For the third consecutive season, we are proud to introduce the Deadspin Baseball Season Previews. Yes, baseball is awfully close now; heck, they're playing real games in Japan tomorrow.
Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.
Today: The Boston Red Sox. Your author is Eric Gillin.
This photo tells you everything you need to know about being a Boston Red Sox fan entering this season. I took it in Fort Myers, Fla., where the Sox and Minnesota Twins both hold their Spring Training camps. And although this was taken before the opening game of the Twins' spring season, it's quite clear that Twins Territory — like the rest of Major League Baseball — has a problem with illegal immigrants from Boston.
What makes the Red Sox this popular? The same things that made the Chicago Bulls and San Francisco 49ers so wildly popular in the 1980s and '90s. They won championships. It's easier to root for a winner, and given the recent success of the Red Sox, the bandwagon has turned into a caravan, filled with angst-inducing pink hatted masses and other non-baseball types who also feel an overwhelming need to belong to something.
It's fun to have something like this to belong to. Most people don't attend church. They don't join the Elks, or the Kiwanis club, or the Knights of Columbus. Nowadays, people are not joiners, not really, not unless you count Facebook. And that's not much of a club. Fifty-five year old men have Facebook pages now.
If anyone can be a Red sox fan just by virtue of liking them, what does it mean to be a Red Sox fan right now, after two championships in four years has replaced the old algebraic rule that said "Red Sox fan = abject agony"?
At its most obvious, I would argue that to be a Sox fan simply means that you want the team to win when they play other teams. I don't believe that a "true fan" needs to be able to name seven players on the team that aren't Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz or Jonathan Papelbon. I don't believe that true fans don't wear pink and have to attend at least one home game a year. And I don't believe that true fans even exist, except in the mind of insecure fans who feel that these new fans haven't "earned" it, in the same way that people who liked Nirvana when they were on Sub Pop have to remind everyone that came after who "found" the band.
There is a poor, deluded core within Red Sox Nation (a construct is precisely the kind of thing that happens when you have winning teams — the hypothetical Republic of Kansas City could hold their meetings in a photo booth) that has done everything in their power to stay miserable. As if misery were what it still meant to be a Red Sox fan. They call in to WEEI and complain, bitterly so, that the Red Sox didn't do enough in the offseason. That we didn't get Santana. Or that we tried to get Santana, and should have looked elsewhere. They complain about what the rotation will look like in 2009. They discuss balance sheet issues in 2012 and how the third-stringers in rookie ball are playing, ever searching for more to bitch about. To prove their fandom.
Which brings us to this season.
I believe this is the year that Red Sox fans — the pink-hats and the die-hards, who have been eyeing each other suspiciously for five years now — finally have it out with each other. This is the season where what it really means to be a Red Sox fan finally bubbles to the surface. Will the essence of fandom be defined by front-running, merchandise-loving bobble-heads? Or will it be defined by morose, woe-is-me, you-don't-know-pain, Calvinists out there? Do you have to sing "Sweet Caroline?" Can you still do "The Wave?"
I'm not sure. But I know the first few months of this season will be the trigger. The team is largely unchanged from last year — and indeed, at Spring Training, there were only three roster spots still open. Expectations, as a result, are impossibly high. We're expected to repeat and dominate. The sports people on the TV set and in magazines say so. We believe them, because they tell us what we, as Red Sox fans, want to hear.
But the beginning of this season will be a nightmare. The Sox play two official games in Japan, then some more exhibition games, then back into the regular season again. The 17-hour flights aren't the problem, really. It's the fact the Sox don't get to play as many Spring Training games. So when it's mid-May, they'll be in mid-April form. They'll get blown out by the Rays and everyone in Walpole will be put on suicide watch.
Then the sky will fall and people will panic. I mean, look at how terrible this team is. Staff ace Josh Beckett has back spasms! Daisuke Matsuzaka is a waste of money who leaves you hungry 20 minutes after a start! Curt Schilling's a lying-faced-liar who couldn't bring himself to clap at a McCain rally! The back half of the rotation consists of two young guys (Clay Bucholtz and Jon Lester, shown here after getting shelled by the Twins) who should be garroted in the street with their own jock straps!
(Yup, I can see WEEI's phone lines ablaze come late-May with irrational fans wondering why we didn't do more for Santana.)
I don't think the team will be that bad to start, but we won't be that great, either. Among the position players, there are other concerns, as well. Jacoby Ellsbury, who Men's Vogue called "baby Jesus in cleats," has had a dreadful spring. Jason Varitek, while solid behind the plate, seems to get slower each year. Julio Lugo is a total mystery. J.D. Drew only seems to look good hitting ping-pong-sized baseballs on a foreign continent. Both Manny and Papi looked to be in amazing shape in Fort Myers — especially Papi, whose belt buckle is once again visible — but those guys tend to be slow starters.
It's entirely plausible that this year's Red Sox team starts a bit more like last year's Yankees squad. I don't worry about the Red Sox team giving up, however. They're as loose as ever. (This picture is Jonathan Papelbon wearing Manny's #24 to pitch, since he'd left his at home. When asked why we wore Manny's jersey, Papelbon said there were always loads of extra Manny jerseys around, "just in case.") But when the going gets tough — and I suspect it will — I worry if these fans can handle losing bad and often without throwing the team under the bus.
And that's when we'll see what kind of fans, no matter what color their hat, are rooting for the Red Sox.
A sad note. Jason Forget, friend of Deadspin, tragically succumbed to his battle with cancer at the age of 27 a few weeks ago. Each year, his father organizes the East Woonsocket Little League Memorial Tournament to benefit the Jimmy Fund and Dana Farber Cancer Institute. It's a worthy cause and we wanted to spread the news about it. Anyone who would like to make a donation in Jason Forget's name can do so to:
The Jimmy Fund
10 Brookline Place West, 6th floor
Brookline, MA 02445-7226