Thursday, March 18, 2010

The State of the Original Nation

2010 is a precarious time to be a Boston Red Sox fan. For so long, the group defined by their likeness to the Chicago Cubs as the undyingly passionate clan that always seemed to come up short. This stigma/identity was driven home in 2003, the burden was lifted in 2004, and in 2007 we appeared to have a downright reversal. Two seasons later, the Sox have what fans wanted for 86 long years, but it has come with a sentimental price tag. Since, let’s be real, St. Patrick’s Day is less about Ireland than it is about Boston and, to a lesser extent, Chicago, there couldn’t be a better day to break down the state of the first team to have a Nation, and the only team deserving of the tag.

It may seem odd, to Pirates, Royals or Reds fans to describe Boston as a precarious place to follow baseball. After all, the Red Sox were one of eight teams to see post season action last season. They won two titles last decade. They sure as hell should contend this year. With that in mind, it is important to realize that I am not saying it is a bad time to be a Sox fan. Far from it. Their situation is better than at minimum better than 26 teams in the Major Leagues. It is a funny team to follow though.

Let’s start on the field. The Red Sox are good. There is even an argument to be made that they could be the favorite heading into 2010. One thing is certain, and that is that the Red Sox will not give up a lot of runs. Daisuke Matsuzaka was signed for ace money, but you would never want him to be an ace. A number 5, on the other hand? Yes please. The rotation of Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Buchholz and Matsuzaka is formidable to say the least, and almost unquestionably the best in the Majors. Behind them, you have a stellar defensive team, and a deep bullpen anchored by a shutdown closer. It is a team that is built to win a lot of baseball games.

It isn’t though, a team that is built to be fun to watch. A 3-1 pitchers duel is great. Once a week. Unfortunately, the 2010 Sox are built to win low scoring games, and that is pretty much that. At the plate, there really are only two or three guys that you might be excited to see, that being Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youklis. Manny’s gone. Bay’s gone. Papi isn’t gone, but he has reached the point where you almost wish he was, while you watch him flail, half a second late, at 95 MPH heat.

Really, what they are is good. It isn’t that they can’t score runs, they have decent hitting throughout the lineup, with guys who could crack at least the .280 mark at all nine spots, but they just don’t have anyone who you would pay to watch. It could be very effective, who knows. Between Ortiz, Martinez, Youkilis, Pedroia, Scutero/Lowrie, Beltre, Ellesbury, Cameron and Drew, there isn’t a bad bat in there, there just isn’t an exciting one either. Even if the Sox are winning this year, hell, even if they are putting up runs, it will be hard to call them a fun team to watch. There are far worse things that a team could be, but the fact is the Sox look a little bit boring at this point.

Then there are the off the field issues. It isn’t that the Red Sox are filled with bad guys, or that they are juicing in the club house, the things that usually make up the problems away from the diamond. The biggest issues that the Sox fans have this year have little or nothing to do with baseball. It is a question that haunts us every time we are confronted by an A’s, Giants or Mariners fan—Are the Red Sox becoming the Yankees?

There is the financial aspect. The Sox are a huge market team, not because Boston is a particularly large market, but the revenue pulled in by the Sox far outstrips most other teams in a sport with a cap that is softer than Ales Hemsky (my last 15 columns have been about hockey, I had to get one NHL joke in). That alone doesn’t make them the Yankees though. Compare payrolls, and there is still a long way to go. It isn’t just the monetary aspect though that has brought comparisons.

Is it assumed that they will put out the largest offer to the biggest free agents in a class? Are the Sox now the fan base that expects to win every year? Most importantly, are they the bandwagon team that everyone jumps behind once the Lakers, Cowboys and Penguins/Red Wings seasons are over?

The first question is essentially an on the field one, however tangentially, and has been answered twice already. First of all, I named 15 of 16 principles for the Red Sox already (the 16th being the bullpen ace, Papelbon). Of those 16, 7 are home grown prospects, and 3 were acquired in a trade. That leaves just 6 free agent acquisitions that will play a role of the Sox, which is 3 less than the Yankees, and 3 less than the notorious huge market-bad-for-baseball-player grabbers the Seattle Mariners.

