If you get sick of reading about all of this, no problem, turn on the radio! The dominant sports voice in Boston now belongs to a radio host, Michael Felger, who in a high-pitched whine cooks up indignation for the CBS-owned WBZ-FM, a.k.a. The Sports Hub. Perhaps more than anything it is a ratings war between The Sports Hub and WEEI that is responsible for Ortiz’s angst. There’s a choose-your-side element when it comes to the two stations. The Sports Hub’s vibe is “we’re not beholden to the Red Sox, we’ll tell you the truth,” insinuating that WEEI, as a Red Sox business partner, might not. But the stations aren’t much different. Both feed on the failure of the region’s superstars. The more serious scribes, of course, reject such brazen negativity, and for this they are mercilessly scorned on air.
How bad is this culture? Let’s defer to the experience of a victim. Consider this audio clip that WEEI likes to play, a recording of a Rick Pitino press conference in 2000, in which the coach of a young, rebuilding, and downright awful Celtics team (12 games under .500 at the time) pilloried the region for its unhealthy fascination with the past:
Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they’re going to be gray and old . . . . As soon as people realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be….All the negativity that’s in this town sucks. I’ve been around when Jim Rice was booed. I’ve been around when Yastrzemski was booed. And it stinks. It makes the greatest town, greatest city in the world, lousy. The only thing that will turn this around is being upbeat and positive like we are in that locker room and if you think I’m going to succumb to negativity, you’re wrong. You’ve got the wrong guy leading this team.
Pitino was gone less than a year later.
David Ortiz arrived in Boston just as the culture surrounding the Red Sox was changing. In 2004, he and a happy band of self-proclaimed “idiots” won the team’s first World Series title in 86 years. He helped the Sox get another in 2007.
But then a strange thing happened. As their fans’ expectations soared in each subsequent year, the Red Sox’s fortunes declined. In 2008 they lost in the American League Championship Series; in 2009 they were swept in the first round of the playoffs; in 2010 and 2011 they failed to make the postseason at all; and last fall, they suffered what has been called the greatest collapse in baseball history, falling a game short of the playoffs after being nine games atop the division as they entered September.
Concerning last season’s debacle, there is no adequate genre to describe the mystery, farce, comedy, and crime that ensued, and was reflected and magnified and made epic in the Boston press. You play the best baseball in the Majors for the hot summer months, and then suddenly the forces of muscle memory defy you. Your 99.4 percent chance (according to coolstandings.com) of making the postseason falls only incrementally as the losses mount—as though the formula behind that strange statistic has a New England bias—and then, one day, it falls precipitously, as though the computer finally understands the likelihood, no, the necessity, of an Epic Fail. And yet, the pain must not culminate until the season’s final day, when even after losing to the Orioles on a misplayed ball (by gimpy Carl Crawford, of course), your postseason hopes aren’t entirely dashed until a secondary rival, the Tampa Bay Rays, scores six times in the eighth inning, once in the ninth, and then once more in the 12th to defeat your greatest rival, The New York Yankees.
The subsequent gloom was made immeasurably worse by anonymously sourced scoops in The Boston Herald and The Boston Globe, about starting pitchers eating fried chicken and drinking beer and playing videogames at the ballpark on their off-days (Herald), and about their puckish manager, Terry Francona, allegedly battling an addiction to painkillers while losing control of his clubhouse (Globe). It was North Dallas Forty, the Kentucky Fried baseball version.