The mere suggestion of the question two years ago would have people spitting out their Fenway Franks or spilling their Legal Seafood chowder all over their laps: As the Red Sox open their 112th season on Thursday, how much do they matter?
Will Fenway be sold out this year? Of course it will. But that’s not the issue. People are still talking about the Red Sox, but talk is cheap – or at least meaningless on a payroll north of $160 million – unless you have the buzz to back it up in the court of public opinion.
It’s the buzz that’s been all over the Garden this week with the Bruins and Celtics. And for the first time in 10 years, it’s missing as the Red Sox open the season.
The team will do everything in its power to celebrate the fact that Fenway turns 100 on April 20.
With the blessings of the commissioner, they brought back the one and only Dr. Charles Steinberg. The master PR guru is out to make sure the park is shown in all its old glory. But Steinberg knows something else – public opinion matters.
And public opinion on the Red Sox right now is not very optimistic. There’s Bobby V doing radio in New York. There’s Andrew Bailey out four months. There’s Josh Beckett off to Texas to get his thumb looked examined in the last week of spring training before getting the A-OK. There are huge questions about the team’s bullpen, as well as players who are being called upon to fill roles they haven’t filled before. There is a huge question about shortstop that may or may not have been answered in spring training. There’s Carl Crawford’s wrist. There’s nearly $60 million on the disabled list to start the season.
They know it inside Yawkey Way. They start with a clean slate in Detroit, but they have a huge PR mountain to climb.
Steinberg can try to show them the way again like he did in Boston in 2005, when he put on the most memorable Opening Day in the history of Fenway Park. But he worked in Los Angeles with Frank McCourt and realizes there’s only so much you can do if others don’t follow the right path.
The Red Sox have been a monstrous moneymaking machine over the last 10 years. With John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner, they did the impossible with Fenway Park, pouring in over $150 million to the Yawkey Way facility, making it a viable place to watch a game and spend precious leisure time.
They won two World Series and were the envy of every baseball franchise.
They spawned card-carrying members of Red Sox Nation with a marketing machine never before seen in sports.
Boy, how things have changed.
The Red Sox enter the season in Detroit Thursday against a team that is favored by most to reach – if not win – the World Series. For the Sox, spring has cleansed some of the stink from last September, but the air fresheners are still hanging from their rear view mirror.
Fans are still buying tickets but they’re not buying in – not emotionally, that’s for sure. There’s plenty of talk about the Red Sox but no buzz.
As a matter of fact, the skepticism is as high as its been in a quarter of a century.
And it’s not all at the hands of the Red Sox and their ownership.
The games are too long and the audience is growing older and older. The playoffs have expanded to the point of allowing 70-win teams in September to hold dreams of reaching a one-game playoff and catching lightning in a bottle.
Then there’s something else the Red Sox are fighting – the other teams in town.
The Bruins won the Stanley Cup last year and they’ve again shown they’re in the running to at least get back to the Eastern Conference finals of the best playoffs in sports – hands down.
The Celtics have shown balls of steel. They’ve lost two players to heart ailments. They’ve lost a heart-and-soul cog off the bench to the nastiest case of sports whiplash you’ll ever see. They’ve lost the best long-range shooter in the history of the game to a “pissed off” ankle. They’ve overcome an eight-game road trip and a younger, faster team from Philadelphia to rise to an improbable perch atop the Atlantic Division.
Rajon Rondo proved he could lead the Celtics over LeBron and the Heat, something Sox President/CEO Larry Lucchino saw up close and personal when he attended Sunday’s game at the Garden.
The Celtics – as written in this space five weeks ago – are capable of one more memorable run. And fans are getting pumped. All you need do is step inside the Garden in the second half and sense the momentum.
The Patriots? Well, aside from coming within a twisting grab on a seam route from winning a fourth Super Bowl title, they are again remaking the roster with names like Brandon Lloyd and Jonathan Fanene and have Tom Brady coming back for another run as the consensus top contender in the AFC.
Fans have seen enough of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to know that – barring catastrophic injury – their playoff ticket is already punched for next year.
That brings us to the Red Sox.
Karma can be a … well, you know. The Sox certainly do. They let Jonathan Papelbon slip away to Philadelphia (and at five years, $55 million, can’t blame them). They trade for Andrew Bailey who injures his thumb and is lost for four months a week before the season starts.