Also, I stand by my statement that not even the Red Sox can spend with New York. In fact, in 2009, the Cubs and the Mets spent more than the Sox, but to get really “inside baseball,” $201M > $122M. So that’s that (and if it isn’t, the difference is simple to explain. The Yankees can spend money on whoever they like, and if they don’t turn out to be an asset, it isn’t a problem. They can just move on. The Red Sox can throw around a lot of money, but they have to be pretty careful about who they spend it on.) 9 teams spent more than $100m last year, and the Sox weren’t even second. To suggest that they are catching the Yankees in this respect, or that it is a two team race, is frankly ridiculous.

The next two things have to do with the fans, a more troublesome, less simply reconciled faux pas of the new Red Sox nation. In 2003, Sox jerseys probably wouldn’t have outnumbered A’s jerseys in the Coliseum (bad example, they probably would have), but now, they are everywhere, making up the majority of fans almost all of the AL ballparks the Sox visit. The dirty little not-so-secret of Red Sox nation is this. The kid sitting behind you in a brand new Youkilis jersey at US Cellular Field probably would have been wearing a Jeter one ten years ago. Phrases like “B is for bandwagon” run rampant, and really, we have little defense.

If I am going to get into Red Sox fans, though, first I should address myself. I’m not from Boston. I root for the Sharks, Cowboys and Boise State. I get a whole lot of ‘wait, why are you a Red Sox fan,’ and subsequently have to explain myself, before I start explaining the scourge of bandwagon jumpers in Boston.

In 1999, I was an Oakland A’s fan, living in the Bay Area. In the summer of 2000, I left California for Sun Valley, Idaho. I tried to stay with the A’s, but without being near the team, they were pretty uninteresting. Since I started the season in Oakland in 2000, I was able to stay pretty interested for a pennant race, but I started to lose interest almost right after I moved. It didn’t help that 2000 was the first summer that I visited Boston and went to Fenway Park. It was the polar opposite of Oakland Coliseum. Whereas Oakland was overly large, without character, empty, and, frankly, dead, Fenway was small, quirky, packed and most of all, electric, and this when the A’s were a much better team than the Red Sox. I was completely enthralled by the place, and the seeds for change had been planted.

By the spring of 2001, I still claimed an A’s allegiance, but it was harder to actually be an A’s fan. Players were gone, and I just wasn’t as excited about the green and gold as I once was. Still, I stayed with the A’s for that season. For the regular season, though, I was, without knowing it, on the market. I followed Red Sox, Devil Rays, Giants and Cubs box scores, not openly shopping for a new team, but almost without realizing it, looking, because even as they were winning 103 games, Oakland failed to fully capture my attention.

Once the playoffs rolled around, I put the green and gold back on, though, since they were still technically my team, and once the playoffs were on, I could actually watch them, unlike the regular season. Ironically, it was then that the final seed for the switch to the Sox was planted. When Jeremy Giambi didn’t slide. You know the play, probably for the guy on the other end of it, Derek Jeter, who stupidly wandered way out of position, had no chance to make a play if the batter got hung up between second and third, and became the luckiest athlete in the history of sports when a cutoff throw was missed, and he flipped the ball desperately to Posada, happening to catch a slow runner who couldn’t be bothered to hit the dirt in a damn playoff game (that’s how I remember it, anyways).

The thing is, when that series was over (which was basically when Posada’s glove hit Giambi’s calf), I was pissed. But I wasn’t upset that the A’s had lost. I was upset the Yankees had won. My hate for the pinstripes BY FAR outweighed any allegiance at that time (that would change). I already had the latent appreciation and enct for the Red Sox from the trip the summer before. When the 2002 season rolled around, we visited my grandparents in Tampa, catching a spring training Sox-Rays game. I put on the Sox hat I had from the visit for that one, and metaphorically, I never took it off.

