Spring training is now less than a month away, and for the first time in years, that matters. The Red Sox have reloaded. The Red Sox have rebuilt. The Red Sox have reclaimed some of the missing buzz that has been absent since the 2007 season, when the fever, like the television ratings, peaked.
But challenges remain and we will not truly know how the Red Sox have fared until April, May, June and beyond.
The baseball? That is the obvious part, thought we can be reasonably certain of this: the Red Sox will be in the playoffs next fall. They should, at worst, qualify as the American League wild card entry. But when the Red Sox officially take the field in April, with or without Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, they will do so at a time when the Bruins and Celtics are gearing for the playoffs. The Patriots will be preparing for the draft with a collection of picks in the first four rounds. From hockey to basketball to football, the ground will be moving and shaking, and that is the landscape upon which the 2011 Red Sox must find their footing.
Not just as a baseball team.
But as a business.
Boston has changed, folks. For those of you born after, say, 1990, you have no idea what it was like here for the `80s and even some of the `70s. The Bruins and Celtics ruled during the spring. The Red Sox were a story on Opening Day and then disappeared until June. On April 29, 1986, the night that Roger Clemens struck out 20 batters for the first time, most eyes were focused on the Boston Garden, where Larry Bird and the Celtics were facing the Atlanta Hawks. It took a historic outing by Clemens to tilt the scales, a performance that stands as Exhibit A in the case for star power.
On that night, Clemens became appointment watching. The Red Sox became a factor again. And save for the Butch Hobson years, baseball in Boston really hasn’t been the same since.
For the moment, at least, give credit to John Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino and the remainder of those who own and operate the Red Sox. When Henry and Co. officially took ownership of the Red Sox during spring training in 2002, the Bruins and Celtics were relative doormats on which the Red Sox and Patriots wiped their feet. There was no way to project the challenges that might arise by the end of the decade. The Red Sox now have to fight for viewers -- on their own network, no less -- and that is a good thing for the Boston sports consumer, whether your primary interests rest with the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics or Patriots.
This entire offseason was not about baseball operations. Rather, it was about ownership and the power of the almighty dollar.
And everyone knows it.
"I think our ownership and our front office has done an unbelievable job just putting the team together,’’ manager Terry Francona told reporters yesterday in anticipation of the annual Boston Baseball Writers dinner. "You never know what’s going to happen, but we should be a good team.’’
Indeed they should. In baseball, like most sports, it starts with talent. And when faced with declining television ratings amid a third-place finish in the American League East, the Red Sox were inspired to go out and get more of it.
Now, whether that is all enough to sway your interest come spring and summer remains to be seen, particularly now that the draft has become even more important for a Patriots team that has made strides in the last year. Some of that will depend on factors well beyond the Red Sox’ control. We all know how this Red Sox team looks on paper and we understand its potential, so we’ll spare you the detailed analysis until a more relevant time. In short, the Sox are loaded. They’re deep. And if the majority of people had to pick today, we’d all project a World Series between the Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies.
In the interim, know this: Red Sox owners bellied up to the bar this offseason and bought the house a round. Maybe they did more than that. By avoiding arbitration with Jonathan Papelbon and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Red Sox sent their projected payroll north of $180 million, the highest in club history. They signed Crawford to a blockbuster, long-term deal and will do the same with Gonzalez, for whom they surrendered a package of prospects. They threw all caution to the wind. They will pay a luxury tax. And they did it all because the market demands it and because they are competitive, a self-fueling marriage that has brought the Red Sox to where they are now.
Back in our consciousness at a time of year from which they had recently faded.
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