Waiting for Spring
The coming of spring is celebrated in many weird and wonderful fashions around the globe. If you were part of a certain sect of Japanese Buddhist monks, you would walk slowly and barefooted through burning flame in order to cleanse yourself of evil spirits. If in Northern India, you could dress completely in white and indulge in the throwing of colored powder and dyed water over exuberant masses gathered for the traditional Holi fertility festival. Meanwhile in Boston, you can pile on your well worn winter thermals, and brave the elements as you stand and watch a bunch of sweaty men loading up a truck on Van Ness. The methods may differ throughout the world, but the running theme of rebirth and renewal is always an integral part of each spring celebration, and never more so than in Boston this year.
The record books will ultimately show that the 2012 Red Sox finished with a record of 69-93 on the season, but the dry statistics never tell the full story. A wealth of plausible reasons as to why the Red Sox did not perform as expected on the field have been put forth, and the majority of them can be accepted as reasonable. It has been widely acknowledged that poor judgment and bad decisions have been a major contributing factor in the Red Sox recent demise, with the appointment of Bobby Valentine ultimately attracting the most negativity, yet it is fair to say the culpability for such a brutal year extends a lot further than the abrasive character that graced the manager’s chair.
Once there was a time when all our ‘idiots’ were on the field winning games, as opposed to sitting in the Front Office losing them. The decision not to pick up Terry Francona’s option during the summer of 2011, a period when we were playing our most dominant Baseball in years, essentially gave the two times World Series winning manager ‘lame duck’ status for the remainder of the season, and set in motion a 13 month chain of unsavory events that would decimate the Red Sox as we had come to know them.
A retrospective assessment of the greatest collapse in history points fingers at fried chicken, boozing and painkiller abuse, and copious allegations that the team was more Animal House than Clubhouse. The almost universally unpopular installation of disciplinarian Bobby Valentine was supposed to be the answer to this perceived laxity that had temporarily derailed the team, however Valentine’s contribution to matters was to verbally light the blue touch-paper and stand well back.
Within weeks of Valentine’s arrival, the playing staff had adopted a petulant stance of persecution, while the mish-mash of coaching staff assembled under two very different systems were showing themselves to be both ineffective and disinterested. A perpetually apologetic Ben Cherington was expected to handle an increasingly volatile media situation for months, while an apparently disassociated ownership group concerned themselves with assembling the guest list for Fenway’s 100 years celebration soiree. The entire organization seemed to transform themselves within a relatively short period of time into a thoroughly dislikable group of men, and the shameful funeral episode that accompanied the loss of Red Sox great Johnny Pesky seemed to encapsulate the selfishness that had infested the entire organization over the course of a season.
It seemed like a long way back.
The proclamation by Ben Cherington that he was intent on assembling ‘the next great Red Sox team’ seemed distinctly farfetched when evaluating his moves during our most recent winter of discontent. With a chunky payroll to play with thanks to the Dodgers newly funded ambitions, Cherington’s strategy appeared to oscillate wildly between chaste prudence, and downright recklessness. His urgency in addressing the key roster requirements of the team could be described as glacial at best, and when he did move swiftly, it was to seemingly overspend on short contracts for regressing veterans in desperate need of a bounce back year, and who were more than happy to be paid handsomely to work out their respective kinks at Fenway Park. The common denominator mentioned was that they were all players of ‘good character’.
Ben Cherington has elected to follow a certain ethos with regards to the assembling of the 2013 Red Sox, and it initially appears not too dissimilar to the method employed by a fresh faced Theo Epstein a decade ago. The team Epstein created certainly had more than their fair share of ‘good character’, but they could also execute the fundamentals of the game to an extremely high standard, and although Cherington’s roster does have a certain All-Star quality, it is perhaps unfortunate that it hints of a lineup likely to have graced the ‘Midsummer Classic’ a couple of years ago.
Still, the sight of a stationary eighteen-wheeler hanging around Fenway Park in February serves as a notification that the long cold Baseball-less winter is finally coming to an end, and that the wild hopes and dreams of a new season will soon be barreling south toward Fort Myers and Spring Training. The Boston media have offered us comprehensive coverage of ‘Truck Day’ in recent years, and the sight of Larry Lucchino tossing baseballs, while waving and grinning like he’d just emerged from a perfectly timed year and a half long coma, cannot dampen the positive feelings of a new beginning.
The initial reports from spring training are nearly always designed to put a positive spin on every situation, but the news that John Lackey arrived at camp sporting the kind of physique normally associated with Hellenic mythology has immediately made him the ideal candidate to replace our previous Greek God, who ironically enough became the first mortal casualty of the Valentine era.
Whether it be as a result of Cherington’s recruiting policy, or the surprisingly rational installation of a steady hand in John Farrell, there have been a few encouraging signs that suggest the fractal clubhouse of the recent past has gave way to lighter moods, and the increased involvement and employment of the more recently retired Fenway favorite seems to display a genuine desire on the part of the front office to ensure that the club get back to winning ways. At the very least the presence of Pedro Martinez is a guaranteed crowd pleaser, while the sight of Mike Lowell giving Will Middlebrooks the benefit of his wisdom can only have a positive impact.
The split squad Northeastern and BC run-outs usually offer very little, although there is always the possibility of satisfying a sadistic desire to see a poor college kid crushed under the weight of a three figured ERA, but at least there is major league pitching and hitting on-deck, and it offers the first opportunity of the year to catch some legitimate baseball.
It’s around the 3rd inning of the first grapefruit league game that spring training starts to lose its shine, and you realize that your excitement and anticipation at the coming of a new season has been sadly misplaced, and when it comes down to it, that spring training has very little to do with baseball at all.
For established favorites it is all about getting in shape for the season, and to shake off the lingering effects of last season’s injuries and offseason Doritos, to catch a few rays, and to break a little sweat, but for the majority of players making a trip to Florida or Arizona, spring training is a twisted game of survival. It’s where the old desperately attempt to stifle the dreams of the young, and the young endeavor to deal a death blow to the old.
Spring training isn’t about baseball; it’s a war of attrition.
There has been more than a fair share of speculation with regards to what we can expect in the way of future prospects from the Sox, and a lot of this has to do with the shorter term contracts dished out by Ben Cherington during the offseason. There is also the fact that Jacoby Ellsbury is entering into a contract year, and with uber-pimp Scott Boras being so fond of testing the market, it has become an automatic assumption that we will lose the services of Ellsbury by the end of this season.
The minor league evaluation process stuttered slightly when Bryce Brentz delayed his spring invite as a result of shooting himself in the leg, and is the kind of thing that leaves you wondering whether the Sox #2 prospect possesses the well-honed hand/eye coordination required to make a decent impact, though things have turned out infinitely kinder to another highly rated prospect in Jackie Bradley Jnr, who has been earning gushing endorsement throughout the spring with his all-round game, and will ultimately break camp as one of the 25 man roster.
When all is said and done spring training provides us with nothing more than a bunch of false hopes and dismissible failures, while the real acid test of the new look Red Sox will start in the Bronx on Monday.