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Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez

Red Sox Nation Hits the Reset Button

After getting away from what made them beloved (and good), the Old Towne Team gets back on track

I wanted to name our newborn son “Beckett” right after the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series. If not for a reader intervening, my son might be named Beckett Simmons right now. We could start there.

The Red Sox have trotted out eight “superstar” hitters in my lifetime: Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez.1 The first seven guys played a combined 83 seasons in Boston. Gonzalez lasted 21 months. We could start there.

My favorite baseball team just traded its best offensive player and a proven playoff starter in a massive salary dump that had no correlation to anything that’s ever happened in Red Sox history except for … you know … the time we sold Babe Ruth. Somehow, Red Sox fans are delighted about the trade. We could start there.

The current Red Sox owners brought us our first championship since 1918 and a second title three years later. Since last October, they’ve replaced the most successful Red Sox manager in 90 years with the least-liked Red Sox manager of my lifetime not named “Grady Little.” They’ve allowed the franchise’s most successful general manager ever to break his contract without getting anything decent for him. They’ve assembled one of the league’s three most expensive rosters, failed miserably, then lucked out when the Dodgers miraculously handed them a RESET button. And now, headed for the worst Red Sox season in 20 solid years but blessed with financial flexibility again, these owners expect fans to (a) pretend the past two years never happened, and (b) trust their big-picture judgment again. We could start there.

You know what? Let’s start with this e-mail from a Cambridge reader named Kyle, which arrived just a few days before the Red Sox agreed to the biggest salary dump in baseball history.

“I think I’ve officially reached a point in my sports fan relationship with the Red Sox akin to being married for twenty years, no longer loving one another, but still staying together for the kids. Good God can this season just end?”

Even if Kyle made the 2012 season sound like a cross between John Travolta’s marriage, Jay Leno’s relationship with NBC, and every Adam Sandler fan with Adam Sandler, he probably didn’t go far enough. After all, you are in a relationship with your favorite teams, right? We purchase tickets and merchandise; they purchase the players. We agree to remain loyal; they agree not to defecate on that loyalty. And it goes from there. The best-case scenario for any season? Winning the title. The worst-case scenario? Hate-watching your team while rooting for things to bottom out in a comically dreadful way just so you can remain entertained.

The 2012 Red Sox reached that point a few weeks ago. And look, I get it — listening to Boston fans bitch about sports is like listening to John Mayer bitch about his love life.2 Nobody was more overdue for a hatefully expensive, totally unredeeming, insane clusterfuck of a season more than Red Sox fans. We knew it, too. We could handle a lousy season. It happens.

But something deeper was happening here. The Red Sox had morphed into something else. Once upon a time, the phrase “Red Sox fan” carried clear responsibilities and implications. You loved something that, ultimately, was going to break your heart. You pined for a World Series title that was never going to happen. You talked yourself into this being “The Year” every spring, and then, every September … it didn’t happen. You watched family members pass away without ever seeing the Red Sox win a title. You wondered if it was cruel to saddle your children with this franchise, whether you should “save” them by nudging them in a different direction.

And then everything turned. We won the World Series, shed the curse, buried some demons, moved on with our lives. Had you asked any Red Sox fan in September 2004, “If you win the World Series, would you care what happened next?,” I’m pretty sure that every single person would say, “No, I don’t.”

Well, here’s what happened. We started spending money like the Yankees. Our charming, broken-down, illogically constructed museum of a baseball park was overhauled and turned into a cash cow (same for the streets surrounding it). The owners relentlessly pimped the Red Sox brand inside the stadium, on their website, on their 24-hour TV channel, on your street, in your house, on your forehead and everywhere else you could imagine (leading to a general dumbing down of the fan base and the unconscionable decision to encourage Fenway fans to sing along to “Sweet Caroline” during the eighth inning of every game, even ones that we’re losing), only we looked the other way because they kept funneling so much of their profits back into the team. There were little signs they might be losing their way, like when they purchased Liverpool’s soccer team and expected Red Sox fans to adopt it; or when John Henry publicly regretted Carl Crawford’s lavish contract in only his first season, then randomly showed up on a local radio show to defend himself; or when they unveiled their 100th-anniversary Fenway Park brick program, satiating the three people who had been dying to spend $475 (plus tax) to autograph their own brick inside Fenway.

