I’ve sent the following letter to a few close friends and fellow Red Sox fans recently, in the hopes of restoring my faith in the team I once so closely followed. Unfortunately, the cynic in me is finding it too easy to rebuff so many of their calls for me to calm down and step away from the ledge of Sox fan oblivion. Perhaps you, my readers can help to resuscitate the relationship that I once so fondly shared with the local nine.
Or, perhaps I will receive the deciding vote in the other direction – the opinion that confirms my doubts and serves to set me free from the loyal fandom that has begun paying diminishing returns in too many ways for me to ignore any longer.
Please feel free to share your thoughts by posting a comment.
I am in need of some perspective. I find myself having a hard time maintaining even a neutral opinion about the Red Sox – and I fear I am veering dangerously close to officially disliking them. It’s one of those dread feelings, an intuitive response that’s been lurking in the back of my mind ever since I saw a sea of pink hats cheering on a champagne-drenched Jonathan Papelbon jigging his way around the Fenway infield in celebration of the team’s 2008 Wild Card birth. In trying to diagnose the cause of this mystery cynicism, I’ve been forced to examine my relationship with the team over the last several years. The retrospective imagery that comes to mind is highly troubling, and just compounding the problem by laying down concrete indicators for the symptoms I’m experiencing. Let’s take a walk down memory lane together, in the hopes that this crisis of faith can be resolved once and for all…
I’ll go back to the summer of 2003, when the level of Sox-mania in this town hit its ‘fever pitch’ (ahh, “Fever Pitch”, I hadn’t even considered that shot across the bow of Red Sox nation). In retrospect, what great times they were: The era of ‘cowboy up’, of Big Papi’s emergence, when Pedro was Pedro, and Manny, well…This euphoria lasted all the way into October. October 16th, to be exact – and in the interest of low blood pressure, I will simply MENTION AARON BLEEPING BOONE.
Fast forward through a 2004 seemingly too good to be true: The July 24th comeback game, featuring the A-Rod – Varitek brawl. The comeback, the sweep. Indeed, too good to be true…and this, I think, is where it all began…
When the Sox won in 2004, it did a couple of things. First, it immediately removed the 'lovable loser' label that they had been wearing for 86 years (or at least a good portion of that title-drought). What this did was create a sort of 'rooting hangover' for a lot of fans, myself included, who found it harder than normal to really pull for a team who's identity had been so altered. When they won again in 2007, the national calls about 'buying championships' began to spring up, but most Sox fans were able to ignore them because, after all, this is the Red Sox. After all, a Boston franchise needs to be able to count on a good deal of the “Yeah? You’re from where? Yeah. SHUT UP!” factor from the core of its fan base, and Sox fans are the standard bearers of this phenomenon. So we gave it the old “yeah, those Angels fans are just jealous” or the trusty “Screw the Padres, buddy”, and went on our merry, oblivious ways.
The second thing the 2004 championship did was to open the door for a total make over of the entire Red Sox experience. The field has changed: what was once a throwback to a day gone by is now a glowing, neon advertising kiosk with a baseball field somehow jammed into the mix. There are enormous ads everywhere. There are seats on the Monster (which, I know, were there before 2004 – but are a perfect synopsis of ‘the old’ vs. ‘the new’), seats on the field, there are the milk bottles, the Coke bottles, etc. etc. (I often feel that the first team to have their infield or bases - or even the playing surface - i.e. "Dunkin Donuts field at Fenway Park - sponsored would be the Red Sox). These circumstances do not necessarily stand out in the fan friendly carnival that MLB has become, but didn’t we used to hang our hats on that? Wasn’t that one of the pillars we would point to when we referred to ourselves as “the most educated fan base in sports”? It’s like one of those odd dreams that you have, where you end up explaining to friends: “It was so realistic. We were all there. Well, Sean, you were Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers, but it was totally real. We were back in school, then we went to Fenway Park, but it was also kind of the mall…”
And yet, I feel I could stomach all of this if it weren’t for the recent suspension of Manny Ramirez. Now, no self respecting Sox fan can seriously claim to have thought that the entire Sox roster from 2001-2007 was clean – but to be presented with hard evidence to the contrary makes trying to maintain your loyalty to the Sox feel like quitting your job to take over for the imprisoned O.J. Simpson in his search for ‘the real killer.’ You can’t get around it: we’re faced with the impossible-to-reasonably-deny fact that there were steroid users on the championship teams, probably more than most people would care to acknowledge. We all have our suspicions about Big Papi. What about the 'not so obvious' ones, though? Let's look at the criteria for being placed 'under suspicion': A spike in production, weight gain, and a precipitous drop in production in the 'testing era.' Here are some names I'd like you to consider: Mark Bellhorn, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Trot Nixon, Johnny Damon (who practically grew horns here), heck, even Pedro has disappeared. I'm not saying that there is hard proof, but as we've learned from our trusty, amazing reliable source Jose Canseco: where there is smoke, there is usually fire.
In all of this reflection, I've been faced with the fact that there is not a lot about this team to root for. So many of the fall-backs are gone - the losing, the old time feel, the 'us against them' with the Yankees, the 'at least they're clean...' - all can be countered with points stated earlier. Based on all of this, it would take a die hard fan to ignore all of these factors - because it's true that the championships were bought, it's true that there is a high level of suspicion now surrounding these past teams, and it's true that these are not your father's Red Sox. When I try to cultivate some sort of bond with the current roster, I get stuck thinking about what a jerk Josh Beckett seems like, or I wonder “where will Dustin Pedroia play when we’re comparing him to Wade Boggs?” or “Is Jason Bay French Canadian? Have I heard him speak?”
I've always said that a true fan sticks with a team through thick and thin - and I remember listening to Pats games on the radio during TV blackouts when the team couldn't sell out old Sullivan Stadium - but this last decade of Red Sox "success" has truly pushed me to the edge. This brings me to my conundrum: Am I rooting for a team (the uniform), or it's players? If I'm rooting for the team, what do the Red Sox represent now? And if it's the players, do I ignore the personality deficits and just root for their performance - and if so, where's the fun in that?