THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Grapefruit juice seems a little bland

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / March 7, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Maybe it’s because the weather has been abysmal in southwest Florida for the early part of this spring training.

Maybe it’s because the economy is still down and Americans are reluctant to travel and spend.

Maybe it’s because the Red Sox aren’t playing the Yankees in Grapefruit League games this year.

Or maybe I’ve just been here too long.

But there just seems to be considerably less buzz around the Sox this spring.

This is a theme with no statistical proof. You can’t measure the electricity around a major league team. You can’t draw a line on the outside of a gallon jug and announce that the Sox have less juice.

But if you spent any time around the Sox’ minor league complex during workouts or at City of Palms Park for these early games, you would notice a de cided lack of frenzy around the team.

Crowds for workouts were much smaller than in other years. The crowds for the college games were smaller. There aren’t as many Sox-garbed fans walking around Fort Myers. In the dense Bell Tower complex of Fort Myers, I’ve seen as many Twins fans as Sox fans. It was never like that before.

Most of the data back in Boston indicates that the Sox are as popular as ever. The Fenway sellout string is at 550 and counting. Sky-high-priced tickets are still difficult to acquire. NESN featured live programming (some shows running three hours) of pitchers covering first base and throwing bullpen sessions. As many as 12 cameras formed a semi-circle around Terry Francona when he delivered his post-workout remarks during the first week of camp. The baseball pulp publications are on news racks with cover photos of Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia. Baseball Prospectus likes the Sox more than anyone else in the American League, and they are expected to make the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons.

But do you care as much as you used to care? Are you losing any sleep worrying about a potential power shortage? Do you kneel at the altar of Run Prevention?

Stat geeks and blog boys seem to be as rabid as ever, but I get a sense that the casual crowd is spoiled by success and happy to put baseball devotion on hold until the playoffs. Atlanta Braves Syndrome has infected a portion of the Nation.

It may have something to do with lack of colorful players in the clubhouse. Theo Epstein has largely emptied the character from the room. The Jack Daniels-swilling Kevin Millars and Johnny Damons have been replaced by robotic J.D. Drews and Jon Lesters. Manny and Pedro are long gone and Big Papi is diminished in size, spectacle, and production.

Pedroia and Jonathan Papelbon manage to make some beautiful noise on a consistent basis, but most of the Sox are in cliché lockstep: They take it one game at a time, they try to stay within themselves, and they just want to help the team win.

Little by little, year by year, Wally the Green Monster is emerging as the Sox’ biggest individual draw. This is not an accident. Wally, you see, is not represented by Scott Boras. Wally doesn’t play out his contract. Wally doesn’t say anything. Wally doesn’t use steroids (though his head is suspiciously large). Star players come and go. Wally is forever.

Much as it kills me to say this, the Bland Sox could use a guy like the Big Blowhard right about now.

There is nothing particularly exciting about the players the Sox acquired in the offseason. Run prevention is not as sexy as the three-run homer.

Pink hatters are hard-pressed to get into a lather about leather. Kids, too. Seamhead purists can’t wait to see Adrian Beltre make a backhand stab and gun the ball across the infield, but Little Leaguers are going to miss the homers of Jason Bay and Mike Lowell more than they will appreciate tighter coverage on ground balls to the left side.

The Sox were America’s Team for a few years. ESPN was their flagship station and books about the team were written by the likes of Stephen King and David Halberstam. Damon’s Faulkneresque “Idiot’’ was hotter than “Tuesdays With Morrie.’’

Remember Theo in the gorilla suit? Daisuke Mania and the mystique of the gyroball? Manny being Manny? Remember when New York newspapers assigned reporters to cover the Red Sox full-time? When every other Christmas card you tore into had a photograph with a Red Sox theme?

Those days are gone. In 2010, the Red Sox are nothing more than a well-run, sellout-every-game franchise with a legitimate chance to make it to the playoffs and the World Series. Guess that’ll have to be enough.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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