We’re going to be challenged externally by the teams that we’re going to have to play against. Sometimes it’s the great challenge that brings the best out of people. I hope that the best can be brought out of this group.
“This is 2012. This is the year that could be the most special year of their life. That is definitely a message I want them to understand, regardless of what happened last year, whether they were in Korea or Boston or the National League West. I want them to think this is a special year.”
Whether it ends that way remains to be seen. But it is already apparent that 2012 is off to a very different beginning than the last chapter.