Entering its 24th year of existence, the Baseball Prospectus Annual contains over 2,000 player profiles, advanced statistics and projections, as well as thirty team essays. One of those pieces, an exemplary one written by Boston Globe columnist Chad Finn, is provided here as a sample of the prose and wisdom available at your book retailer of choice. Or you could just buy it here.
The culture of Red Sox fandom was going to change for the so-much-better after the affirming events of October 2004. Hell yeah, it was. How could it not? Though so many sunny summers that inevitably chilled to anguished autumns during the franchise’s 86-season World Series championship drought, the daydream of what life as a Boston baseball fan would be like if—no, when, for there was always at least a frayed thread of authentic hope—the Red Sox won a World Series was a constant one.
The years when all the Boston faithful had were dreams provided a vivid idea of what winning would be like, how catharsis and pure, life-changing joy would feel, before it finally and at last came to be. There would be sweet camaraderie among us, an irresistible turn toward tender sentimentality, a warm this-is-for-you nostalgia for friends and loved ones who didn’t live long enough to see their beloved Red Sox win, or for the beloved Sox players themselves who couldn’t quite get it done despite their valiance. (Namely: Yaz.)
Also, we would definitely stop bitching about every minute thing that went wrong, or even hinted that it might. Man, were we ever master pre-bitchers. No more of that. The good times, as the ubiquitous Neil Diamond earworm played during every eighth inning at Fenway, win or lose, told us, never would be so good. (So good.)
Yessir, that’s how it was supposed to go, those 15 years ago, after the 2004 Red Sox—a united, supremely talented, oblivious-to-pressure squad, or one possessing every attribute necessary to exorcise all perceived ghosts and lame narratives—showed us what a seemingly impossible dream looked like once fulfilled. It has not gone that way, despite three more Red Sox champions since, and eight more among New England’s other major professional sports teams since the turn of the century. Oh, for a time it did, and we were chill and satisfied and appreciative. For a time when it seemed like there would be a multiyear grace period before fans would ever have a gripe or a woe-is-us mentality. That grace period lasted… well, maybe through that 2004-05 winter, but it was long over by the time Red Sox fans began booing ’04 postseason stalwart Keith Foulke in his injury-plagued summer of ’05.
As exasperating as it can be, and as much as we should be accountable for our own actions as fans, I should stop suggesting that this is entirely on a vocal, negative segment the fanbase because it is not entirely all their fault. It’s the media culture that perpetrates it, shapes a bitter narrative, finds the negative needle in a haystack of positives, conjures some negative conjecture when there is no real negative to be found, and then processes into hot takes for easy consumption.
In retrospect, the ’18 Red Sox played as close to a drama-free season of baseball excellence as there can be. They had the best record in spring training, sprinted out to a 17-2 regular-season start, never lost more than three games in a row, never won fewer than 15 games in a month, captured the American League East title by eight games, collected a franchise-record 108 regular season wins, and tore through the postseason, going 11-3 in the playoffs and World Series while wiping out the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers along the way. The only team that has won more games and a World Series in a single season is the 1998 Yankees.
History will remember the 2018 Red Sox as one of the greatest teams ever. But few high-profile opinion makers in Boston—particularly in the aural cesspool that is sports radio—acknowledged it in real time. The most consistent talking points during the regular season weren’t about Betts’s all-around brilliance on a daily basis, rookie manager Alex Cora’s charming candor and informed tactical boldness, or how J.D. Martinez was in every way the replacement for David Ortiz they so desperately lacked in 2017. No, they howled about Dave Dombrowski’s checkered history of bullpen construction and his perceived failures to bolster the roster at the trade deadline. They told us time and time again that the regular season meant nothing, as if it were foolish and even wrong to enjoy the Red Sox’ daily feats.
And they yapped about David Price. Everything about David Price that could be construed in the negative. His ignominious postseason history, his affinity for Fortnite, and his chronic struggles in New York.
I’ve often thought David Ortiz is the best thing ever to happen to the Red Sox; he delivered the big hits that all the legends before him could not. But Price, with his talent, defensiveness, flaws, and salary, was might have been the greatest gift to happen to the Boston media. Much of the poison-tipped criticism aimed his way since signing a seven-year, $217 million free-agent deal with the Red Sox in December 2015 was earned. In his first two seasons, he brooded when he pitched poorly, carried himself with a sarcastic defiance on the occasions when he lived up to his ability and contract, and picked some strange battles to fight in what seemed a genuine but misguided quest to lead.
