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For Red Sox, redemption and hope

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  April 1, 2013 10:00 AM

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Perhaps the anticipation for the new baseball season truly has been altered by the animosity – that is, from the fans to the Red Sox themselves, who have worn a greasy stench of disappointment since September 2011. A fresh start doesn't instantly delete the old frustrations, especially when they are not particularly old and not yet forgotten.

If the aggravation-turned-apathy of Bobby Valentine's Summer of Self-Made Brushfires carried through the winter, well, that's understandable, and reparations are going to require more than a few $5 beers and a tribute song by a crooner whose style teeters on parody to make it feel all better again.

Once the – insert air quotes here – sellout streak ends inevitably in the immediate days after the April 8 home opener, I half expect chief operating office Sam Kennedy to show up beneath former season ticket holders' bedroom window, wearing a trench coat and holding a boom box in the air in an attempt to win back their adoration and cash. Let's just hope the song he's playing is "In Your Eyes" and not "At Fenway." That would be one more awkward miscalculation by this franchise, though certainly more forgivable than thinking Valentine was any kind of solution to what ailed them. But as tone-deaf as they sometimes may seem, at least they recognize many of you need to be won back. That's progress.

In a smaller way, perhaps there's also a shrunken animosity for that familiar opponent on this Opening Day in the Bronx, one that has dulled that anticipation. An aging and battered roster has left the Yankees in the most unfamiliar of positions: As an underdog within the division they've ruled. Maybe that eagerness for the start of baseball season is dulled and tempered by that new conventional wisdom – that it's more likely that the Red Sox and Yankees spend the summer battling to stay out of last place than trading three-run homers (and maybe even a few right jabs, Fisk-Munson style) as they duke it out for first.

There is no Derek Jeter on the lineup card for the Yankees Monday, no David Ortiz for the Red Sox for who knows how long, and the only pinstriped reminder of that most perfect Opening Day of 2005 is Mariano Rivera, the regal closer who happens to be the last active player born in the 1960s.

Rivera is looking for a personal redemption as he returns from a knee injury and attempts to close out his career on his own terms. He wants one more final scene, one more ninth inning to dominate, and while his quest is born from a different desire, it's not entirely different from what the Red Sox are searching for collectively and individually in 2013.

Who requires or is searching for redemption on this year's Red Sox? It might be easier to name the few who aren't, though we will take the longer route.

Foremost, there's Dustin Pedroia, who is trying to prove that his now-infamous "That's not how we do things around here" comment last April is not an indication that he's part of the problem. And he is not – it was disheartening how easily so many dismissed all that he had done the previous five seasons, that he requires redemption at all. I can't reprimand him for recognizing the ship was going to sink before they hit the iceberg. Don't we know what this guy is all about by now, that he's a great ballplayer and teammate?

There is Ortiz, who had more years added to his contract (two) than games played (one) since July 16. Jacoby Ellsbury needs to avoid high-impact collisions and overcome the impression that he won't play unless he's 100 percent. Jon Lester wouldn't be blamed for petitioning to remove his 2012 stat line from the back of his baseball card. Clay Buchholz is still searching for the consistency that would make him a top-tier starter.

Andrew Bailey was injured and lost in '12 to the point that he almost seems like a newcomer to the roster. And virtually all of the actual newcomers – Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and Stephen Drew most notably – are trying to overcome the perception that they are aging or injury prone, a perception that follows them here from their last baseball home. Even manager John Farrell, whose departure made him a public enemy in Toronto, a city not recently known for holding passionate baseball grudges, has plenty to prove.

If the majority of question marks end up having suitable answers – not an unreasonable request – this team does have a chance to be a pleasant surprise, not only a likable, rootable team but a good team.

Lester and Buchholz must justify their top-of-the-rotation status, and the spring was encouraging in that regard – they combined to give up four earned runs in 46.2 innings. The lineup lacks star power in Ortiz's absence, though it should be remembered Ellsbury and Pedroia both finished in the top 10 in the AL MVP balloting just two seasons ago (the same season Victorino was 13th in the NL voting), and they were fifth in the league in runs last season despite the junior varsity lineup the final six weeks.

The defense will be excellent on days that Jackie Bradley Jr., Jose Iglesias, and David Ross are in the lineup, the bullpen is deep and versatile, and the rotation, while hardly reminiscent of the 1993 Atlanta Braves, has no Aaron Cooks and Daisuke Matsuzakas among them. At the least they'll be competent, with wild-card contention a reasonable wish.

Still, the Sox are 76-113 since September 1, 2011, Fenway has not hosted a playoff game since 2009, and so the buzz around the Red Sox is that there really isn't much buzz at all by usual standards, save for the Florida ascent of the prospect Bradley, an irresistibly likable 22-year-old outfielder who has somehow become part of the bridge year rather than its destination. He'll be fun, though I fear his skill-set beyond his spectacular defense may be too subtle to meet the massive expectations brought on by his .419 spring batting average and the desire to discover something, anything exciting and new about this Red Sox team.

Bradley is poised to be the center fielder and a center piece on that "next great Red Sox team," as Ben Cherington sometimes puts it. He's arrived sooner than expected. On Opening Day, it shouldn't be too much to hope that redemption for the franchise will too. It's a long road, but the end of the bridge isn't too far away. For now, until the Red Sox are formidable again, a redemption song is a much more appealing theme than chicken-and-beer or the managerial misadventures of Bobby V.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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