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Is the thrill gone?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  February 23, 2009 09:57 AM

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- So what do you think? Is it us or is it them?

Roughly 10 days have passed since Red Sox pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, and there are continuing signs that interest in the team is waning. Just last week, Sox administrators John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner acknowledged that nine home games in April and May have yet to be sold out, a once unimaginable occurrence during the franchise's golden age under the reign of King Henry I.

Could it be that the Red Sox are getting -- dare we say it -- relatively boring?

With regard to recent Red Sox history, it was only a matter of time before we encountered, for lack of a better word, a recession. Entering 2009, the Sox have enjoyed an increase in attendance over each of the last 12 seasons, the longest such streak in baseball. In Theo Epstein's six seasons as general manager, the Sox have scored more runs than any team in the game and been to the playoffs five times, winning two World Series.

Over the last two seasons, the Sox have won a world title and reached Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, the latter coming despite a rash of injuries that would have derailed a lesser group.

All in all, things have been astonishingly good.

And yet, as the Sox methodically prepare for the 2009 campaign, this spring training is noticeably devoid of any real buzz. One of the more professional Sox clubs in history has been showing up on time, doing its work, then calling it a day. Some of this has to do with the doldrums that come along with every camp, but some of it runs much, much deeper.

"I don’t know if bored is the right word," Sox senior statesman Tim Wakefield said when asked about the current Sox camp. "It just gets monotonous before games start."

Thankfully, that happens Wednesday.

But really, how much will things change with this club between now and Opening Day?

At the moment, we all know the major issues surrounding this team: the health of David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, and Josh Beckett; productivity at the catcher, shortstop, and center field positions. None of those issues will be decided for quite some time, and it is quite possible that the Red Sox will play much of the regular season before they determine their most significant issues and concerns.

Before 2004, we never really had such a long-term outlook when it came to the Red Sox. The absence of a world title for 86 years understandably made us short-sighted and impatient. Burdened by past failures, we placed undue emphasis on relatively meaningless events and melodramas, from the late arrivals of spring to ordinary stints on the disabled list to the frustrating losing streaks that are part of any season.

But now? Now we shrug it all off because we know the Red Sox will be good. We just don’t know if they will be great. And because that answer will not begin to come until Aug. 15, at the earliest, we chalk up most of the early developments to an accepted part of the journey, only fueling the theory that the Red Sox and their followers finally have reached an emotional maturity.

Here’s the problem: A little anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It helps guard against complacency. As good as the Red Sox were last year, television ratings on NESN dropped by just a shade under 20 percent. That is hardly a subtle drop. Demand dipped considerably on the secondary ticket market last postseason, suggesting that many were interested if -- and only if -- the Red Sox again reached the World Series.

Have we become that spoiled?

Are we really taking that much for granted?

On the field, for whatever it is worth, the Sox have undergone few dramatic changes over the last two offseasons. Since the start of the 2007 campaign, the only truly major change to the Red Sox roster was the deal that brought Jason Bay to Boston and cast off Manny Ramirez. What the Sox gained in professionalism they lost in tabloid sensationalism, which is a credit to Bay’s character and makeup as much as it is a criticism of Ramirez’s immature and irresponsible behavior.

Nonetheless, the Red Sox lost something in Ramirez, and not just in the batter’s box. They lost something at the newsstand and the water cooler, too. Human nature being what it is, we talk about things more when they go wrong than when they go right. That’s part of the reason the gossip pages are routinely filled with people like Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, and recently, Alex Rodriguez. The more screwed up you are, the more fascinating you become. It’s why everyone slows down when driving past a car accident.

At this point in time, and in this day and age, the Red Sox are nothing short of a well-oiled machine operating at peak efficiency. They have good ownership, good management, good big league players, and a good minor league system. None of that is really debatable anymore. The entire clubhouse generally seems like a collection of good guys genuinely interested in each other’s well being, which makes them all very easy to like and root for.

At the moment, it just makes them challenging to talk about.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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