Nobody really cared until the Red Sox finished the biggest September swoon in baseball history — we’d eventually remember it as the “beer and fried chicken team,” and really, that’s all you need to know — followed by Terry Francona being smeared in a Boston Globe feature a few days after he stepped down as manager. When Theo Epstein fled a few weeks later, for the first time, Red Sox fans started examining these last eight years the same way you look at a massive dinner check. You know when you go out with a bunch of friends, order food and drinks for three hours, never worry about anything, and then there’s that moment when the check comes and everyone’s passing it around in disbelief? That’s for us? Did you think it was going to be that high? That was last winter for Red Sox fans. The waiter finally dropped off that monstrosity of a check.

Yup … we had turned into the New York Yankees, the team we always hated the most. We spent money just as recklessly and senselessly. The fan bases for other teams despised us just as much. We had the same “If you don’t win the title, you’ve totally failed” conundrum staring at us every spring. A few weeks ago, my wife was watching Pretty Woman for the 10,000th time while I was sitting next to her answering e-mails. The scene came on when millionaire Richard Gere decides to save that shipping company instead of purchasing it just to blow it up, when Jason Alexander (totally evil) questions what they’re doing, and then Gere says something like, “I’m tired of making money. I want to build something.” My head popped right up. Wasn’t that the Red Sox? What were we building? What’s fun about rooting for a team of staggeringly overpaid players who were collected with little rhyme or reason?

The Red Sox spent $173.2 million on this year’s roster3 — you couldn’t separate the money from the performance. Not for a second. It lingered over everything like a stale fart. Throw in the team’s general unlikability (especially Beckett, who regarded the fans and media with real contempt) and for the first time I can remember, Red Sox fans were hate-watching games much like you’d hate-watch Teen Mom or something.4 Well, who wants to spend three-plus hours a day hate-watching something? If you wanted to enjoy a Red Sox game in 2012, you had to get stoned, break out the 2004 and 2007 DVDs, put in one of the most exciting games and pretend it was happening in real time.5

But here was the worst part … there was no way out!!!! Adrian Gonzalez had six years and $127 million remaining on his deal. Carl Crawford had five years and $102.5 million remaining. John Lackey had three years, $45.75 million. Josh Beckett had two years, $31.5 million. According to this list, four teams spent between $150 million and $200 million (Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Angels), five teams spent between $100 million and $149 million (Tigers, Rangers, Marlins, Giants, Cardinals), then 14 teams spent between $75 million and $99 million. That means the Red Sox, having totally squandered their spending advantage thanks to those four deals, needed to outmaneuver everyone else in 2013 and 2014 just to regain any semblance of a competitive advantage again.

If it were the brain trust from 2003 to 2008? You might feel optimistic. But the owners who OK’d the Lackey/Crawford/Beckett contracts, turned Francona into Valentine, didn’t get anything for Theo, turned Josh Reddick and Jed Lowrie into Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, thought Daniel Bard could be converted into a starter, and paid another AL contender to take Kevin Youkilis when he wasn’t really washed up yet?6 Not as much. Maybe we hadn’t veered into James Dolan territory or anything, but in professional sports, you can’t overcome poor management no matter how much money you have. The 2012 Red Sox were poorly managed. And have been for the past couple of years. It finally caught up to them.

The only good thing you could say about the Red Sox owners lately? Thank God we didn’t end up with the McCourts.

Not long ago, the Red Sox organization ranked among the most thoughtful in baseball. Epstein played the market’s inefficiencies just about perfectly in 2003 and 2004 (power/OBP bargains mixed with expensive, sure-thing pitchers), then created a long-term strategy: We’re avoiding mammoth contracts for free agents hitting their 30s; we’re using much of our financial advantage to outspend competitors on draft picks, scouting and foreign-born prospects; and hopefully, we’re “growing” our own potential stars and either locking them up to long-term deals or flipping them for elite players. I loved this plan. Everybody did.