(WARNING- the next couple of paragraphs could get defensive)

Some would say that this violates sme sort of sports purity, or that it makes me bandwagon. I would argue that it is perfectly understandable. I was 10 years old when I ditched the A’s, I didn’t even live in Oakland anymore and on top of that, I had only become an A’s fan a few years earlier when we moved to Oakland from Dallas. On top of that, by the 2002 season, the players that I had come to like for Oakland were long gone. Giambi was a Yankee. Tejada was an Oriole. Hell, Ben Grieve was a Devil Ray (a way bigger loss than I can rationally explain). I just didn’t have any connections to the team by the time I switched, so I let go and never looked back.

The allegation that it was a bandwagon jump, or that don’t get the mentality of pre-2004 Sox Nation is ridiculous too. In 2001, the A’s won 102 games, the Red Sox won 82. I switched. In 2002, the Sox won 93, the A’s won 103, and I stayed. The Mariners won 116 in 2001, were on TV in Idaho and were there for the bandwagon jumping. The Yankees also appeared to be in a dynasty, and were the logical choice if I was looking for a bandwagon. Rather, I felt the pain of the Red Sox, in the form of Yankee hate, I loved the atmosphere, the tradition and the hope that they kept, and the Red Sox turned out to be a fit. As for the attitudinal part, I was driven to the Red Sox by the source of their angst, Yankee hate, and I joined the fray at the height of the “curse”/beaten down era. I didn’t have the baggage, but then again neither do most Sox fans my age. If you don’t believe that I get it, say the name “Aaron Boone” around me, and you will.

So a 900 word egocentric detour later, I have established my credentials to talk about Sox fans, and it is a good thing because it needs addressing.

Clearly the Sox have become the focal point for many a bandwagon. The fact is there isn’t really a way to combat this. It is time to move on. We aren’t going to be the cursed, passionate guys who can’t quite climb the mountain anymore, but why should we want to be?

It is a paradox that Sox fans have to live with. For years, the Red Sox wanted to be just another team. Now, they are. The ‘problem’ is that they are good at it. They have a ton of money. They are well run. They have a great organization. When normal teams are successful, bandwagon fans go away. Ironically, the only way to get rid of the guy who doesn’t know who El Guapo, Jim Rice or Carl Yaztrzemski or Mike Stanton were, only knows about Bill Buckner in passing, and likes the Sox because his mom’s second cousin went to college in Boston, is to stop winning. I think we should deal with the bandwagon jumpers. The tradeoff is worse, if you ask me. I can answer questions about being a Red Sox fan from Idaho that I didn’t have to in 2002 if it means we get to play until October every year.

And no, that doesn’t make us the Yankees. For better or worse, every kid growing up without a team for the last 80 years (without a soul, at any rate), jumped on the Yankee wagon. They passed that along to their kids. Outside of the Tri-State Area, where many a legit Yankee fan resides, Bandwagon Nation still belongs to the Yankees, and a few pink hats won’t change that. We are responsible for some pink hats, for the annoying trend of every fan base labeling themselves "X Nation" (speaking as a fan of Boise State, one of the worst offenders), and we are responsible for...never mind (I still can't come to terms with Fever Pitch). But we aren't the first team to swoon in popularity, and we won't be the last. The fact is, this is an era, and it is one we should enjoy. Bandwagon fans suck. It sucks not being able to retort the bandwagon nation jabs, but it will pass. Real fans, I leave you with this: I, for one, will see you on the other side of this bandwagon era, and we can talk about how great it was together.

Anyways, this is my makeshift Red Sox preview. Last year, I was a bit out on baseball. I was invested in the Sox, I watched plenty of games, and I followed the league much more closely than most. I just wasn’t as excited as I usually am. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the Sox being boring. Maybe it was because I wasn’t playing for the first time since I was six years old (intramural softball doesn’t count—kids, never leave high school). Maybe it was every other story being about steroids. Maybe it was because the Yankees being good. Whatever the reason, it is being put aside. I am back this year. Boring or not, precarious or not, I am ready for 2010. Let’s hope I can stay this excited.

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