I don’t know what confuses me more these days, the prospect that Larry the Cable Guy has corralled enough dumb Americans into his fan base that he can support his own movie, or Budweiser’s pathetic annual campaign to pass its temperate swill off as suitable St. Patrick’s Day consumption.
Of course, these are peripheral to the many other universal conundrums that we all face as a fanatical sporting population. Not the least of those questions involves these Red Sox, a team with a dogmatic following but one that finds itself skimming for its identity in the suddenly much deeper pool of the American League East.
They’re no longer the World Champion/Idiots/Cowboys of two seasons past. Nor are they (even after a chaotic offseason of retooling -- not rebuilding, remember) a fresh-faced team of rookies. Rather, they might be just the perfect mix of veterans and youngsters, balanced more on a philosophy of pitching, rather than Nintendo results.
Or, they might be worse than Toronto.
That’s not a prediction, mind you; but if that is the destiny of this 2006 edition, it will for sure be more interesting to witness how an obsessed Red Sox Nation reacts. One thing’s for sure: The partial mulligan the Nation dished out just six months ago certainly will not be repeated should things fail again this time around.
I hearken back to the days before the Boston sports landscape was altered, how we foretold of the utopia that would be a city with a World Series winner in its midst. It was to have been like the small-town ideal of Christmas songs every day of the year. Races and religions, people of all backgrounds enjoying peace and harmony because the Red Sox won the World Series.
While that wasn’t quite the case, it was a somewhat kinder, gentler Red Sox Nation in 2005, albeit almost to the point of apathy (as displayed in the last game we saw in these parts, the crowd-dead Game 3 of the ALDS, a near-silent evening on which Greg Kite would have felt comfortable teeing it up at home plate). Perhaps that’s not so bad, to let off the gas pedal a bit. But in its place remained a wine and cheese base that actually let phrases like “jolly good, then” slip out as David Ortiz was rounding the bases. If that is the price of success, then it’s almost as if Sox Nation unknowingly sold its soul for eternal memories.
Apparently, Sox fans last year might have hurt Edgar Renteria’s feelings, but imagine if Mr. E had been here a couple of seasons prior? He’d have been calling up Wade Boggs in the first week of the season to figure out how to will himself invisible. Bottom line is, Red Sox Nation certainly underwent some sort of transformation last season. Maybe it wasn’t a thorough cloaking of its old self, but an imparity nonetheless. Winning mattered, but not as much. Losing hurt, but not as much. Making the playoffs mattered, but not as much. And eh, so what? They did, after all, win it last year.
A defense no longer in the books.
Newlyweds get in disputes (even in paradise a week after the nuptials), but that doesn’t make their journey any less of a honeymoon. The Red Sox and their fans went down a similar path in 2005, save the Keith Foulke, Renteria, and Kevin Millar moments when the circle of trust was broken. It was most definitely a seven-month long honeymoon.
Perhaps that is one of the best things about the prospects of 2006 -- that 2004 is in the wedding album, tucked away for safekeeping, ready for a peek from time to time. But it’s not sitting on the coffee table, and we’re not opening it up incessantly every time somebody new drops by the homestead. There is nothing to fall back on this time around. This team will be judged by what it produces on the field, not what it did in the past, a much more involving situation, particularly with a new cast of characters with which to get acquainted.
Last year was the freshman kid trying to live up to the expectations his older brother left on his alma mater. This season, those expectations are lessened; but in an odd enough twist, the pressure from the Nation may be greater. The intoxicating high is a thing of the past, replaced by a more familiar aura of obsession.
It was a refining season for the fan base of the Olde Towne Team, while what lies ahead will be defining. Has the mentality changed, spoiled by success? The knee jerk answer is “heck no,” but in all honesty, there was a shift, a “whatever” mentality in Red Sox Nation that had never been present prior to 1967. The hunger was there, but the Nation wasn’t starved. Will it ever be again?
Nobody wants to starve anyway though, really, do they? As the great G. Love sang in “This Ain't Livin',” “Me belly full but me hungry so I fill it.” So too it goes in Red Sox Nation, nourished by the past, wanting, needing to taste more of it.
And 2006 is either going to be a holiday feast or a fast food meal on the road to nowhere.