It’s been quite the final week at Red Sox spring training, a year that’s been about everyone on the planet dodging bullets concentrated to a Matrix-like, 96-hour limbo for Earth’s 22nd-best baseball team (give or take).
Matt Barnes contracted coronavirus, only to then discover maybe he actually didn’t. Christian Vázquez got hit in the eye with a throw, but not only won’t he miss a single regular-season game, he’s going to end up with a scar his wife loves. Eduardo Rodriguez — continuing a career rich in the concept of “aww, damn” — was scratched from a second straight Opening Day start. That story’s still being written, but “short-term hiccup” is the current mantra.
We’re all just short-term hiccups in the grand scheme … throw that gem into your next internet argument and see where it gets you. That it seems like something Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy might use as an icebreaker, capped by a mild chuckle, doesn’t take the validity out of it.
The Red Sox would like you to believe this current era in their history is a short-term hiccup. After all, 2012 was, even if the third world championship appears the outlier given they were also a last-place team in 2014-15. In some organizations, this would create its own problems. Say, for example, the Boston Red Sox, chasing a flash in the free agent market — C. Crawford, J. Lackey, etc. — because the NESN ratings lost some steam.
Who knows what the future might bring in a world where last March’s toilet-paper memes are this March’s container-ship-in-the-Suez ones, but for the moment, these Red Sox feel equipped to handle it. Lifelong fans are complaining the team just doesn’t “care about them at all” the last couple years, a pretty clear indicator the Sox are playing a longer game than Thursday’s. That’s no surprise from Chaim Bloom.
Nor from Alex Cora, who feels like more than the average manager in that regard.
The best Red Sox season of our lifetimes, you might not remember at first blush, began with a thud. March 29, 2018, in baseball’s most ridiculous spaceship, the Red Sox blew a four-run eighth inning lead and lost to the Rays. (Who we thought were tanking, but ended up being a 90-win team.) Joe Kelly got one out in five guys, Carson Smith walked in a run and gave up a bases-loaded triple, and Dan Shaughnessy got to use “bring back Bobby Valentine” in a column.
The story that night was Craig Kimbrel, pronounced “available” before the game despite missing three weeks of spring training while his infant daughter had life-saving heart surgery, watching all of it from the bullpen. The then-dominant closer didn’t so much as rise to warm while the game, Cora’s first as a major-league manager, piddled away.
Some three hours after he’d told reporters it was “just a regular game,” Cora confirmed he’d backed it with action.
“I don’t think it’s fair for him to come into that situation. It’s not a clean inning. We talked about it and we’ll stick to it,” Cora said. “We need him for the long run and not for just Opening Day.”
It is, essentially, what he said when he backed Rodriguez off from starting this Opening Day, noting “I think the smart thing from my end is to play it smart. . . . The thing about this is, it’s opening weekend. That’s why it’s such a big deal, because it’s opening weekend. But if this happens during the season, it’s not a big deal.”
It is what the Red Sox have consistently said about Chris Sale’s return from Tommy John surgery, and Sale’s echoed that.
“I’m not looking at a month from now, two months from now, even a season,” Sale told reporters in February.
Perhaps this isn’t so much revolutionary thinking as it is branding, people stamping the reasonable moments in your head so the unreasonable will slip from memories. In Cora’s case, I don’t think it is. Especially when his foibles in 2019 are rooted in the same thinking. That foot-off-the-gas approach was behind the spring training in which none of his pitchers were properly built up to start the year, as were the summer of weekly pronouncements that “we’re fine, we’ll get it going, don’t worry.”
Cora certainly has the gear to ratchet up when it counts; turning starters into relievers as he did in the 2018 playoffs is the ultimate win-now, forget-later move. But his Red Sox tenure is all about trusting the process and his people, and that eventually, it’ll get you where you need.
No wonder Bloom fell in love with him.
“He has shown he can get the best out of players,” Bloom said in reintroducing Cora as manager in November.
The downside, of course, is having to live through said process. Even here, where the recent successes mean there’s faith that light at the end of a tunnel isn’t a train, that’s no easy thing. “Lifelong fan” Gabrielle Starr, the one quoted above, threw around “Babe Ruth 2.0” in reference to the Betts trade, suggesting “people tell me when Chaim Bloom wins a World Series, you’ll forget all that [pain]. I won’t.”
I don’t know. On the one hand, I feel like some success immediately after 1919 — as opposed to 20 years in total darkness and nearly 90 without a championship — was what made Babe Ruth 1.0 really sting. On the other, I postulated basically the same thing, wondering whether this dismissal of so many favorites would yield fans to worry, even if the Red Sox start winning again, that any one of their new favorites could be dealt at any time. That’s a tough way to engender genuine loyalty.
It can also be disproven through action, and frankly, it’s a decent problem to have. The Red Sox are gambling that winning truly will trump all, and that ain’t a bad bet. Their plan is their plan, and sticking with it through the slings and arrows they’ve already taken is pretty clear evidence a bad couple years aren’t going to deviate them from it. Never mind a bad couple weeks.
Boston is going to come out of spring training hot, for whatever that matters, winning 13 of 19 exhibitions entering Tuesday’s Grapefruit League finale and sporting the best offense in Florida. They open with six of nine games against Baltimore, and the other three at home against a Tampa Bay team that dumped Blake Snell and lost Charlie Morton in the offseason. This has taken root as “the Red Sox need to start well, or else.”
Or else what? They’re going to trade Mookie Betts again? Sell Fenway Park for scrap? Bring back the alarming living-sock logo from the 1950s?
They’re going to win 80-something games in 2021, most likely. They’re at peace with it. We’ll either find reasons to watch or we won’t. History suggests the former, but they’re at peace with that, too.
They know as well as we do that the only thing worse than a bad plan is no plan.
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