And so today, on Opening Day of their 100th anniversary season at Fenway Park, let there be no doubt about what the Red Sox need most, more than a warm reception or Wall balls or high, slicing flies that curl around Pesky's Pole.
What they need is a win.
Now nearly seven months removed from the worst September collapse in baseball history, the Red Sox return to Fenway Park with a 1-5 record this afternoon to face the Tampa Bay Rays, the team that effectively bounced the Red Sox from the postseason last autumn. The reception may be tepid. But this really is not about the response they receive so much as it is about how the Red Sox play, because the former will undoubtedly change more swiftly than the latter.
So here are the real questions the Red Sox should ask themselves as they take the field today, to boos or cheers or something somewhere in between:
Why are they underachieving? Is it solely because of pitching? Or are Sox players prepared to be completely honest about the things that have troubled them now for quite some time, for the things that have produced a positively dreadful 8-25 record in their last 33 games?
A little less than a week ago, respected ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney became the latest to suggest there are still internal issues eating away at the Red Sox, who were indisputably fractured at the end of last season. Before being fired, manager Terry Francona spoke of being unable to "reach" certain players who had unfailingly responded to him; the Sox spent the weeks after the season issuing statements and denials about whether their pitchers were eating fried chicken in the clubhouse and perhaps even drinking beer in the dugout - during games, no less - all while ownership and upper management seemed to attribute the collapse to some sort of mathematical fluke.
Since that time, the Sox have changed general managers and managers, medical personnel and clubhouse attendants. What they haven't changed is ownership, upper management or the real core of the team, the latter of which has responded to the debacle of last September by producing the same results, continuing to play as if nothing were at stake.
Way to go, fellas. How to answer the bell and rise to the occasion. If and when you decide to start playing with a purpose - with commitment to your fans and each other - let us know.
Know what the real problem has been with the Red Sox in the last couple of years? Winning doesn't mean as much to them as it used to. Maybe the same is true of the fan base. John Henry wants to be in Liverpool. Josh Beckett wants to be a parent. The Red Sox have their rings and their guaranteed income - from the players to the owners - and so they seem to operate as if they have nothing to prove to anyone anymore, some of them going so far as to chalk it all up to God's will.
Well guess what, boys? Your credibility is on the line now. A disgruntled fan base is moving closer everyday to tuning you out and writing you off as that worst of all things - a waste of talent - and you're still quibbling over your individual selfish wants. Maybe you don't like your new manager. Maybe you find him disingenuous and self-promoting. But 10 years away from the major leagues has not taken away Bobby Valentine's energy or his passion for baseball or for winning, and we only wish we could say the same for you.
Over the last 100 years, in good years and in bad, Fenway Park has been a place where the Red Sox generally have excelled. They have defended their turf. Since the start of the 1912 season, the Red Sox have posted a higher home winning percentage (.571, an average home season of 46-35) than all but five franchises in baseball. During that period of time, precisely 38 franchises have played home games in the major leagues.
Under this ownership group, in particular, Fenway has been a place where opposing teams often have looked like the Red Sox look now - inept, apathetic, overmatched. Since John Henry and his partners took ownership of the club, the Red Sox are 506-304 at Fenway Park, a .625 winning percentage that translates into an annual home record of 51-30. (Only the New York Yankees have been better.) During that span, the Red Sox have scored more runs at home than any other team in the game, routinely turning in the kind of home performance that has made Fenway one of the most intimating ballparks in baseball for visiting teams.
Last season, for what it's worth, the Red Sox went an identical 45-36 at home and on the road. They were just 4-10 at Fenway Park in September, when their epic collapse reached its peak. Now they return to their home, their elixir, for the start of the 2012 season with lingering questions and issues from their dysfunctional 2012 finish, and they have yet another opportunity to turn things around, to set aside their petty issues, to start winning games the way they did during this indisputable Golden Age of modern Red Sox baseball.
If the Red Sox cannot win here, after all, they can't win anywhere.
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