NEW YORK -- And so, here they are again, seeking a fresh start in the very venue where their previous season came to such a humiliating end.
The final days of the Red Sox' 2012 campaign are not recalled in sharp definition. The last games of the season in New York, the final touches on a 69-93 season that represented the team's worst in nearly a half-century, carried little meaning for the Sox.
There were precisely two elements of intrigue that hung over the Sox as the season reached its embarrassing end: 1) When would Bobby Valentine be fired? And, 2) What sort of dynamite would he detonate in his wake?
On the field? An afterthought. It was hard to view the team's performance as anything but a sideshow while waiting for any drama with the manager to unfold. Still, competitive pride left the Sox hoping to finish the year on something other than a miserable note.
"We wanted to win despite the chaos that was going on," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
"It's so hard to talk about last year. There was so much going on. … I think at that point in time, it was just, guys were so tired of such a long season. When you're fighting things on and off the field, it makes it that much tougher," said Andrew Bailey. "I think it was just weighing on a lot of guys, and everyone was kind of like, 'Let's just move past this. We know we didn't meet our expectations.' "
As the last days of the season ticked away, the reality of the meaninglessness of the games was felt acutely. The last time that the Sox had been unable to claim at least fringe competitor status through the season's final weeks was in 2001; and so, the three season-ending contests in Yankee Stadium felt foreign.
"Even when we lost in 2011, we played until the last day and could have gone to the postseason. Every game I'd played in had given us a chance to go to the postseason, to win the division. Every game meant something," Jacoby Ellsbury recalled. "It's tough not having that. It's not a good feeling. The fun of the competition is, if you win, knowing we can go beyond [the regular season]. [Last year] is not a feeling you want to have."
At the time, the final series of last year seemed most notable for the fact that Valentine questioned the loyalty of his coaching staff and he got in a bike accident in Central Park. That the Sox lost all three games in New York -- proving competitive in the middle game of the series, a 4-3, 12-inning loss, between blowout losses of 10-2 and 14-2 -- is almost an afterthought. At that point, the outcomes felt irrelevant.
But in a way, that was just the point. That sense of foreignness regarding the experience of being a team that couldn't compete at the big league level, persists. There were a number of players on the team who were reduced by injuries to spectator status -- notably, David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks -- and thus had time to try to wrap their heads around what the Sox had become.
"We were normally on the other side of that. It's not a good feeling at all. I'd never had that feeling in my life. Probably most of these guys hadn't. Definitely don't want to feel it again -- that's for sure," Middlebrooks recalled of the series in New York. "There were so many different feelings. I don't even know what to say. I don't want to say it was a relief that all of that was over, but there was almost an anger there. I was embarrassed. All of us were embarrassed. That's not how we play baseball. That's not how this organization plays baseball.
"I just know when that last out was made, all I could think of was, 'Right now. It's finally here,' " said Middlebrooks. "I really don't think the offseason could be over soon enough, just to start with a clean slate. [But] I actually don't think our slate is really clean. We have a lot to make up for, a reputation to get back."
Of course, in a sense, at least in one corner of the clubhouse, that process commenced during that series in New York in the final days of 2012. The stage may have been set for a critical change in the dynamic surrounding the Sox by one performance that had no business taking place under such circumstances.
On the final Sunday of the season, Dustin Pedroia fractured his finger on a stolen base attempt in Baltimore. He realized the severity of the injury when he showed up in the batting cage in New York at 11 a.m. on Monday. The finger had swollen too much to permit him to swing. Pedroia sat -- with the assumption being that his season was over -- and Jacoby Ellsbury was likewise sidelined, resulting in a lineup that would have been unrecognizable for much of the year:
Just two of the team's starters had been on the Opneing Day roster. A shocking four of the nine lineup members hadn't been on the 40-man roster at the start of the seemingly interminable season. When Pedroia returned from the ballpark to his hotel, he was confronted with the idea that his team had become a punchline.
