It may or may not be true that some players simply can't cut it in Boston. But it's an absolute truism that everyone in Boston wants it to be true. In a vacuum, the obvious question is "did John Lackey's personal issues, including his marital problems and wife's illness, contribute to a sub-par season?" Instead, the question being asked everywhere is "can John Lackey handle the Boston spotlight?"
Feel free to replace "Boston" with New York, Philadelphia or Chicago, but the myth of the big-city microscope has become pervasive and self-fulfilling. The fans like it because it lets them believe their successful players are somehow superior to those with equal numbers in Atlanta or Houston. The teams encourage it because it gives a partial excuse for poor signings. And the media itself? They fucking love it.
"The [reporters] around here are in love with themselves," says one reporter covering the Red Sox who'd rather stay anonymous. "They're in love with the idea of themselves, of what they're supposed to be. They really believe that working in Boston makes their work more important than their counterparts'.
"When Brandon Morrow got shelled [at Fenway earlier this month], the Boston guys were ragging on the Toronto writers in the press box. 'What are you going to ask him after the game? If he tried a lobster roll while he was in town?'"
It's self-serving for the media, because it lets them think their job is the real "big leagues." But it's an act. Instead of asking why Lackey's lost a couple miles on his fastball, and why he's throwing significantly more curves and breaking balls, or why John Farrell and Curt Young haven't tried to change his mechanics (the real tough questions), the narrative has always been the pressure of pitching in Boston. It's easier to jump to that conclusion than looking for actual answers.
It's been known since at least
May February that Krista Lackey was battling breast cancer, and the reaction was sympathy—and a reluctance to bring it up again, because Lackey's a private person. But it's hard to square that respect for boundaries with the so-called Boston microscope when it's a Los Angeles outlet that dug deeper and found a pending divorce.
The narrative has been simply too perfect for the writers to ignore. Theo Epstein thanked Krista Lackey, who went to high school in Maine and college in New Hampshire, for helping lure her husband to New England. (He never wanted this spotlight in the first place! Except he did.) Krista got vomited on in a Boston restaurant. (This doesn't happen in other cities! Except it does.) John threw up in the dugout during a game. (This doesn't happen on other teams! Except it does.) Clearly he can't handle Boston.
Here's an alternate narrative that's not nearly as sexy. Boston paid higher than market value for a pitcher because they can afford it. Fans had faith in Theo Epstein because he's been around for two titles, and assumed he would be a great signing. His first year was disappointing but not anomalous. In his second season, he's suffered from an absurdly high BABIP, a stat that's not particularly affected by more tape recorders in his face in the clubhouse.
"Pedro Martinez had one good year after leaving Boston, then went downhill fast," says our Boston reporter. "No one said that he couldn't handle the pressure cooker of Queens after the easygoing Boston media. They said he was getting older, and he lost his fastball. He was the same age when he left that Lackey is now. There are a million reasons why a player can suck, and very few of them involve my notepad."
It's entirely possible that John Lackey is a sensitive soul, and constantly seeing his failures on the back pages are making him overthink and struggle. But the truth of it doesn't matter as long as the ones controlling the message are intent on giving themselves the blame, and the credit, for what happens on the field.