THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Sox fans hope for a team they can love

(Photos by Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 5, 2012
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Walking by Fenway Park on a sublime spring day, Susie Adams could feel the anticipation in the air, the promise of a new season. Opening Day, baseball’s blessed return, was nearly here.

But like many Red Sox fans who still wince at the memory of last September’s epic collapse, Adams was keeping her guard up, careful not to let her hopes get too high. She wanted to believe, give the team a clean slate. But she had her doubts.

“They really let me down last year,’’ she said Wednesday. “So I’m just trying to be philosophical about it.’’

With the Red Sox starting the new season Thursday against the Detroit Tigers, many fans have tempered expectations, a sharp contrast to last year’s runaway optimism. Always a combustible mix of faith and fatalism, devotion and despair, Red Sox followers say they are taking a wary stance this season, a calculated nonchalance to brace themselves for disappointment.

“My hopes aren’t super high,’’ said Rocco Ruggiero, 25. “I have no idea what to expect.’’

Since falling apart last September, losing a playoff spot that looked automatic all summer, the team has done little to inspire confidence, many fans said. The reorganization of top management and departure of longtime closer Jonathan Papelbon as a free agent were unsettling. Early injuries are even more sobering.

In all, the turbulent offseason has left portions of the fanbase, prone to panic in the best of times, deeply skeptical. With so many injuries so soon, the season has already taken on a depressing feel, some said.

“Over before it even started,’’ grumbled one fan, even as he roamed a souvenir shop in search of new Red Sox garb.

After years in championship contention, the team missed the playoffs the past two seasons, and many sportswriters predict they will again fall short. American League rivals such as Los Angeles and Detroit, fans noted, have added big-name players, while the Red Sox made modest acquisitions.

Adding to the misgivings is lingering bitterness over last year’s swoon, particularly revelations that the team was plagued by dysfunction and a lack of commitment as the season fell apart. The soap-opera sideshow that turned the team’s misfortune into a punch line, many said, made the championship years feel all the more distant.

“You don’t expect them to win all the time, or make the playoffs every year,’’ said Pixie Brudnick, 65, from Lynnfield. “But you do expect them to act like adults.’’

Still, some fans said they were cautiously optimistic about the team’s prospects, noting that the Sox were a dominant team before unraveling down the stretch. And with stars like Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Gonzalez, the team remains loaded with top-line talent.

“I know people are writing them off, but I think they’ll surprise people,’’ said Mark Murphy, 50, who lives in the Fenway. “I think they’ll be strong this year.’’

Murphy cited a few logical reasons for his optimism, from a deeper rotation to improved defense. But Opening Day wasn’t just about cold analysis.

“Anything’s possible,’’ he said.

Visiting Fenway from Baltimore, Beth Vita, 16, said the new year brought renewed hope, and said the team had added depth to reduce the impact of injuries.

“Once one season’s over, it’s on to the next,’’ she said. “From what I’ve seen, they’ve improved a lot.’’

She admitted she was a “little worried’’ about injuries, but said the team could get through it.

Her mother, Susan, was far less analytical. Win or lose, the Sox were finally back.

“That’s a good thing,’’ she said. “You turn on the TV, and there they are.’’

Even fans who thought this year’s outlook was bleak said they would never turn their back on the team, and predicted that the bitterness from last year will quickly recede once the games begin.

“The fans are going to put it behind them,’’ said Bill Brudnick. “Boston fans have a short memory.’’

For Adams, any doubts over the team cannot shake an article of faith - baseball at Fenway.

“I love the old park,’’ she said. “There’s nothing like seeing a game here.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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