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Sox believe the hype

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  February 1, 2011 03:34 PM

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Hype springs eternal for the 2011 Red Sox.

Here is the problem for the Red Sox coming off a disappointing 2010 season that led to a disengaged fan base: As a business entity they need to ratchet up expectations for this season as much as possible to insulate the sellout streak and boost flagging television ratings. However, in doing so they create an environment that makes it even harder for the uniformed baseball personnel and baseball operations to deliver the very product the business side is promoting/promising.

Such is the paradox of feeding the Green Monster the Red Sox have become. As we approach the 10th season of the John Henry-Tom Werner-Larry Lucchino trio, the most competent and successful ownership the team has ever known, the best ways to describe their regime would be creative, competitive and lucrative.

That's why you have events like last night's 2011 Red Sox Town Hall, a televised fan forum featuring team chairman Werner, team president/CEO Lucchino, general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona. It was a made-for-TV shotgun marriage of the Sox' business and baseball interests.

The show was easy to watch and well-orchestrated. It was a nice gesture for the Sox to reach out to their fans and let their voices be heard. It was also a blatant infomercial where Lucchino and Werner did everything possible to disavow the 2010 run prevention Red Sox and promise better days ahead with Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford jerseys now for sale and tickets still available.

"We did not want to struggle through 2011," Lucchino told the audience at WGBH's Calderwood Studio. "We wanted to be as aggressive as possible. ...There was a real meeting of the minds early in the off-season to restore order and get this team back where it needs to be."

He was talking about the standings, but he also could have been talking about ratings and interest level. As brilliant Fox baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal revealed in November, the Sox' appeal waned last season. TV ratings fell 36.3 percent from 2009. The mighty Red Sox and NESN (16.6 percent of which is owned by the New York Times, the parent company of the Boston Globe and Boston.com) had the same television drawing power as the Tampa Bay Rays.

The underwhelming response to the Bridges of Yawkey Way offseason set the tone for the season. Fans were waiting for the team to fail from the outset, and when the Sox got off to a 19-20 start it was only confirmation for most that it was not a team worth investing emotional equity in, even though the same team was 49-32 and a half game out of first place on July 4.

The Sox approached this offseason with checkbooks a-blazing, going out and signing Crawford to a $142-million deal and trading Epstein's prized prospects for Adrian Gonzalez, who is believed to have a tacit agreement with the team for a deal north of $150 million. Upper management also mandated that David Ortiz's option for $12.5 million be picked up.

The idea was to improve the team, which they undoubtedly did. It was also to reset the narrative needle back to fever pitch.

"I think it's important for NESN that the team play well early," admitted Werner. "There have been some comments I know that we made these player acquisitions to increase our ratings. We made them because we need to have a competitive product. It's a tough environment. We root for the Celtics, and we root for the Bruins. But they are very competitive programming in April and May."

It should be an exciting Sox season that kicks off in 12 days when pitcher and catchers report to Fort Myers. But lost in all the euphoria and good-as-new proclamations is this thought: What if this team fails to live up to what Francona referred to last night as its "lofty goals" for the season right off the bat?

Then the hard sell simply makes it hard for Francona, his players and Epstein, who have to absorb the body blows of the angry masses, who were expecting the 1998 Yankees.

Such an occurrence is unlikely, but not impossible. Ortiz has had painfully slow starts each of the last two seasons. The entire infield is either surgically repaired or recovering from injury, although Epstein took pains to explain the weirdness in Dustin Pedroia's foot is related to immobilization for so long and not the fracture.

Starting pitching should be a strength, but that is based on the presumption of bounce-back years from Josh Beckett and John Lackey, who were overpaid and underperformed last season, and the assumption that Clay Buchholz will pitch like an ace again (17-7, 2.33 ERA in '10) without the catcher (Victor Martinez) or the pitching coach (John Farrell) who nurtured his potential into production.

I haven't even mentioned the potential melodrama at closer with Jonathan Papelbon in a walk-year, or what happens if some of those doubles and triples into the gap at Tropicana Field become long outs to right field for Crawford at Fenway.

The above is a fatalistic, border-line masochistic view of Epstein's offseason masterpiece, but the point is that October playoff games while very likely, are not a fait accompli in the Fens.

It wouldn't be the first time the Sox oversold an offseason acquisition. The poster boy for hype-gone-wrong is Dasuike Matsuzaka, who arrived as the Pedro Martinez of the Pacific Rim and is now an afterthought fifth starter whose positive contributions are viewed as a bonus.

Raising the level of expectations is not something that Red Sox fans really need help doing, and at this point the risk of backlash doesn't outweigh the benefits. So, it might serve the team well to let the product just speak for itself.

There is an old business bromide about underselling and overperforming. You can't accuse the Sox of underselling, but overperforming is pretty much out of the question.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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