So what changed? Everyone else in baseball started emulating what the smarter teams were doing (Boston, Oakland, etc.), leaving Theo without any real market inefficiencies to exploit other than defense (they tried, with limited success) and this one: He could simply outspend 95 percent of the league. The Red Sox splurged heavily on their minor league system, using their money to sway tough-to-sign picks and highly regarded foreign players. They overpaid for J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Lackey, Beckett and Crawford. They tried to overpay Mark Teixeira. They paid veterans market value to stick around. They paid, they paid and they paid. This was a different kind of “moneyball” — more like massivecheckingaccountball. When it stopped working, Theo fled the crime scene even as they were still putting up the yellow tape, jumping to Chicago and leaving this sordid mess behind. It was like watching a buddy pick a lousy fantasy keeper league team, then get out of it by just quitting the league. Didn’t this guy grow up loving the Red Sox? Didn’t he care?

When you remember Theo tried to flee in 2005 (when things were going well, no less), it makes a little more sense. Maybe that Francona smear campaign was the final straw for him. Maybe he knew the 2012 season was heading for an unseemly ending, making him the odds-on favorite to land the “2012 Fall Guy” award (like Francona in 2011). Maybe he knew going from a now-spoiled, relentlessly passionate fan base that expected 100 wins and a World Series appearance every season and cared a little too much to an emotionally scarred fan base with comically low expectations was a safer move. Maybe Theo looked at the big picture and said, If I can win the World Series for the Red Sox AND Cubs, I will be immortal.

What would you have done? At what point would that new opportunity outweigh turning your back on the team you loved for your entire life? Probably depends on how much you couldn’t stand working for your bosses … right?

Whatever the answer, Boston’s recent housecleaning will inevitably be positioned as something of a Theo Era cleansing, with the owners reshaping these next few Red Sox teams while subtly reminding us if it works out that, Hey, all the bad stuff that happened in 2011 and 2012? That was all Theo! I’d be about 100 times more skeptical if they hadn’t just pulled off that hijacking of a Dodgers trade — somehow convincing them to assume Crawford and Beckett as a Gonzalez trade tax while forking over two highly regarded pitching prospects. This seemed utterly and totally improbable as recently as early Friday afternoon, as you can see from my sarcastic pipe dream of a tweet.

Quick tangent: I was admittedly naive. I never imagined Crawford’s contract (five years remaining, $102.5 million) was tradable because of reasons like, “He clearly lost the ability to play baseball at a high level,” “His body is breaking down in multiple places,” “In a best-case scenario, you probably have to platoon him” and, “Oh, he just had Tommy John surgery THIS WEEK.” Somehow, none of this deterred the Dodgers, who were so desperate to acquire Gonzalez (who started out slowly before returning to Rake Mode these past few weeks) that they probably looked at the big picture and thought …

Considering what Pujols and Fielder made in free agency, considering what Gonzo will mean to our Mexican fan base, considering our fans totally remember how good he was on the Padres, and considering how much we need a gifted offensive first baseman RIGHT NOW, he’s probably worth the added cost of Crawford even if he regains just 85 percent of the 2009-11 Gonzo mojo. And Beckett clearly needs a change of scenery, likes pitching in the NL, loves hitting and has a storied history of coming through in the playoffs.7 Anything Crawford gives us is gravy. Oh, and we’re going to make 10 bazillion dollars from our next TV contract. Screw it, let’s do this!

Personally, I think the Red Sox would have traded Gonzo, Beckett and Crawford for a used set of Vin Scully’s headphones and been totally fired up. Thankfully, GM Ben Cherington (ironically, a Theo protégé) fought for a much better haul. You can’t say enough about this trade from Boston’s perspective: In the span of 24 hours, we went from “How the hell are we ever going to be good again?” to “Wait, there’s a chance we’re going to be good again!” Even better, Boston’s front office might put some actual thought into 2013 instead of settling on being Yankees Farther East and just making it rain for the sake of making it rain.

Here’s the irony: More often than not, big-market teams make the fatal mistake of thinking, We have to do something to get our fans excited! That’s what led the Dodgers down the road they just traveled. That’s what led the Red Sox to Crawford, the Knicks to Amar’e Stoudemire, the Redskins to Albert Haynesworth, the Angels to Pujols, the Hawks to Joe Johnson … really, it’s an endless list, and when you think of the success/failure rate of these nine-figure splurges, it’s amazing they keep happening.

