FORT MYERS, Fla. - Lyle Overbay, Stephen Drew and Ryan Dempster are some of the big names in Red Sox camp this spring.
And thanks to Florida Gulf Coast University, the doings at Fenway Park South aren't even the biggest story in town these days.
That should tell us all we need to know when it comes to expectations this season at Fenway Park North. At least we have proof John Farrell has been doing his homework. Watching him in the dugout from point-blank range, even during a game between the Red Sox scrubs and their Tampa Bay counterparts, one sees an immediate difference and upgrade over his predecessor.
Indeed, Farrell literally and figuratively can't do any worse. It's not like the Red Sox are going to finish in sixth place this season. And with the arrival of the Class AA Houston Astros, the Red Sox are assured of not being the worst team in the American League.
Talk around these parts centers on the possibility of 80-something wins and the the best-realistic scenario of contending for the elusive mirage of the "second wildcard." For Red Sox fans, at least the ones that haven't jumped off the bandwagon or the Tobin Bridge following the AFC championship game, this is the age of temperance and prohibition (unless you're Drake Britton or Bobby Jenks) following a 10-year bacchanalia of "Sweet Caroline," headline-grabbing contracts, twice-in-a-lifetime championships and a blizzard of on and off-field self-inflicted wounds that drove fans crazy.
The only survivor scattered among the wreckage of 2012 was apathy. The passion for the Red Sox has been deep-fried in Popeye's, soused in Bud Light and rolled into Bobby Valentine's rap. The Red Sox are looking up at the rest of the American League East these days. This fan base, for the first time since the early 1990s, has been relieved of the burden of expectations and looming threat of disappointment. There's no downside in 2013. This will be a year free of fear or frustration.
Fans have become immune to the Red Sox. They really can't hurt you any more. Those of us who remember 1972, Game 7 in 1975, Game 6 in 1986, Grady Little and the great Collapse of 2011 have all been hardened through experience. But we always fell for it, even after 2004 and 2007. "Now I die in peace" was never enough, after all.
It took the ensuing 18 months after Carl "Poor Me" Crawford's lunge into futility against the Orioles back on that gloomy September night for Red Sox passion to finally reach a room-temperature pitch.
Now one can die in peace without a second thought of what's happening on Yawkey Way. Or at least being really pissed about it.
For most of recent history, the Red Sox have kept things interesting, either by childhood-scarring moments like Aaron Boone's moon shot, or by the happy thoughts we shared at our parents' gravesite after the Duck Boats rolled in 2004.
"Yes, Dad, it all started with a stolen base. Can you f-----g believe that one?"
The Red Sox even gave us the "Greatest Team Ever" just two years ago.
The Red Sox then took a three-step approach to ripping the collective heart from their fan base.
First, of course, was that historic September slide back of 2011. As bad as 7-20 was, it certainly was not unfamiliar territory for any of us over the age of 35. It was simply the return of "our father's Red Sox."
The Red Sox then moved from "chokers" to "jokers" and became the eternal punchline in a never-ending litany of "chicken and beer" memes, talk-show rants and messageboard comments. The comedy tour was extended into 2012 with the hiring of Valentine and the circus that ensued before and after his arrival from Bristol.
The jokes continued - both on and off the field - during last season. There was Youkilis-Gate, Beckett-Gate, Secret-Meeting-In-New-York-Gate, Double-Fisting-Gate and a daily reality show that never failed to disappoint.
The image of Red Sox continued to devolve - overpaid, overweight, ill-prepared, apathetic and lacking in basic physical conditioning or the ability to pitch more than five innings. The franchise bottomed out in the minds of its fanbase when news broke that only four players had attended the first memorial service to Johnny Pesky. This single incident - while downplayed by the same geniuses in State Run Media who told us Bobby V. was the answer - struck a unseen-before nerve with Red Sox fans, especially those old enough to remember watching Jim Rice play, Luis Tiant pitch and Bill Lee pontificate about Fidel Castro in between starts.
Never had the hatred of this team or its players been more raw and visceral that it was at that moment.
All those cliches about the Red Sox were no longer applicable. They had simply become a bunch of first-class a--holes.
Then, at its darkest hour, Boston was able to miraculously hit the re-set button thanks to the Dodgers. The season ended with a final 14-2 baby-seal-clubbing at the hands of the Yankees. Fittingly, the Red Sox closed the season going 7-19 in September and 0-3 in October just for good measure. But they rid themselves of Valentine and even offered Pesky a beautiful and fitting public tribute.
The Red Sox are not a low-budget outfit. This season's payroll is hovering somewhere around $160 million. The Monster is also alive and well, to wit David Ortiz's $26 million lifetime achievement award. Big Papi remains the living embodiment of all that was good and bad during the past decade.
Oritz has said he won't push himself to play in the wake of his Achilles' tendon injury until he's ready. Thankfully his hand and wrist were in good enough shape to sign that new contract. My favorite line of spring training thus far was Ortiz's response when asked if rookie Jackie Bradley, 22, should replace him on the roster. When asked what he was doing at age 22, Ortiz responded: "I was hitting bombs in the big leagues." Big Papi must have meant "steak bombs" since he had all of nine homers when he was 22 and playing for the Twins in 1998.
That old-school "25 players, 25 cabs" Red Soxian dialogue has been thankfully rare this spring. Most of the intel from Lee County and elsewhere up and down the Gulf Coast has been mildly positive. The pitching has been better than expected and the injuries - save for Ortiz - have been kept to a minimum. When expectations are non-existent, all of the things that make baseball enjoyable are noticed and appreciated.
That's what made this annual pilgrimage to Fort Myers such a joy. There's no downside this season as far as the Red Sox are concerned. Watching them this season should be stress-free. The current members on the team - certainly the ones on display during this four-games in three-game swing - played with refreshing hustle while executing solid fundamentals. I even witnessed Jon Lester throw six perfect innings in a game with my own four eyes. It's hard to remember if he threw six perfect innings all last season.
No one is foolish enough to extract anything from spring training when it comes to predicting the future. But athletes don't really change the way they play from one day to the next. Competitive players are competitive, whether it's MLB 2k13 on their X-Box, quarters, spring training or the World Series. Others try when the spotlight is the brightest. Others are Josh Beckett.
From all accounts, tickets sales are at multi-year lows and even Larry Urban Legend is prepared to throw in the towel on the faux sellout streak. When the Astros come to town in April, they might even move the Dunkin' Dugout inside the 617 area code. State Run Media has to launch a drone just to get that shot each night. Tickets for that historic showdown start at $9 on AceTicket.com.
This is as it should be. The Red Sox might even make watching baseball fun again in 2013. But there's no reason for anyone who doesn't like baseball to watch this team. Being a Red Sox fan is no longer trendy. Some of us are burdened/blessed with it as a birthright and will never change. Others were lured in during college, through marriage or other nefarious means. And even a few have stayed on the bandwagon that began rolling nine years ago. (My goodness, it's been nine years since 2004. How did that happen?) Most won't be going anywhere, especially if they were still around at the end of last season.
No one here is bailing on the Red Sox, even though they bailed on us the day Bobby Valentine showed up. The front office, no doubt, is in panic mode because Jenny Pinkhat and her pals are poised to bail the minute Jacoby Ellsbury stops swiveling his hips in the leadoff spot. Good riddance - to both.
For the rest of us, we'll watch the season commence a week from today at Yankee Stadium.
It will be April Fools Day.
But this time, the Red Sox won't be fooling anyone.
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