Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 1, 2018

Red Sox Are Winners, Some Fans Less So

On Wednesday, for the fourth time in fifteen years, the championship parade marking the end of the longest season rolled through the streets of Boston. Fans lined the city’s streets, striving to catch a glimpse of and cheer on their heroes, who rode in a long line of duck boats that made slow but steady progress from Fenway Park to the North End. That this year’s parade should return to New England was hardly a surprise. The Red Sox began the season with by far the fattest payroll in the Great Game, more than $30 million over the luxury tax threshold. While Boston fans have historically complained bitterly about the free-spending ways of the New York Yankees, they were somehow able to temper their moral outrage when the open checkbook belonged to Sox owner John Henry instead of a Steinbrenner.

Who could blame them? For Henry’s largesse stocked a roster with one former Cy Young Award winner in David Price, and another starter in Chris Sale who, when this year’s voting for that award is announced, will finish in the top five for the sixth straight year and who would likely have joined Price as a winner but for time lost to injury in the second half of the season. Boston also had plenty of money to lure free agent slugger J.D. Martinez away from Arizona, to pay a promising group of young homegrown talent at various positions, and to meet needs during the season by trading for first baseman Steve Pearce and right-hander Nathan Eovaldi. Pearce was named MVP of the World Series while Eovaldi delivered an ERA of 1.61 over 22 1/3 postseason innings.

Under first year manager Alex Cora the Red Sox spent exactly one day under .500, when they dropped their Opening Day contest against Tampa by a score of 6-4. Boston then reeled off nine straight wins and followed their second loss of the season with an eight game winning streak to start the campaign at 17-2. It was still April but the Red Sox already led the Yankees by 7 ½ games, with the Toronto Blue Jays between them, four games adrift of the division leaders. The fast start was important, for while the Jays faded to finish well below .500, Boston and New York essentially played to a draw from that early point on, with the final standings showing the Red Sox eight games in front of the second place Yankees.

The Sox kept right on rolling through the postseason, dropping just a single contest in each of the three playoff rounds, finally capping their run with a 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series last Sunday night. Boston’s 108 regular season wins and 119 total victories both set franchise records. One year after finishing last in the American League in home runs, the Red Sox became an offensive juggernaut, leading the majors in batting average, OPS, extra-base hits, and total bases. If the team’s pitching wasn’t quite as dominant it was certainly more than good enough. Boston’s moundsmen finished third in the AL in both ERA and strikeouts. And just to complete the picture, defensively the Red Sox tied for second in the league in fielding percentage.

Despite all those gaudy numbers, Boston was constantly criticized and second-guessed. In the brief interval between the ALCS and the Series, David Waldstein penned an article in the New York Times chronicling the litany of complaints – “Their record was inflated with easy wins over inferior teams, critics charged. The bullpen middle relief is terrible, others complained. The starting pitching is suspect, and the ace of the staff is hiding a shoulder injury. There is no solid third baseman, second base is a hole, and the closer can’t throw a strike that isn’t hit into the stands or close to it.”

What Waldstein’s piece didn’t mention was the stunning extent to which the carping originated within driving distance of Fenway Park. An otherwise uninformed tourist stuck in traffic on Route 128 and listening to one of Boston’s sports talk radio stations during the season would have been excused for assuming that the local team was plunging toward the AL East cellar rather than ascending to unheard of heights. Caller after caller cast doubt on the team’s performance and predicted its demise, as if everything that was happening on the field night after night was but an illusion, perhaps some trick of the lighting thrown off by the giant Citgo sign beyond the Green Monster. Worse than the know-nothing opinions of the callers was the failure of most of the supposedly expert radio hosts to object to the dismal assessments. Fans may not have minded John Henry opening his checkbook, but throughout the summer they harbored plenty of doubts that the dollars had been well spent.  All the more remarkable is that many of these same callers, when speaking about the Patriots, display a confidence that often crosses over into arrogance.

When the season’s result proved both their fears groundless and their team’s dominance no chimera, the reactions of many fans was even more off kilter. After the final out was recorded at Dodger Stadium Sunday night, the initial cheers from the Boston fans in the crowd soon gave way to a familiar taunt, “Yankee suck! Yankees suck!” Three days later the cry again sounded at various points along the parade route, and a large banner with the same two words hung from a building.

Rivalries are an important element of every sport, and few are as enduring as the one between the denizens of Fenway and the team that calls the Stadium home. But the Yankees were of course nowhere near Chavez Ravine during the World Series, nor for that matter Minute Maid Park in Houston during the ALCS. If fans really considered outlasting New York the crowning achievement of Boston’s season, perhaps Wednesday’s parade should have been held three weeks ago (without the Commissioner’s Trophy, of course), right after the American League Division Series.

That is presumably not really the case for Red Sox fans, who this week are rightfully reveling in their team’s championship. But both the widespread doubts of so many of them throughout the campaign, and the immediate focus on their Gotham rival after the title was secured, speak volumes about the psyche of generations of the Boston faithful. For while this is the team’s fourth title in fifteen years, it is also the fourth in one hundred, and therein lies a history that is apparently still not easy to escape.

In the eighty-six year stretch between Boston’s fifth World Series championship in 1918 and its sixth in 2004, the Red Sox made just four trips to the Fall Classic. Each ended in heartbreak. In 1946 Boston squandered a three games to two lead against St. Louis. Twenty-one years later, again versus the Cardinals, the Red Sox rallied from down three games to one to tie the Series, only to badly lose Game 7 at home by a final of 7-2. In 1975 they beat the heavily favored Big Red Machine in a taut 12-inning Game 6, only to again go down to defeat at home in the decisive contest. And in 1986 the Red Sox traveled to Shea Stadium needing just one win in the Series final two contests to defeat the Mets. Then in Game 6 Boston needed just one more out in the 10th inning, then just one more strike, before it all came undone.

Over that same march of seasons, the Yankees represented the American League in the Series thirty-nine times, winning a total of twenty-six titles. For many if not most of those seasons the rivalry between the two clubs was in name only, though there was Bucky F’n Dent in the one game playoff in 1978, and Aaron F’n Boone in Game 7 of the ALCS in 2003. So when at last the Red Sox pulled off the impossible, rallying from three games down to vanquish New York in the 2004 ALCS, there was catharsis. But not, it turns out, a turning of the page.

As if stuck forever in the long years of despair, some Sox fans still habitually see the glass as half empty, even in the very best of years. And no matter what team Boston beats, there will always be an element of the fan base that responds like angst-ridden younger siblings, forever measuring achievements not by their own merit, but by how they compare to those of the more accomplished big brother. Congratulations on a tremendous season to the Red Sox and their fans. Even the ones incapable of fully appreciating the moment.

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Responses

  1. A fair and balanced look at success and angst, Mike. I hope the the fans’ mindset catches up with the team’s success rate soon.

    After the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, a local SF radio station had a contest in the morning: Give us your best Boston accent. There were plenty of “Pawk ya caars” and Cliffy Clavin wannabes but the winner was a guy with an enthusiastic “Yankees Suck!” Fun times for sure.

    Have a good weekend,
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan, and thanks for that bit of local flavor! I know every team has its share of nervous fans, but I can’t recall seeing one that was at once so dominant all season and yet so doubted in its own backyard.

      M-

      • It is a curious affliction.
        Ω


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