“I don’t even go outside anymore,” David Ortiz, the slimmed-down slugger for the Boston Red Sox, was telling an admirer before batting practice on a midsummer road trip in Oakland. “These days, everybody has a video camera. I go from the hotel, to the bus, to the field, and then straight back to the hotel. I lead a boring life. People are crazy, man.” It was the day before the Fourth of July, but nobody was having fun. The Red Sox were in the process of being swept by the mediocre A’s, a depressing series in which three Boston castoffs—Coco Crisp, Brandon Moss, and Josh Reddick—provided the key hits and, in turn, ammunition for the journalists back home. For the Boston sports media, the season—allegedly one of rejuvenation after last September’s epic collapse and failure to make the playoffs—was increasingly one of reiteration: The Red Sox still stunk.
Ortiz, meanwhile, was struggling to emerge from a two-week funk. The origin of this ailment dated back to a June 17 report by ESPN’s Buster Olney about a “toxic” atmosphere within the Boston clubhouse. The next day, an irritated Ortiz held court for reporters beside his locker. Asked if he was having fun this season, Ortiz thought for a moment and said: “Not really. Too much shit, man. People need to leave us alone and let us play baseball. It’s starting to become the shithole it used to be.”
As a lifelong Red Sox fan, currently experiencing the end of yet another horrid season and watching other teams roll toward a World Series, I’m equipped to address the media-aimed subtext here. As a general rule, baseball media in Boston function less as a Fourth Estate than as a sixth team in the American League East. They serve the psychic needs of a not-so-happy band of long-suffering New England fans half convinced they are being punished for something their Calvinist forebears did. It has been this way since 1940, when the mercurial Ted Williams took exception to the media chiding him for not going home to see his mama after the season ended. Later on, the cantankerous Carl Yastrzemski often used the back staircase at Fenway to avoid the press.
Negativity sells. Duh. But I can remember no year like this year, when barbs from websites and airwaves created such a groundswell of support for the idea of blowing up the roster, for divesting an increasingly unlikable ownership group from their chief asset, and for (if you follow the logic to its emotional endpoint) kidnapping the likes of Carl Crawford, the oft-injured big-ticket free agent brought in last year from Tampa Bay to satisfy Red Sox fans’ insatiable need to compete with similar signings by the hated Yankees.
But “toxic?” The comment, during a season like this one, was enough to throw the Red Sox ecosystem into disarray and initiate weeks of soul searching. Starting pitcher Josh Beckett, a primary antagonist from last September’s collapse, called the comment “sabotage.” Manager Bobby Valentine, who last year worked with Olney as an analyst at ESPN, asked why he would comment on a story by somebody “who I don’t think knows anything.” Jerry Remy, the morbidly comic Red Sox TV broadcaster who has been waging a well-publicized battle with depression, explained during his weekly appearance on the sports-radio station WEEI (the Red Sox rights holder) that he had “kinda laughed a little” when he heard the comment because it seemed so out of line with his reading of this year’s group. Dan Shaughnessy, the acerbic writer for The Boston Globe, who in the 1990s was the dominant sports voice in town, went on Comcast Sportsnet’s Boston Sports Tonight and defended Olney, while suggesting that if he’d written the piece, he wouldn’t have been afraid to openly source it. Olney, meanwhile, talked to anybody who would listen.