Admit it. You’re glad David Price is here.
I’m not talking to the scarce and scattered levelheaded Red Sox fans, the ones who somehow don’t sweat Price’s salary too much, recognize that he’s underachieved yet generally been an asset on the mound (32-18 record, 3.99 ERA, 405 strikeouts in 406 innings in 2½ seasons with the Red Sox), and are more bewildered than angered by his habit of falling face-first into self-inflicted controversies.
I’m talking to those who purport to loathe Price, those who claim they wish he’d never come to the Red Sox.
To them, I ask: Without Price, what in the name of Arquimedez Pozo would you ever complain about?
The Red Sox are a winning machine right now. An efficient, entertaining-in-a-redundant-way winning machine. They’re an MLB-best 62-29, two games up on the Yankees in the American League East. They’ve won six in a row and 13 of their last 16. Their next three series are against Texas, Toronto, and Detroit. Those teams are a combined 30 games below .500, so the winning — and perhaps the winning streak — is going to continue. The Red Sox have not won 100 games in a season since 1946. They are currently on pace to go 110-52.
Oh, sure, there are small concerns. They could use a modern-day Mike Timlin as the bridge to Craig Kimbrel in the bullpen. The rotation tilts lefthanded, which could be an issue in a short series against, say, the Stanton/Judge Yankees. The bench is waif-thin, though versatile Steve Pearce was a savvy pickup. But no roster is perfect, though the ’98 Yankees came damned close.
The Red Sox appear to be on cruise control toward the postseason. There’s an interesting pennant race with the Yankees shaping up, but there’s not going to be much to gripe about until the curtain rises on the playoffs. Things are good.
This is problematic for a certain vocal segment of Red Sox fans, one that sometimes feels like a majority when they’re caterwauling the high notes in unison.
I think of them as the Be Careful What You Wish For Crowd. They’re the ones who in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 World Series victory were tsk-tsking us that our identity as fans would change, that we’d come to miss the lovable losers’ lament that generations of fans had to wear. Imagine thinking 1978 and ’86 and ’03 were heavy outcomes that Red Sox wanted to carry forever, not ghosts to be exorcised in the most fulfilling way imaginable. Imagine lamenting a dream come true.
Price is perfect for this segment of the fan base, not to mention the sports radio programs so desperate for controversy that they have to pretend Al Horford is not someone every basketball team would love to have.
In Price, they have someone to despise, who still does his job at least adequately on most nights but occasionally melts into a puddle on others, for a team that continues to win. It’s the best of all worlds. He allows for some fellowship among the perma-miserable.
His start Saturday was the perfect example. The Red Sox beat a Royals team that should be relegated to the International League by a 15-4 score. Mookie Betts had four hits, Andrew Benintendi hit his 14th home run, and all 11 Red Sox players who got a plate appearance drove in a run. It was another efficient massacre by the team leading the majors in runs scored.
Yet the discussion afterward was mostly in regard to Price, who couldn’t make it out of the fifth inning after hitting three Royals batters. He was terrible, which followed a terrible start against the Yankees, against whom he is always . . . well, terrible.
It’s perfect for the cynics and those who just plain don’t like him. You can root against him and for the Red Sox, and for the most part, it all works out in the end. The Red Sox have a better record in his starts than they do Chris Sale’s. It’s a bizarre status. He’s a scapegoat in victory.
This strange status is of his own making for the most part. He started terribly when he got here in ’16 (he had a 6.00 ERA through his first eight starts) and got rocked by the Indians in the playoffs, ugly and memorable bookends on what was actually a valuable season (17 wins, 3.99 ERA, 228 strikeouts).
His most memorable achievement in his injury-plagued ’17 season was making sure we all knew he was a look-at-me, rabbit-earned, tone-deaf jerk when he made a scene of berating Dennis Eckersley on the team plane. As a player, Eck was the opposite of Price, as accountable as one could be even when his life was in turmoil. If Price had purchased a clue, he would have known that Eck was someone he should aspire to be like, not someone he should attempt to embarrass for the sake of his own clubhouse standing.
And this year? Let’s put it this way: His best chance of beating the Yankees may be at a game of Fortnite.
All of this makes me wonder what happens when the time comes — and it will — in which the Red Sox’ quest is dependent on Price. Will there be fans who actually want him to get mauled by the Yankees or Astros in the postseason, just to keep the narrative and the loathing alive? Are there Red Sox fans who would rather see the season end than watch him get vindication?
Or do fans begrudgingly root for him with the demand that he must earn their applause, a la John Lackey? That sort of happened in the Division Series last year against the Astros, when Price was arguably Boston’s best pitcher in — there’s always a caveat — a bullpen role. Price did not seem especially interested in acknowledging the salute when he came off the mound after an effective performance in Game 4.
Though I don’t trust him to pitch well in a playoff start, either, I suppose it’s possible he may eventually win Red Sox fans over. But I think we’re past the point where Red Sox fans can win him over. I know it’s foolish on the surface for a pitcher over 30 to give up a nine-figure contract for free agency, and the players’ union would certainly push back on even the notion of doing so.
But I am not one of those who believe it is out of the question that he opts out after this season. Yes, he’d be giving up $127 million to return to free agency. But he’d recoup a portion of that from some team (hello, Cardinals) that figured getting him out of Boston would return him to ace form. And he’s already made $144 million in his career. I’m not saying he will opt out; I’d still be slightly surprised. I’m just saying that given how miserable he seems, maybe he’d pay a steeper price for happiness than we realize.
And if that did happen? The perma-miserable would celebrate his departure, right up until they realized there was no one left to complain about. You know what they say. You know what you say. Be careful what you wish for.