I waited my whole life for someone to come along, buy the Red Sox, and accomplish two things:
1) Win championships.
2) Clean up the decrepit, tenement slum that was Fenway Park.
And now that the triumvirate of John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino has done them both, I intend to enjoy it, not sit here picking nits and piling onto the molehill until it has black diamond trails running down the side.
But there is one small, nagging little issue I’ve had with them since they took over the Sox that grew into a concern, expanded into an apprehension, swelled into a problem and might be in danger of becoming an all-out, five-alarm crisis: I’m wondering if the Red Sox ownership is getting caught up in its own fabulousness.
Obviously, I’m not talking about the team the owners have put on the field. Year after year, they’ve proven they can go into a season with a competitive roster and then give Theo Epstein whatever he needs to turn the team into a championship contender, for which they have my undying gratitude. That’s not in dispute.
What I’m concerned about is all the other, off-the-field stuff. The pomp and circumstances, the ceremony, trappings and the almost insufferable cutesiness they’ve made a part of being associated with the Sox. Case in point: Sunday's Opening Night.
I understand it’s the season opener. Major League Baseball sent the Yankees to Fenway and put the game on Sunday night for a reason. To be the sort of baseball equivalent of the NFL’s Thursday night opener. So the occasion called for some sort of special events to kick off the new season. Maybe not on the magnitude of what football does — a concert with some non-threatening hip-hop star followed by some non-offensive country band, but something.
Fair enough. But in what’s become a growing trend for this ownership, the Sox showed all the restraint and self-control as an MTV “My Sweet 16” subject maxing out daddy’s platinum card. I mean, much of what they did was great. The military honor guard. The giant Old Glory on the left field wall. Keri Hilson singing the National Anthem. The jet flyover. Bringing back Pedro Martinez, who radiates more charisma throwing out the first pitch in a pair of Dockers than any other pitcher in baseball would working on a no-hitter. Introducing Johnny Pesky, who for some inexplicable reason makes me well up every time I see him like he was a human can of pepper spray. So far, so good.
But from that moment on, they just kept piling on the wretched excess. The little kid doing the Herb Brooks speech. Dr. Dre showing up to take batting practice. LeBron James showing up to do ... nothing. Steven Tyler coming out to do “God Bless America” with someone we believe to be his daughter, but from where most of us were sitting just looked like it might have been a kidnapping in progress.
And then on a night when no moment no matter how mundane was safe from being crushed with overproduction, we had the Patron Saint of Red Sox adorableness, St. Neil Diamond, come on the field to lead us in the Pink Hat national anthem. Could we have expected anything less?
Let me make this clear: I’m not complaining about Opening Night in and of itself. This is not my first rodeo, and I know that stops tend to get pulled out on a night like that. I’m talking much more about what I see as a growing trend with this ownership. This group has been selling us this pre-packaged, cutesy, self-satisfied narcissism that’s got us all wallowing in our own awesomeness like we’re Tyra Banks.
Take the Herb Brooks kid, Joshua Sacco. Is he a cute kid? Absolutely. I have no problem with him memorizing the speech and his parents putting the video up on YouTube. It’s funny and harmless. But when the Sox put him on the field to deliver that Yankeefied version of it, the team just came off like it was desperately trying to sell itself as hip. Like it wanted to show everyone how tuned in with pop culture it is. And as anyone who’s ever been to a comedy open mic night can tell you, nothing is less amusing than someone who’s trying too hard. Which is exactly what the Sox did with li’l Jason. So with 70-some more home games to go, I guess we can expect more pregame speeches from the “Boom goes the dynamite” guy, the drugged-out kid coming home from the dentist, the Alabama leprechaun crowd, the “I like turtles” kid and the fat guy swinging the lightsaber.
Look, I don’t want to come off as some old crank, complaining about how going to the park should all be about the game and nothing else. I lived through those days. When Fenway was ruled by dour, humorless, curmudgeonly old baseball purists who got their bloomers in a bunch if you so much as slapped a beach ball around. When the only music you heard was John Kiley on the organ playing “Roll Out the Barrel.” I remember when they introduced Wally the Green Monster and added the Coke bottles above the Wall and hardliners acted like the owners had desecrated a shrine. Believe me, when I’m shelling out the highest prices in MLB to walk into the place, I want all the entertainment I can get, and I’m not looking to go back to how it used to be.
And obviously, the Henry regime deserves all the credit in the world for the changes it has made. Before the new owners came here, Fenway was a condemnable, antiquated craphole. Now everything from the standing room to the concourses to the streets around the perimeter of the park are the kinds of things you’d see in “artist’s rendering” sketches but never could have imagined becoming reality. And those crazy sons of bitches actually pulled it off.
Which is part of the problem. They’re taking all the natural affection we’ve got for the team and for the ballpark and sanitized it, marketed it (the whole “Red Sox Nation” scam), slapped “New & Improved” labels on it, given it catchy slogans (“America’s Most Beloved Ballpark”), plugged it on NESN and sold it back to us. At a sizable markup. I mean, as bad as the old place was, at least it was authentic. The whole Fenway-going experience now is in danger of becoming the baseball equivalent of the North End. (Which was once a neighborhood and now is Boston’s Epcot Italy Pavilion.)
So, more and more lately we’re getting fed this steady high-fructose corn syrup diet of ourselves as these lovable caricatures. Doofusy guys in Kevin Youkilis jerseys, singing “Sweet Caroline” at the top of our lungs, doing the wave, carrying our Sox Nation cards in our wallets, chanting “Yankees Suck!” and reveling in how unique and wonderful it all is.
Well there’s one thing the Henry-Werner-Lucchino troika is missing, and that this is still Boston. You can call us loyal. You can call us passionate. You can even call us Massholes, which is fine by us. But just don’t call us cute. Stop trying to sell us on our own adorableness. Most of my friends growing up all had a second favorite team besides the Sox. Mine happened to be the Cubs. It just seemed like we had a lot in common. Old ballparks. Sophisticated fans. An appreciation for baseball. A history of heartbreaking losses. But then at some point it dawned on me that above all, Cubs fans are frauds who are in love with their own preciousness, so I bailed, never to return. And I vowed then that I’ll die before I let the same thing happen to Red Sox fans, not on my watch.
Still, that mentality, that self-possessed sense of how cute and adorable it is to be a Red Sox fan in the 21st century, was on full display on Opening Night. And I fear that it might be spreading, thanks to the efforts of the Sox ownership. I just hope it’s not too late and we can still stop it. That would be so good. So good. So good. (Sorry. But see how bad it’s getting?)