The oys of October

A longtime Boston Red Sox fan asks, Why does hometown coverage of the troubled team sound so damn gleeful?
September 18, 2012

“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.

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If you were strapped to a chair (like Alex in A Clockwork Orange) and forced to listen to the inane chatter about the Red Sox on an endless loop, I am convinced that once released, you would never process information the same way again. This is how it feels to be a Red Sox fan and battling an addiction to the interminable stream of banalities somehow manufactured into Web posts that cover the team in meticulous and malevolent detail. (Was the gastroenteritis that put Clay Buchholz on the DL actually evidence of alcoholism? Or did he perhaps swallow too much chewing tobacco? When he came off the DL, was it responsible of him to attend a charity pool party at Foxwoods? Was he drinking in the pool? Was he drinking and taking anti-inflammatories? Who’s giving him the anti-inflammatories? Should they be fired?)

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.

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.

The story concerned a “secret” meeting between 17 players and management on July 26, held after first baseman Adrian Gonzalez sent a surreptitious text outlining issues he and others had with Bobby Valentine, who some players no longer wanted to play for. To be sure, Valentine has made a number of inscrutable management decisions this year, most of which combine a big mouth with an inability to understand just how poorly reverse psychology plays to the modern athlete. But in the media’s dissection of the event, Valentine was spared the brunt of the criticism; it was the players’ collective action, on a date approaching the one-year anniversary of their collective collapse, that seemed to resonate. More than anything, it was portrayed as evidence that the inmates now ran the asylum.

But not so fast.

On WEEI, midday host Mike “Mut” Mutnansky made the lucid point that the players “had this meeting; they knew it was going to get out. In a media market like Boston?” Mutnansky reasoned that the players “were trying to get their manager fired.”

Only in Boston could a media personality make such a comment without understanding the incriminating implications. The shrinks on the Red Sox funny farm are the media themselves, and it is these twisted, torture-prone doctors to whom the patients must appeal. It’s not the inmates who are running the asylum, it’s the media.

Jesse Sunenblick is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.