So let’s see … the Red Sox have spent the first half of the season virtually without their ace (Josh Beckett) and leadoff hitter/sparkplug (Jacoby Ellsbury). Dustin Pedroia is out at least six weeks. Victor Martinez just went on the DL. Clay Buchholz is about to miss a start and possibly more. J.D. Drew has called in sick more than a state worker with everything from a tweaked hammy to a tight quad to a bad haircut. Their middle relief has pitched like the machine in the basement of GameOn set to “slow.” Jonathan Papelbon is coming off a road trip in which he won the “Hit It Here!” Bleacher Sign Manufacturer Association’s Pitcher of the Week Award. They’re hitting a crucial month of July in where they’ll have 37 road games in 75 different cities.
You know what this is beginning to sound like? To me, it’s sounding like its time to make plans for this October’s Rolling Rally.
Because to hell with it. No more worrying from this kid. From here on in, I’m going with pure, undiluted optimism. I’m slipping on the Red (Sox)-colored glasses and seeing the rest of this season with nothing but happy thoughts and bright hopes. I’m slapping a happy face sticker over my face and marching into the future like Pollyanna on Prozac.
The only thing I’m going to worry about is how my attitude is going to go over at WEEI. Because if there’s one thing that doesn’t fit in with the sports media in general and talk radio in particular, it’s optimism. Negativity basically drives the whole sports talk format. You couldn’t get a decent talk show off the ground without a healthy supply of panic in the streets. Hopelessness and despair are the fuels that make the sports radio engine go. All sports stations need pessimism the way the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest needs stomach acid or the Tour de France needs artificially elevated testosterone levels. You can’t have one without the other.
If Glum from “The Adventures of Gulliver” had a cell phone, he’d have been a regular caller to Dennis & Callahan, calling in every day and forecasting doom. If Spiro Agnew’s Nattering Nabobs of Negativity ever formed a club, every chapter would have the Whiner Line on speed dial. Talk show callers are the Greek chorus of sports radio, constantly singing about how we’re all doomed, the gods are against us, so we might as well abandon hope and start throwing feta on our salads.
Well, I for one am singing a different tune, dammit. My chorus is those perky, fresh-faced kids from “Glee” reminding this city to not stop believin’ and to hold on to that feel-lay-lay-yin’. And I’m proud to be their Mr. Shuster.
And why not? If the last ten years of success in this town has taught us anything, it’s there’s always reason to be optimistic, no matter how bleak the circumstances. And to make my point, I look no further than these same Red Sox and my Exhibit A, David Ortiz.
Back in April, it was hard to imagine any Major League ballplayer ever looking worse than Big Papi did. It was painful to witness. He was doing the impossible: making me dread his at-bats worse than dinner with my in-laws. And I was not alone. The airwaves were filled with the vuvuzela-like blare of people saying Papi was finished. Or worse — that he was a fraud, the product of PEDs, that he was 65 in Dominican years, and that he’d become a carcinogen in the Red Sox clubhouse. It got so bad he actually got booed at Fenway by the kind of miserable ingrates you don’t want to have with you in a foxhole.
During those dark days, I was asked about Papi’s demise on this site’s “The WEEI-k That Was” feature, and I refused to take the cheese. I said that I’d rather stick by Ortiz and be wrong than turn on him and be right. I said I was lashing myself to the mast of the S.S. Papi, and I was prepared to go down with the ship if necessary. And what did I get for my loyalty? To steal Pedroia’s line, laser show. Ortiz was the American League Player of the Month for May, has been hitting ever since, and might even make the All-Star team. Did I turn out to be right because I’ve got baseball acumen the others don’t? Hell, no. I saw the same early season Papi everyone else did. I just believed in him because … well, because why wouldn’t you?
And that goes for the Red Sox as a whole. Back in the middle of May, this team looked as dead as Tiger’s marriage. They were in fourth place, 8½ in back of Tampa Bay. They couldn’t hit. The words “Run Prevention” were as popular as “British Petroleum.” It was looking for all the world like this was the re-building year Theo Epstein promised us it wasn’t. The Bridge on the River Charles.
Again, though, I made a conscious decision to go all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, in spite of what my eyes and the AL East standings were telling me. As tempting as it was, I refused to believe that this team was all done. For the voice in my head I mentally downloaded every ballplayer cliché I could think of about it being a long season and you can’t get too high or too low and you just need to keep hanging in there and hope you get on a roll, and I put them on shuffle mode. I chose optimism for the sake of optimism, despite all evidence to the contrary.
So here we are six weeks later. The Sox are knocking on the door of first place. No less a source than Sporting News had them No. 1 in the MLB power rankings. And they lead the majors in a slew of offensive categories such as runs, doubles, homers, RBIs and slugging. Granted, they don’t hand out rings on July 1st, but this is one of those times when if you take the rose-colored glasses, everything still looks good.
I know that a perpetually optimistic outlook on the local sports scene smacks of shameless homerism. But what can you expect after a decade of dominance like we’ve seen? We’ve witnessed too many moments when it looked like there was no rational reason to be cheerful, followed by improbable turnarounds like the one we’ve witnessed from the Sox in the first half of 2010 for me start getting all objective now.
Consider the Celtics this year. Late in the regular season when they were coming off that unconscionable bag job against New Jersey and seeming like they were already mentally on summer vacation, we all had two options: Either believe the Celts were too old and too apathetic to get out of the first round of the playoffs, or believe that they were banged up physically, resting up for the postseason and were talented enough to still make a championship run. I chose the latter. Granted, it didn’t work out in the end, but back in March, “down two with 16 seconds left in Game 7 of the NBA finals” was a scenario we all would’ve been glad to take our chances with. So I put that one in the win column for the cockeyed optimists among us.
Ditto the Bruins. No one is going to rationalize them blowing a 3-0 lead in the playoffs. But after they laid down in that nationally-televised revenge game against Pittsburgh, we all went overboard saying they had no heart and were dead and buried (as I sheepishly raise my hand). There was still some great hockey left in that team.
The whole Era of Champions in Boston is full of such examples. When things looked hopeless and the fans and media were pulling the sheet over a team’s face until they jumped off the coroner’s table, turned things around and went on a championship run. Drew Bledsoe’s injury in 2001. The Sox being swept in Yankee Stadium in ’04. The Lawyer Milloy game in Buffalo in ’03. The draft lottery ping-pong balls not falling Danny Ainge’s way in ’07. Curt Schilling’s ankle. And on and on. Time and again, where things looked impossibly grim they were turned around, and another Boston championship was added.
Which is why I’m not panicking about the Sox this year. Someone will step up. Some backbencher or minor league call up will step up and make clutch plays at crucial times and we’ll still find ourselves a few months from now arguing about what the playoff rotation should be.
Now granted, if I’m being perfectly honest, sometimes even when I believe that, I don’t believe it. It’s like Joey Pantoliano knowing the steak he’s eating isn’t real; that he’s actually back in the Matrix. But the steak is juicy and delicious and he’d rather believe it’s real than know the truth. Sometimes, that’s what being an optimist is all about. Believing in something in the face of common sense saying you shouldn’t.
And when you’re right, like I’ve been about the 2010 Red Sox so far, it tastes pretty good.