"I remember turning on Baseball Tonight, and they showed our lineup," said Pedroia. "I wanted to make sure they wouldn't talk negatively about our team, that we were quitting or anything like that."
He iced his finger in his hotel room and arrived at the ballpark early on Tuesday to try swinging again. There was, he realized, enough of an ability to do just that to conclude that he could play. Pedroia texted Valentine, who at the time suggested that he was so startled to receive the text that he fell off his bike in Central Park -- a claim that proved literal.
For Pedroia, there was little to be gained from a personal standpoint at the conclusion of a long and injury-riddled season. But there was nothing to be lost by playing -- the injury, he was assured, would not get worse -- and so the second baseman felt compelled to be on the field, to make a moral and ethical statement on the diamond.
"There was satisfaction of being out there and playing because I was able to, but it was just tough -- I wanted to finish strong and be there for the team," said Pedroia. "My mindset was, act the right way. Sometimes, when you go 0-for-4, don't feel good at the plate, it shouldn't change how you act in the clubhouse or on the field. No one should know that you're struggling. That's how I took it.
"Not only the last couple games but the last however long, we were out of it. It's hard to do, but that's the way I took it. This game and in life, it's not about how you feel. It's about how you act. I just wanted to play."
He was no mere empty uniform. Over the next two games (both Sox losses, of course), he went 3-for-7 with two doubles and two walks.
The performance did not help the Sox win those days. But the approach that Pedroia took to contests that had no significance could at some point mark (or at least be interpreted to mark) the beginning of the organization's turnaround.
It remains to be seen if that is in 2013, in a season that is about to have the curtain lifted in the Bronx. And Pedroia doesn't want to overstate the symbolic import of his decision to play last year.
Still, clearly, there were lessons that he absorbed from the team's dreadful end to an awful 2012 campaign.
"I try to block it out. Last year was last year. Try to turn the page as fast as you can, focus on what you're doing that day," Pedroia said of his recollections of being on the field for those games. "In spring training, every day is -- what can I do better? What can I do to help the team win?
"[Opening Day is the start of] another journey. There's going to be ups and downs as a team, individual stuff. It's how you respond to all of it that makes you either a special team or not a team that finishes, that wins the last game. It's how you respond to failure in baseball that makes you either one of the best or just another guy. Our goal this year is that we're going to respond the right way and win a lot of ballgames."
When they were last in the Bronx, the Sox were a defeated team, though at least in the case of Pedroia, not unbowed. Now, with the benefit of separation from that emotionally spent state -- not to mention a new manager and a considerably overhauled roster -- there is a renewed sense of purpose and opportunity as the team gets ready to once again take on the Yankees.
"I think everyone was shocked at the way things went as a whole. Those last three days, I think everyone was like, 'Let's get back to work. We have a blank slate, put this in the past and prepare for next year.' Now we have a blank slate. We have a new team and we should do big things," said Bailey. "I think the attitude and excitement in the clubhouse is profound. I think anyone who walks in here can see that -- it's a lot different from last year."
This is the beauty of Opening Day. The defeated sentiments that characterized the conclusion of the previous year are a thing of the past. In their wake is a new club, with a new resolve.
For the Sox, there is the hope that the forthcoming three games in New York offer a chance to display how far the team has come over the course of the (almost) six months since it slumped off the field at the end of a too-long 2012 campaign.
And for those players who carried with them the memory of how last year ended, the desire to shed the albatross of the worst Red Sox season in generations is far-reaching.
"I want to score 20 on whoever we play, to be honest, no matter who we play -- if it's the Yankees, Royals, whoever," said Middlebrooks. "All of this 'regain the faith' and all that -- seriously, I just want to come out and start kicking people's asses."
Can the Red Sox achieve such a dramatic reversal to the fashion in which they ended the previous year? The answers start to form now.
First pitch, 1:05.