Commentary

Time to get behind Josh Beckett?

Tough, arrogant Red Sox starter may need boo birds to change their song

Updated: August 8, 2012, 1:59 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- A more sympathetic audience might have felt a little compassion for Josh Beckett after he called a Boston radio station Tuesday and said that he injured his back last week in part because of all the "anxiety" he felt over reports he might be traded.

But buffeted by disappointment all season, Red Sox fans are a cranky lot these days, as Beckett learned first-hand a week ago when he was booed off the mound even though his departure was caused by injury, what the team called a back spasm. They're unlikely to be mollified by the explanation he offered to an FM rock station, which he had called to promote his annual charity event, the Beckett Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJosh Beckett
Jim Davis/Getty ImagesJosh Beckett left his last start with a sore back and his ears full of boos from fans at Fenway Park.

In fact, if you're the type to dismiss that a baseball player is a human being subject to the same range of emotions the rest of the species feels, Beckett's words have a "You can't be serious" aspect to them.

"We traveled late in from New York [two nights before] and I didn't sleep particularly well, had a lot of anxiety and stress things going on, exterior distractions," Beckett told WAAF personality Greg Hill on the station's "Hill-Man Morning Show" in talking about the days leading to his most recent start on July 31, against the Detroit Tigers. "I don't think that a lot of it was great for my back. And going out and pitching on that mound, it was very wet, and my back just locked up on me."

Those "exterior distractions," Beckett said, included being bombarded by speculation that the Red Sox were seeking to unhorse the Texan and send him to another team.

"I think just this past week was different for me," he said. "There were rumors, apparently not being brought up by the Red Sox. I was hearing from everybody that none of this was true, they assured me of that, but I still had to answer questions about it.

"It was very confusing, and that's where I think the anxiety comes in. Not so much stress, but more anxiety than anything because you're not real sure how things are going."

There is a lot to puzzle over in these comments. Why would Beckett be troubled by trade rumors if he was assured they weren't true? And even if they were true (they were), as a 10-5 man, he couldn't be traded unless he gave the Red Sox permission, so the decision to relocate would have been his, and only his, to make.

Given that he will be paid more than $30 million over the next two-plus seasons regardless of what uniform he is wearing, what was the problem? It's not as if Beckett was facing the kind of layoffs too many of his fellow citizens have endured in recent years.

And as far as answering questions, Beckett mostly steers clear of the media pests who might have otherwise hounded him on the topic. Other than one interview he granted to one of the few outlets he feels can be trusted, he really didn't address the subject until after the trading deadline had passed.

Yet this is the explanation he offers for being susceptible to hurting his back on Fenway's wet mound?

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If you were at Fenway today, would you cheer or boo Josh Beckett?

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Stressed out? The Josh Beckett who walked into Yankee Stadium at age 23 and pitched a World Series masterpiece in 2003? The Beckett who couldn't be touched in the 2007 postseason, who pitched with such gallantry against the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 American League Championship Series despite being broken-down physically? The Beckett who has spent his years in Boston cultivating an image of the ultimate Texan who would sooner cut out his tongue than offer an apology in the wake of last September's reputation-skewering takedown, or try to explain why he spent a day off the way he did (golfing) while hurt this spring?

Precisely because it goes against the grain of much we hold to be true about Josh Beckett, there is reason to believe him. Try as he might to convince the outside world otherwise, Beckett bleeds too. He will be vilified in some precincts for making excuses, and if he pitches poorly Wednesday afternoon against the Texas Rangers, he is likely to encounter the same rancor he experienced here last week.

And deep down, though he will never admit it to anyone but his inner circle, that will hurt too.

On Wednesday, Josh Beckett, who as a kid aspired to be as great as his hero, Nolan Ryan, will face Ryan's team, minus the arsenal of superior skills that gave him the right to dream such Texas-sized dreams. He has reached that stage of a pitcher's career where he must rely as much on guile and grit as he once did on the sheer power that emanated from his right arm. That transition is not easy for any pitcher. There is still room for success, but it might even make one anxious until you figure out how.

So, come prepared to boo Josh Beckett if you must Wednesday. Cast upon him all the frustrations you feel over this most disappointing of seasons, and begrudge him his arrogance and seeming indifference to any obligation to anyone other than himself. No one will think less of you if you do.

But understand there is an alternate course available, one that acknowledges that even the toughest men -- maybe especially the toughest men -- have their moments of vulnerability too. And what is the downside in trying to lift up Josh Beckett when he may need it most?

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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