In June 2017, Price verbally ambushed Hall of Fame pitcher and Red Sox broadcaster Dennis Eckersley on the team plane, berating him for an innocuous comment he’d made about pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez’s ugly pitching line during a rehab start. (Eck, ever candid, saw the line on a graphic and offered a one-word assessment: “Yuck.”) Price later said Eckersley—who spent 24 years in the majors, endured two divorces, including one when his wife left him for a teammate, underwent alcohol rehabilitation, and was unfathomably gracious even after difficult on-field moments such as Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series—didn’t understand how hard it was to succeed in the major leagues. It was a jarring case-study in obliviousness.
But Price’s latest failing—whether real or exaggerated—was too often the main story, when the real news was the unprecedented success of the ballclub; it’s the first time I can recall seeing a dominating team also have a scapegoat.
The sports radio banshees didn’t care to acknowledge that the Red Sox were cutting a path to history for a simple reason: preaching misery is lucrative. Negativity is proven to earn massive ratings in sports radio’s targeted men 25-54 demographic in Boston, and with ratings come the coveted advertising dollars from every hair-replacement, weight-loss, and erectile dysfunction remedy hawker imaginable. Say this: They do know their audience.
One station, which happens to be the Red Sox radio rights holder, had internal discussions at the management level about turning its game broadcasts into more of a talk-show format. Imagine that. A broadcast booth that was once the home to Curt Gowdy, Ken Coleman, Ned Martin, and Jon Miller felt its broadcast might be enhanced by adding a verbal fart-fest of contrived opinions. I could imagine hearing that on my car radio on a lovely New England summer night, sure—on the one AM radio with perfect reception in the deepest depths of hell.
A host on a competing station said during the World Series that he’s tired of hearing about Dave Roberts’s history-altering steal in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. Two days after Mookie Betts—as admirable a person as he is a ballplayer—won the American League Most Valuable Player award, the same host was yelping that the Red Sox should trade him now because he could leave as a free agent after 2020. This show has been rated No. 1 in its time-slot for six consecutive years.
Some criticism in real time is always justified, of course. Price’s postseason record was abysmal. The bullpen had enough aggravating moments to wonder if they were harbingers for a fatally flawed postseason performance. The Red Sox had won back to back division titles in 2016-17, only to fizzle in the divisional round each time.
But the emphasis of the negative and only the negative makes for an aggravating experience for those Red Sox fans that are level-headed rather than fretting that the bandwagon is going to careen off the highway eventually. Sports radio brainwashes too many fans into believing optimism makes you a Pollyanna. Too many fans are willing to go along with it without any critical thinking. It’s not just that they’re chicken littles, telling you that the sky is falling. They tell you the sky was never that great, never especially bright or blue, in the first place.
The national perception is that the assorted titles have made Boston sports fans entitled. There’s some truth there, but the landscape is more complicated than any smug t-shirt slogan like they hate-us-‘cause-they-ain’t-us might reveal. I’ll admit it: As a columnist, I still want the local teams to win. It’s good for business, your stories get read by a huge audience and, if you’re lucky, saved in commemoration. It’s more rewarding to cover memorable accomplishments than it is devastating disappointments, and your friends who truly care about the teams are happy, at least in the immediate days afterward. The Dunkin’s tastes better the morning after a championship is won, you know?
But the chronic negativity via certain media brings a warped reality, too. An exceptional victory, like the one the Red Sox authored in 2018, can feel like two victories: One over the opponent on the ballfield, and one over the culture. That culture is long ingrained. A former Boston sports anchor, the cheeky Bob Lobel, was notorious for asking, ‘Why can’t we get players like that?” whenever an ex-Red Sox would fare well. (It was usually Jeff Bagwell.) Lobel, not so cheekily, also told us to “be careful what we wish for” when the Red Sox won in ’04, as if some meaningful part of the identity of being a Boston fan was lost. Yeah, I’ll take the banners over the bummers, thanks.
That deep-seated instinct for negativity adds extra degrees of difficulty for the players. It can infect and permeate a team if it is not strong in every way. It was so critical for the 2004 Red Sox to possess an indefatigable mental toughness, a goofy, fearless defiance, because a weaker-minded team could not overcome…well, everything.
