As early as spring training, it was obvious that the primary villain of last year’s choke job—the chicken-eating pitcher and catalyst of doom Josh Beckett—was so out of touch that he reportedly thought contrition meant confronting third baseman Kevin Youkilis in a Fort Myers eatery and accusing him of being the snitch. In April the new manager, Bobby Valentine, displayed his penchant for the inappropriate when he told the press that Youkilis was not “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past, for some reason.” Any motivational intent fell flat; Youkilis felt burned and spurned. Dustin Pedroia, the team’s emotional stalwart, offered the retort, via the press: “I don’t know what Bobby’s trying to do. But that’s not how we go about our stuff here.”
By the time I arrived in Oakland to watch the series and consider all this, Youkilis had been shipped off to the Chicago White Sox, the All-Star break was nigh, and Valentine had paddled a rudderless vessel to a record of 43-43. One White Sox fan, Barack Obama, tried to joke about the Youkilis trade during a campaign speech in Boston, only to be unanimously booed.
“I guess I should not have brought up baseball,” the president immediately conceded. “I understand. My mistake; my mistake. You’ve got to know your crowd.”
Upbeat! Positive! Upbeat! Positive! I repeated Pitino’s words as a mantra each time I entered the Coliseum, the Oakland A’s steel tomb of a stadium. Fenway, by comparison, is ancient, but upgrades reinforce its reputation as a “living museum.” The Coliseum has “$2 Tuesdays” and free parking; Boston has the highest ticket prices in the league, on average, and the parking, in certain lots, can cost even more. In Oakland, they cover up thousands of seats with plastic wrap; in Boston, the ownership trumpets a dubious sellout streak, bolstered by the thousands of tickets belonging to the corporate “pink hats” who routinely show up late or not at all.
This is why I’d come here: not to fan the flames of dissent on the other coast, but to gauge their meaning from the sunny, concrete confines of Al Davis land. The Red Sox PR department, after learning of my sketchy goal to ask a couple of players to comment on “the situation with the media,” shut down as an instrument of assistance. Before the middle game of the set (the Sox lost the opener, 6 to 1), a terrified PR rep shadowed my every move around the clubhouse, convinced I was going to ask somebody something inappropriate. She needn’t have worried. When I approached David Ortiz at his locker and pathetically asked, “Hey, Big Papi, got a sec for a question on the M-E-D-I-A?”, he pretended that he didn’t hear me.
In retrospect, I think what I actually wanted to do was to pull Big Papi aside and try to make him feel better. But I also think, concerning his fear of a return to a bygone “shithole,” that what lies ahead may be worse. Since last September, something strange has happened to the sports media in Boston, and in particular the shock jocks on The Sports Hub and WEEI: They’ve stopped rooting for their team to win. Losing has become more meaningful. This suggests a reacquaintance with the past. It suggests that success has killed the Red Sox. “You think you’re beyond failure?” the baseball gods seemed to say. “Try this. Calvinist penance will now be replaced by utter torture!”
For the rest of July and into August, the whole “toxic” theme was temporarily sidelined as fans and media contemplated the trading deadline and the possibility of making enough upgrades to actually challenge for a Wild Card spot. But then on August 14, a day after the passing of the seemingly immortal Sox legend Johnny Pesky at age 92, Yahoo Sports’s Jeff Passan published an article on travails within the Sox clubhouse that so far outdid Buster Olney as to not only confirm Olney’s point, but to once again throw the region into cataclysm.