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Will Red Sox failure actually feed the hunger?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 23, 2011 08:48 AM

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The truth, quite sadly, is that the winning had become downright boring, forecasted, predictable. The Red Sox expect to win. We expect the same. And so it took an epic collapse to awaken us from the doldrums of complacency, from the highest floors at 4 Yawkey Way to the farthest bar post at Sullivan’s Tap.

Indeed, if the Red Sox somehow resurrect themselves and actually win the World Series – admittedly, that seems unlikely at the moment – we will marvel at how the Sox pulled it off during a year in which they have been downright bipolar.

In September, they all looked like they forgot how to play the game. Now, we’re having another parade.

Or maybe we’ll be saying something else.

Did they really deserve this?

However unlikely that all is, it certainly beats the alternative. Had the Red Sox lived up to Josh Beckett’s prophecy of a 100-win season and then rumbled through the postseason, what real satisfaction could we have derived from that? Based on the luxury tax formula, the Red Sox have the highest payroll in their history, a figure in the neighborhood of $180 million. On what would constitute their regular 25-man roster, the Red Sox have 14 players selected in the first or second round of the amateur draft, including J.D. Drew and Jason Varitek, each of whom was selected in the first round twice.

This team was stacked. For the most part, it still is. Even now, these Sox have every bit the pitching of the 2003 Red Sox, a club that took a 5-2 lead into the eighth inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and should have played for the world title. That Red Sox team was, above all else, hungry. Boston had not won a World Series in 85 years at that point. The Red Sox had a questionable starting rotation (eighth in the league in ERA with Pedro Martinez, 10th without) and a wretched bullpen (12th). But the Sox won thanks largely to a prolific offense that led the major leagues in runs scored (like this one) and an ability to persevere.

In 2003, the Red Sox rallied for victory 11 times when trailing after the seventh inning. This team has done it twice.

What this all speaks to, more than anything else, is the general attitude and malaise that has enveloped Fenway Park in recent years, no matter the television ratings, ticket sales or intangible buzz. Red Sox fans, like their team, have grown relatively fat and happy. Do we (and they) want to win? Of course. But we (and they) don’t want it the way we wanted it in 2003 or 2004, which is the way the Bruins wanted it last spring or the way the Tigers, Rangers or Brewers want it now. Each of those clubs has thirsted for a title far longer than Boston has. And it shows.

When you get right down to it, isn’t that really the problem with this Red Sox team? Generally speaking, they have often played as if they expected it to be easy, as if they wanted it to be easy, at times even making it look easy. And now that the challenge has grown difficult, the Sox look like a team that simply does not want to fight for it, like a team that goes into a shell when the going gets tough.

Weak.

Whether this relative level of apathy is correctable is certainly open to debate – can hunger be manufactured? – but this much is clear: if the Red Sox don’t snap out of this in the next few days and/or weeks, significant changes are in order. Yesterday, longtime reporter and Theo Epstein confidant Peter Gammons went on the Dan Patrick Show and spoke of a “disconnect” between Epstein and manager Terry Francona, which certainly suggests the Red Sox are testing the wind on a managerial change. Francona entered this season unsigned beyond 2011 with the Red Sox holding options for future years, and maybe it says something that the Red Sox didn’t extend a two-time World Series winner before the season began.

Still, do the Red Sox really want to play that game? Of course, Francona deserves his share of blame just as surely as he has deserved past credit. The same is true of Epstein and everyone from John Henry to John Lackey. To Henry, the Red Sox now seem merely part of a growing empire, something that becomes increasingly clear by reading the profile of him in the current “Boston issue” of ESPN Magazine. Somewhere along the line in the wake of a second world title, the Red Sox morphed from a baseball team into an entertainment company, complete with sing-alongs and pink paraphernalia.

Win or lose, the Sox still sing “Sweet Caroline.”

Hey look, there’s Neil Diamond!

Ironically, Red Sox business is now booming (at least with regard to exposure) because the Sox are falling on their faces. Quite candidly, this is the most interesting the Red Sox have been since cutting ties with Manny Ramirez. A percentage of the fan base, however small, is actually expressing its desire for the Sox to lose, if only because that group perceives failure as the first, necessary step in restoring some of that elusive hunger.

Maybe losing is necessary here. Maybe it isn’t. Incredibly, there is still time for the Red Sox to regroup and to focus, to reclaim at least some of the thirst that made Boston the most compelling baseball town in America for decades.

That is, of course, if you really want them to.

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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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