But you know what’s more amazing? That these teams haven’t realized how smart WE are. In 2012, fans are embarrassingly sophisticated about their favorite teams. We learn about sports constantly, day after day after day, whether it’s from all-sports radio stations, the mainstream sports sites, hundreds of hyper-specific sports blogs and team blogs, hundreds of columnists, beat writers and talking heads, all the big TV channels, message boards … for God’s sake, we are inundated with information and opinions at this point. Just look at what happened to the NBA’s annual July free-agency period, something that’s covered these days with the zeal of a political campaign. (You could click on the 25th-best NBA blog and probably read an educated, smartly considered take on the Knicks’ decision to allow Jeremy Lin to leave.) For any big-market team to think, We have to do something to get our fans excited! in 2012 is legitimately, categorically insane.

You know what gets us excited? Shrewd, logical moves. Patience over recklessness. Ingenuity. Popularity. Big-picture strategies that remain consistent. That’s the kind of stuff that ends up carrying overrated Brad Pitt movies. There’s a reason everyone in football keeps stealing from Bill Belichick, and why everyone in basketball respects Jerry Buss so much. When the Lakers finally landed Dwight Howard a few weeks ago, what made it special wasn’t the move itself — a big-market team swallowing up yet another superstar — but the unflappable patience they exhibited for months and months leading up to that specific moment. I hate the Lakers with every fiber of my being. And you know what? I respect the hell out of them, too. They’re a really smart franchise that always puts thought into their moves. You have to hand it to them.

I thought the Red Sox were like that once upon a time. We won twice in four years. Somewhere along the line, we lost our way. I don’t know if we found it. Time will tell. I just know that I’m interested again.

Last thought: It’s strange to think how many Red Sox fans bought Gonzalez jerseys these past two years (and now they’re stuck with them), or how many Red Sox fans out there did name their son “Beckett.” That’s another thing this trade banged home: As Jerry Seinfeld once warned us, we’re rooting for laundry. Once upon a time, Beckett submitted one of the great pressure performances in Red Sox history — Game 5 in Cleveland, the night he single-handedly saved the 2007 season — and cemented his spot in Red Sox lore along with Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, Carlton Fisk’s homer against the Reds and everything else. Or so we thought. Now he’s one of the beer-and-fried-chicken gang, the pitcher who was booed louder than any Red Sox player in my lifetime.

We keep learning this laundry lesson over and over again — just in Boston these past seven years, Johnny Damon signed with the Yankees, Adam Vinatieri signed with the Colts and Ray Allen signed with the Heat. Every city goes through it. Peyton Manning left Indianapolis. Ichiro left Seattle. Steve Nash left Phoenix. Even Linsanity lasted a whopping 26 games before it reopened elsewhere like an Off Broadway play or something. When I first mentioned naming my son after Beckett during the 2007 playoffs, a reader named Aaron in Charlottesville, Virginia, e-mailed me, “Careful naming your son after Josh Beckett. You don’t know how you’ll feel about Beckett in 10 years. What if you’d named a kid after Roger Clemens in 1987?”

He was right. We scrapped Beckett from the list. Two months later in a mailbag, I ran the e-mail with this response: “I received this e-mail in mid-October, right when the Sports Gal and I were considering the name ‘Beckett’ as a first or middle name to reflect that our baby son was born right after the 2007 World Series (if the Red Sox won). Of course, the e-mail put the fear of God into me. What if Beckett morphed into the 1994-2007 Clemens in six years? What then? We couldn’t take the chance. Anyway, thanks to Aaron K. You’re a lifesaver. I mean, somewhere in Massachusetts right now, there’s at least one bitter, under-20 Red Sox fan named after Roger Clemens who’s walking around with his fists balled waiting for someone to make fun of him. That could have been my son in 20 years.”

Thanks a second time, Aaron. Don’t get me wrong — I want to live in a world in which we could name our children after our favorite athletes without worrying about the consequences. I just don’t think it exists.

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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