They decide that Daniel Bard as a fifth starter is more valuable than Daniel Bard, the lockdown set-up man who was the closer in waiting. Bad move. Yes, Bard wants to be a starter so he can make a better living and a better contract. But that hurts the Red Sox long term. Placating and appeasing a 26-year-old flame-thrower is not a luxury these Red Sox have.
God love Bobby Valentine (and we in the media certainly do) but the PR aspects of signing a weekly radio deal with a station in New York is highly debatable – if not questionable.
Be honest, when you heard that Wednesday didn’t you think for a moment – where is the focus of the team and its manager?
Bobby Valentine is as a bright a baseball manager as there is but there will be those who wonder if he’s trying too hard to take the focus off the players and put it on him.
Call it the “Rolling Eyes” effect. That look that several veteran players had in spring training when he would yell like a high school coach at position players while they fielded infield fungoes from their teammates.
Valentine knows full well that Jose Iglesias is the more refined major league shortstop right now. But he also knows he has to pick his battles. Give a little on the roster at the end of spring training and save those chips for the middle of the season when he has a better feel for the roster and a more powerful voice.
All of these points are questions the fan base has for the Red Sox. It’s why they’re so skeptical. There’s no good vibe to feed off of like the Bruins, Celtics and Patriots.
To a degree, the Red Sox are stuck.
They are the soap opera that people are starting to tune out.
They have lived and thrived on the drama with the Evil Empire for the past 10 years. They have brought in superstars and spent billions – sometimes very foolishly – to have a payroll that competes with their archrivals in the Bronx.
They have brought into games that routinely run between three and three-and-a-half hours.
They have bought into the fact that the fan base will continue to buy the most expensive tickets in the sport in an outdated park.
Now they’re hoping fans continue to buy in and just maybe get a highly functioning baseball team, not a daily drama.
Happy Opening Day!
And to the Trags Bag:
Should Avery Bradley have stayed put in the starting lineup? Will he return, even with Ray Allen healthy?
@LucidSportsFan @Trags is there any chance avery is going to keep starting? celts appear better with him in the lineup than ray
@drjefflo @Trags Do you think Ray should come off the bench first time back on the court in a while? #Celtics
@danaaltura I’m sure bradley will get a significant amount of minutes! :) yay! RT @Trags: Doc Rivers confirms Ray Allen will start for #Celtics
If we’ve learned anything about the Celtics, it’s to expect the unexpected, especially when it comes to bench players. This is where Doc Rivers is one of the best coaches in recent NBA history. He is masterful of getting a pulse on where a player will excel. He knows that Ray Allen’s comfort zone is with Pierce, KG and Rondo. It’s not who starts but who’s on the court at the end. My thought – Ray stays in the starting lineup.
Are the Red Sox being overshadowed by the upcoming Bruins and Celtics playoff runs?
@TrentSouth @Trags no sir... Love me some Red Sox. It's all about the B's and Sox, could careless about the C's.
@drjefflo @Trags The soap opera that is the #RedSox will never be lost in the daily sports talk, but the Celtics could take a back seat until playoffs
This dynamic will be fascinating to follow in the next three weeks. The Bruins could go deep again. The Celtics could very well be in their final playoff run ever with KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Fans will savor every moment of it. Unless the Red Sox crash and burn in the first month, it’s hard to imagine a comparable buzz.
But nothing generated more debate than when I asked whether Bard should return to the bullpen nowthat Bailey is out four months following thumb/ligament surgery.
@hurricanept @trags Any decent starter is more valuable than any relief pitcher. If Bard can be a solid 4th starter he provides more. I'll take 150 innings over 70 anytime. We'll see how long Valentine holds off on pushing Bard down, tho.
@jsim1288 @Trags not even best setup man in the division, but good point
@kylemace22 @Trags because he'd pitch more innings. More innings= greater value.
Guess the Red Sox are really relevant after all. My feeling is what I wrote above. I think Daniel Bard belongs in the pen because 75-80 innings with the game on the line in the eighth and ninth innings is more of a commodity than a fifth starter. That, and Bard has proven he can handle the pressure of the late-game situation.