Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Will life begin (again) on opening day for the Red Sox?

In 1984, Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote: “Why Time Begins on Opening Day,” a collection of essays on the sport of baseball, its myths, superstars, pennant races, strategies, ballparks, and other facets of the national pastime. The title suggests to every baseball fan that on opening day baseball fans can dream the big dream, dream the impossible dream, their team having a great season (and winning the World Series).

At the start of the 2011 season, Boston Red Sox fans believed their beloved team was going to have a great 2011 season. The 2011 Red Sox had a terrible April, were the best team in baseball in May, June, July and August and ended up playing their worst baseball in September.

September was a calamity of errors for the Red Sox. After beating the Texas Rangers on September 3, the Boston Red Sox were 84-54. Although half a game behind the Yankees in the American League East, the Red Sox had a nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League wild card playoff spot and roughly a 99.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Red Sox went 5-18 over their last 23 games, one of the more remarkable collapses in sports history, and on the last day of the season failed to make the playoffs.

The Red Sox had been handed everything they needed to succeed and failed in 2011. The Red Sox team payroll was $161,762,475 (the third highest in baseball). On September 1, the Fenway Park sellout stream hit 700 games. With Fenway Park set to celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, there’s every reason to believe the Red Sox will again sellout their entire 81 game home schedule. The last time a Red Sox game at Fenway Park did not sell out was back on May 15, 2003.

Most New Englanders give their hearts and their wallets to the Red Sox. What they deserve is the very best the players can offer each day on a baseball diamond – that didn’t happen at the end of the Red Sox 2011 season.

The finger pointing began days after the Red Sox season ended in Baltimore on September 29. Two days after the season ended in what was a public relations disaster of biblical proportion, Terry Francona, who managed the Red Sox to a World Series (the teams’ first in 86 years) in 2004 and again in 2007 resigned (knowing he wouldn’t be rehired). Theo Epstein, the architect of the organization’s two World Series, left Boston to try and save the Chicago Cubs. Both Francona and Epstein paid the price.

With pitchers and catchers arriving at Fort Myers this weekend, those who were most responsible for the end of the Red Sox 2011 season – the players – are arriving and are forced to deal with what happened at the end of their last Red Sox season.

On October 12, The Boston Globe published an expose on the Red Sox 2011 collapse, suggesting three of the team’s key starting pitchers: Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey drank beer, ate fried chicken and played video games in the Red Sox clubhouse (when they weren’t pitching).

Beckett, the Red Sox so-called “ace” (a team’s most important starting pitcher) lost his two last 2011 starts – if Beckett won either game, the Red Sox would have made the 2011 playoffs as the American League wild card team.

On April 6, 2010, Beckett signed a four-year $68 million contract extension. The contract included a $5 million signing bonus for the 2010 season, and an annual salary of $15.75 million from 2011 to 2014. Beer and fried chicken may be a fun way to spend an evening watching a baseball game, but when you’re being paid $15.75 million and your team is losing game after game in September, it might have made more sense for Beckett to sit in the Red Sox dugout supporting his teammates on days he wasn’t scheduled to pitch. The image of Beckett drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the Red Sox clubhouse was terrible.

Beckett met with the media when he arrived at Jet Blue Park and didn’t exactly say he was sorry for what happened either on or off the field in September. “I'm not saying we didn’t make mistakes, because we made mistakes in the clubhouse, but the biggest mistake I made was not pitching well against Baltimore. I was prepared to pitch every time I went out there. I just didn’t execute pitches when I needed to.

“I think for me, I can only speak for myself here, I think that we had lapses in judgment. I had lapses in judgment; I can’t speak for everybody else. I want to keep it at that. I can’t speak for Jon or John or Clay or Wakie (Wakefield) or anybody. I want this to stay about me. That’s kind of how I feel about it. I can’t speak for anybody else."

Josh Beckett’s inability to say he’s sorry speaks volumes for the leadership he can’t provide the Boston Red Sox. A key to the Red Sox 2007 World Series, Beckett is the de facto leader of the Red Sox pitching staff. While Beckett wants to win every game he pitches, when he met with the media on Sunday, he needed to stand up and hold himself accountable for the terrible end to the Red Sox 2011 season. Beckett did admit that he understands how upset Red Sox nation was (and still are) with him.

"Absolutely. I’ve been a fan of things, too. It stinks whenever things don’t go the way they’re supposed to go. We’re a really good team, and the best team in baseball for about five months. And it sucks the way things ended. We’re just as let down as they are. That doesn’t make it right. We were very let down, as well.

"We need to earn that trust back," Beckett said. "I think that they're the best fans in baseball. There's some good, there's some bad, but they're the best fans in baseball. I mean, I definitely think we need to earn that trust back, and the way we've got to do that is just go about our business the way we have in previous years. Just earn it back and win ballgames."

Jon Lester appears poised to take a leadership role for the Red Sox. “It’s something the guys in my age group have never really had to do because we’ve been around guys like [Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek] and had veteran guys who have been around a long time.

“We’ve just sat back and let them do their thing and kind of followed them. It’s time for us, and me, to step up and start to try and feel comfortable in that situation and do the best I can in there.’’

And unlike Beckett, Lester appears to be willing to take a great deal of responsibility for the Red Sox 2011 season.

“I’m ready to move on from it,’’ he said. “I’ve learned from it. It’s something that I’m not proud of. The biggest thing is, especially from last year, is that you learn from your mistakes. I’m looking forward to starting new this year and trying to be that leader.’’

John Henry and Tom Werner have committed more than $150 million to the Red Sox payroll for the 2012 season. Fenway Park turns 100 on April 20 (the Yankees will be visiting Fenway that day). Henry, Warner and the millions of baseball fans who will fill Fenway Park throughout the 2012 season deserve the very best Beckett, Lester and company can offer this year, each and every game.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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