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Living in a four-trophy town | Michael Rutstein

Money buys wins, not heart

(Globe Staff and Wire Services/ Heather Hopp-Bruce/ Globe Staff/ Photo Illustration)
By Michael Rutstein
June 26, 2011

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ONCE UPON a time, there were Red Sox fans — our parents and grandparents.

Our forebears were the fans of a long-suffering franchise with just a handful of things to boast of: a lovely old ballpark, a fascinating cast of characters, and a rich tradition built around 86 years of heartbreak.

Our parents and grandparents had Fenway Park. They had Yawkey and Cronin, Ted and Yaz, Pudge and Piersall, Boggs and Clemens. They had Slaughter’s Dash, the Impossible Dream, Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, the Phantom Tag, and Aaron Boone.

They also had a rival — someone to measure themselves against, a “them’’ for our “us.’’ While our Red Sox were always one player short, one strike away, the New York Yankees won championship after championship. They always spent the money; they always had the players. We envied them, we hated them, we turned up our noses at them: the gauche buying of players, the shameful ease of cheering for prohibitive favorites. Their championships were triumphs not of virtue or even luck, but rather the dividends of a well-managed corporation. Yankee fans didn’t know what it was to love, to lose, to suffer. They had no souls.

For eight decades, that’s what it was to be a Red Sox fan. Blame it on John Calvin, but that storyline resonated for New Englanders. It made sense to us, and we embraced it even as we prayed that it might change.

And then it did! The Red Sox broke the so-called Curse, turned the tables on the Yankees, and won their first title in 86 years. Then they won another one!

And although we realized at the time this changed everything, that this would transform what it means to be a Red Sox fan, only now is the long-term impact becoming clear:

The Red Sox have become the Yankees. And we have become Yankee fans.

But let’s not blame the 2004 Red Sox. Winning that championship only confirmed a long-running trend. Over the past 20 years, first the Yawkey Trust and now John Henry’s ownership group figured out how to leverage our enormous passion for this team. We’ve been monetized. As a result, Fenway Park became the most expensive venue in Major League Baseball, with that revenue going to support one of the highest payrolls in the game.

It’s not just a question of making more and spending more. The Red Sox joined the Yankees as the bullies in the playground. They, and the other big-market teams, not only accumulated the resources to dominate the free-agent market and strip the poorer teams of their stars; they discovered that the free-agent draft, supposedly the great equalizer, could be rigged by offering higher bonuses to supposedly “unsignable’’ stars headed off to college. Without a salary cap in place, baseball has become a game in which the rich get richer, and the uneven playing field tilts another degree or two with each passing year.

Like the Yankees, the Red Sox don’t win championships so much as buy them. Like Yankee fans, we dig deep to support our team — and in return, we expect something. Our parents and grandparents expected only to have their hearts broken. We expect to win.

Well, we got what we paid for. But by adopting the Yankees’ methods, we gave away our souls. And we will never recapture them as long as revenue streams are more important than good scouting, hard work, and fair play.

This newfound kinship with our former rivals became clear to me earlier this season, as I sat in the grandstand and listened to the so-called Fenway Faithful booing Carl Crawford. The team’s new left fielder was three weeks into a seven-year, $142 million contract, and he’d had the misfortune to get off to a slow start. Nobody was more upset about this than Crawford — a terrific athlete, a hard worker, a standup guy — but the crowd was pitiless.

And what else could we expect? A family of four sitting in the Monster seats could easily drop $800 taking in a ballgame. We expect bang for our bucks.

On that October night in 2003 when Aaron Boone homered off Tim Wakefield and the Red Sox trudged off the field for the 85th consecutive year, many New Englanders must have wondered: what it would be like to win these games? To beat the Yankees? To win the World Series?

A year later, we knew the answer. Eight years later, we see the price that we have paid.

Was it worth paying?

Go ask your parents.

Michael Rutstein is publisher of Boston Baseball