In the aftermath of the 2003 Red Sox’ Game 7 loss to the Yankees in the ALCS, then-manager Grady Little acknowledged that there were players on the roster who were being crushed by the weight of history, fearful of being the next Bill Buckner. The 2018 team did not carry such a burden—it was a tight-knit and unfailingly professional clubhouse—but still, its mental toughness never wavered. They validated every belief and slaughtered every negative narrative along the way. It was incredibly impressive, and yet aggravating to that a team that won 108 regular season games had lousy narratives to slaughter at all.
I say this as someone who should have been the quintessential scarred and damaged Red Sox fan. The first year I followed baseball was 1978. I was 8. When Yaz popped up to Graig Nettles to end the one-game playoff and the Yankees commenced reveling on the Fenway lawn, I turned to my dad next to me on the couch and asked, “How do the Red Sox feel right now, dad?” It was the first dumb question in what would become a lifetime of asking dumb questions, but it elicited an answer I’ve never forgotten: “Well, Chad, they feel like shit,” he said, and then, in that eureka moment, so did I.
The 2018 season was the 40th anniversary of the Red Sox’ collapse in ’78, and there were no shortage of reminders of that this past season as the Red Sox built their lead over the Yankees. In a slight way, I do understand the misty watercolor nostalgia for the days of misery and disappointment. Perhaps those miserable times happened while you were watching the game with a loved one who is no longer with us or a friend who is no longer near. Perhaps it’s not a longing for the time when the Red Sox would disappoint, but a longing for the time itself, when youth was still yours and days were more fulfilling. But in dwelling on days departed, so much is missed when these modern Red Sox rise to the magnitude of the moment.
During the 2018 postseason, I realized that it helps to get away from Boston to feel the spirit of true fandom. There were a thousand moments large and small through the Red Sox’ championship run that felt pivotal and/or emboldening, including one that actually came in defeat: Nathan Eovaldi’s six innings (and 97 pitches) of relief work on one day’s rest in the 18-inning Game 3 epic.
The Red Sox tell you that defeat unified them even more, that they had tears in their eyes and steeled determination in their guts after Eovaldi’s selflessness. But any claims that they were sure they were going to win the World Series at that point must be swallowed with a full shaker of salt.
After all, they trailed the Dodgers, 4-0, through six innings of Game 4. The Dodgers were nine outs from evening the series. Then, something extraordinary: Mitch Moreland connected for a three-run home run off of Pedro Baez in the seventh… and it was if a flipped switched at Chavez Ravine, as if every Dodger fan had been escorted out at that moment and replaced by a Red Sox fan. It remained Fenway West Coast for the rest of the series, through their eventual 9-6 victory in that Game 4, then the efficiently anticlimactic 5-1 victory in Game 5.
As the Red Sox rejoiced on the Dodger Stadium grass in the postgame chaos of their clinching victory, as the redeemed and beaming David Price hugged every non-reporter in sight, as Fox’s David Ortiz swallowed his former teammate and understudy Mookie Betts in a bear hug, and as Alex Rodriguez tried to calculate the most authentic-seeming human emotion he could, thousands of Boston fans ringed the field, roaring deliriously, the picture of happiness, the sunshine without the clouds. The perfect picture of what being a Red Sox fan was supposed to look and feel like at the pinnacle was taken three-thousand miles away from Fenway.
In the final episode of the American version of The Office, the character Andy Bernard says, “I wish there was a way to tell you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” It’s a sweet, sentimental line, but the reality is that there is a way to know—all it requires is a conscious effort and willingness to appreciate the good stuff as it is happening. I wish more Red Sox fans knew, or cared to do, this.
Sometimes it helps to get away from home to remember how fortunate we have become, to be reminded that even during the frustrating stretches that come every season that it’s OK to assume things will be OK, to know that it doesn’t make you soft or a Pollyanna or not a real fan because you believe in a team fully and without cynicism. The Red Sox have won four World Series titles in 15 years. Man, these are the good old days. I suppose there’s some bonus satisfaction that comes in watching them silence the chronic and usually well-compensated cynics. But the greater satisfaction will come when the cynics’ shrill wish-casting for disappointment stops registering at all. Maybe this will be the year. Doubt it, but crazier dreams have come true.
Chad Finn is a sports media and online columnist for the Boston Globe and Boston.com.