On September 1, Boston was in first place in the American League East. The Sox had a half-game lead over the Yankees for the division title and a nine game lead over Tampa Bay for the American League playoff wild card slot. The Sox had a .610 winning percentage. Over the final month of the season, the Sox went all Dante on us (“abandon all hope, ye who enter . . .”) They managed to win only seven more games, while losing twenty. Their final record of 90-72 put them in third place in the AL East, seven games behind the Yankees and one game behind Tampa Bay–and out of the playoffs.
There are various types of explanations for the collapse: stathead (mostly centering around pitching and fielding); trad. baseball shibboleths (lack of heart and team chemistry) and just plain observations that pieced together certainly don’t look good (poor physical conditioning, pitchers drinking beer in the clubhouse on days they didn’t pitch–during the game being played.) Here are my observations: a fan from the dusty outback of Red Sox Nation. I follow the team by reading the box scores, following a couple of web sites (mainly Joy of Sox) and catching a couple of innings here and there on the radio.
1) The 2011 Red Sox collapse stands with other epic season ending failures like the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies “phold” (10 straight losses in the last 12 games of season wiping out a 6.5 lead); the 1969 Cubs (lost 17 out of their last 25 games to finish 8 games out) and the 1934 NY Giants losing a seven game lead in the final month–punctuated by the loss of their last two games to a lowly Brooklyn Dodger squad that Giant manager Bill Terry had openly mocked in the press by asking “are they still in the league?”
2) From a solely Red Sox perspective, the 2011 collapse was not as painful as any of the three major Red Sox setbacks during my lifetime: The 2003 ALCS loss to the Yankees (Grady Little not pulling a tiring Pedro leading to the Aaron Boone game winning H.R.) The 1978 collapse (14 game division lead lost, culminating in the soul crushing Bucky “F*cking” Dent HR in the one game playoff v. the Yankees.) The 1986 World Series loss to the Mets (the Bill Buckner error in Game 6.) All three of those events sting a little more than the 2011 collapse.
3) In his masterful work “Feeding The Monster,” Seth Mnookin wrote about the greatest challenge facing the club in the wake of the 2004 championship: managing the outsized sense of entitlement of the fans and the media. The incessant drumbeat about this season, especially with the big-time free agent acquisitions, was a World Series victory. It was hard to combat that, especially during June and July, when the Sox had the best record in all of baseball. Think back to the the pre-season viral video “This Is Boston” (’04 Plus ’07 Equals’11.) It all seems pretty pathetic now.
4) The second part of Mnookin’s book was the need for club management to pull off what may be unpopular moves to strengthen the club’s talent for the future, but perhaps sacrificing the short-term success of the team. A smart ball club has to be the anti-Yankees: acknowledge the fact that that not every year will bring a championship. Trading away the crown jewel pitching prospect Casey Kelly was done to get the undeniably talented Gonzalez. Will that pan out? The Sox traded top prospect Hanley Ramirez to the Florida Marlins and received Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and the 2007 World Series. While the Sox were able to disassemble the 2004 team and re-tool for another championship in 2007, that process has not been as elegant since 2007. Even Theo Epstein, boy-wonder GM, admits that the Sox policy on acquiring big-time free agents is not working, producing disappointments like John Lackey and Carl Crawford.
5) There are a lot of Sox fans that secretly (or not so secretly) long for the suffering of pre-2004 years:
Sox fans I’ve talked to over the past 12 or so hours are relieved for two reasons. First, we don’t have to pretend to root for these assholes anymore. Second, the old kick-in-the-balls feeling is back! We get to go back to our favorite pastime: complaining about this shitty team and its shitty GM and what the fuck is wrong with Crawford and did you hear what this guy told me about what John Lackey did when he was at that bar in the Back Bay?
A lot of that is a desire for authenticity. The new, post-2004 Sox are: owned by a Wall Street futures trader; are part of a wider sports conglomerate that also owns a Premier League European soccer club and a NASCAR race team; run by young guys and their laptops from elite colleges; attracting a lot of johnnie-come-lately fans (even girls . . . wearing . . . **gasp!** . . .pink Sox caps!) It’s no longer the Sox of their memories. Putting up with frustration and heartache, indulging your fatalistic thinking, proves you are a real fan. I’m not one of those fans. I’d rather have the Red Sox win.
6) Granted, the spate of articles that accompanied the release of the Hollywood version of “Moneyball,” almost all of them citing the current Red Sox management as the alpha dogs of sabermetric-friendly management, couldn’t have come out at worse time. But those stories are not wrong. The baseball folks will be able to right the ship and bring the Sox back to contention.
7) There is a trade-off for Moneyball success. The Paul DePodesta character worries about losing fan support if the team relied on no-name players with good stats but with no traditional star charisma. Billy Beane replies that fans will not care who’s on the field if they are winning. To an extent that’s true. But it’s also true that it was more fun to root for the scrappy “Idiots” of 2004 than the increasingly button-down, white bread folks that the Sox trot out now. Yes, it was a good stat move to replace Manny Ramirez with Jason Bay back in ’08, but the problem with Moneyball thinking is that it strips the personality and diversity out of the game. Bland folks hitting their stat totals may produce a winning team. The team may not be as fun to watch.
8) I think I have become more of a Red Sox fan than a baseball-in-general fan. From a detached, baseball-in-general viewpoint, the last day of this season produced amazing play, excitement and settled three different wild card races. For me? This was the day the Red Sox committed seppuku, the final day of the season was tragic, not exciting. There was a time in my life when I could recover from a Sox exit from the postseason, pick another team and root hard for them in the playoffs (ie: the two Kirby Puckett- led Twins teams in 1987 and 1991.) I can’t do that now. While I really hope that the Yankees lose, I do not care if any other team wins. Baseball is over for me this year. I will not be watching a single pitch of any post-season game, for the first time in my life. The Red Sox did this to me. The 2011 Boston Red Sox, the best AND worst team in baseball.