<
>

Sox bringing fun back to Fenway

BOSTON -- Discerning Red Sox fans are notorious for dealing in absolutes.

Terry Francona was the best. Bobby Valentine was the worst.

Yaz, Rice and Pesky are golden. Beckett is tarnished. Dave Roberts will never be forgotten and Harry Frazee will never be forgiven.

The Olde Towne Team has been a faithful companion to fervent New Englanders on the subway, by the beach, at the dinner table. For better or for worse, they were woven into the fabric of the community.

That's why Red Sox Nation's decision to turn its back on its baseball team last season with such gusto was so noteworthy and so alarming. The ultimate indignity for any sports franchise is irrelevance. It was unfathomable to imagine Bostonians ignoring the Red Sox, but mounting anger eventually evolved into apathy. Ninety-three losses can have that effect. Sprinkle in some overpaid, arrogant, underachieving players, and the climate was ripe for a century-old love affair to go kaput.

And, yet, here we are seven games into 2013 and the mood is shifting again. In the time it took you to chisel "JBJ" on your Louisville Slugger, the Sox are 5-2 and all those disgruntled customers who stalked away from the Red Sox now find themselves glancing over their shoulder to see … what … they … are … missing.

It is premature to make grand pronouncements on the long-term success of the team; in fact, it's foolhardy. Yet the combination of an aggressive lineup, a revamped bullpen and some glittering starting pitching has re-ignited some dying embers of baseball passion.

"I had no use for them by the end of last year," admitted Tim Robertson of Quincy. "I always come for Opening Day, but that's all I planned on doing. Now? Maybe I'll consider it."

Why the change of heart?

"They seem like a bunch of hardworking players," Robertson answered. "Not like last year. Those guys thought they deserved to win. I hated that."

Suddenly, the math works again in Boston's favor. There's addition by subtraction (bye-bye Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Bobby V) and addition by addition (Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, manager John Farrell).

Then there's the singular 22-year-old folk hero with corn rows, flannel shirts and a disarming grin, who is batting .183 but has captivated a sophisticated baseball audience with his uncommon poise at the plate and his deft performance in the field.

Jackie Bradley Jr. wasn't even in the lineup for the home opener (his numbers against lefties did him in), yet he instantly infused some welcome synergy into a previously angst-ridden clubhouse.

"I would love to take away all the distractions from last year for them," Bradley Jr. said.

Bradley Jr. could be sent to the minors once David Ortiz returns from his Achilles woes, but he insisted he hasn't given that scenario much consideration.

"I'm not stressing," the affable outfielder said. "It's a long, long season. It's great to be here, and once the Boston fans get behind us, who knows where we'll end up?"

It's difficult to imagine a more dismal scenario than 2012, when a franchise-record 56 players were injured, with 27 of them landing on the disabled list. The Red Sox lost 1,495 games to injury, the equivalent of more than nine seasons.

The veteran pitching staff imploded, superstar players underperformed and there was an obvious disconnect between the manager, his staff and his team.

No one was immune from the malaise. Even fan favorite Dustin Pedroia endured the ire of the public when he chose not to attend the funeral of the beloved Johnny Pesky.

"In a sense, some of the blame for that should fall on us, the front office," Larry Lucchino said. "We might have done a better job of communicating to our players who are in the grind of a very difficult, very disappointing season that attendance [at the funeral] would be a gesture of respect that we would encourage. I'm not sure we took efficient steps to notify our players of that."

Pedroia has vowed to "move forward, not back." He is not alone. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have rededicated themselves to erasing the unseemly narrative from their own bios and regain their footing as the staff's top two arms.

Only Valentine seems unwilling to move beyond the debacle that unfolded on his watch. Over the winter, he informed the Stamford Advocate he was still serving as an "advisor" for the Red Sox.

"Well, he's being paid for another year by the team," Lucchino said. "That's how he's connected to us. I talk to him from time to time. I got an email from him recently. I sent him a note congratulating him on his new position [as athletic director at Sacred Heart]. If he throws out an option, I'll certainly read it and listen to it."

Valentine's successor has gone to great lengths to recuse himself from the media frenzy surrounding his ballclub. You will be hard pressed to parcel together a John Farrell sound bite that will rattle the cage of his players.

The "Farrell Factor," as Lucchino has coined it, has provided the Sox with an imposing figure in the clubhouse (one that Curt Schilling says would not hesitate to physically stand up to any rogue troublemakers), and a soothing, familiar voice for a pitching staff that was pummeled both on and off the field. No wonder Farrell received one of the most enthusiastic ovations at the home opener.

Gomes also received warm applause for the emotion and effort he's displayed in his short tenure in a Red Sox uniform. He is a postseason magnet (the past three teams he played for made the playoffs with him on the roster) who signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the intent of providing some team chemistry.

"That's what you hear about me," said Gomes, "'He's a clubhouse guy, he's a clubhouse guy.' But I can hit a baseball too, you know. I'm not some rodeo clown."

(Note to Gomes: Rodeo clowns play quite well in these parts as long as it's within the proper parameters. See Millar, Kevin, circa 2004).

Gomes played for Oakland last season and said he cringed as he watched the Red Sox unravel.

"It was just tough to watch," Gomes said. "We're all a little -- I'm not going to say fraternity -- but we're all connected.

"Remember that game we beat 'em 20-2 at our place? Those are the days you pad your stats, enjoy yourself, kick 'em when they're down. But, for the first time in my career I actually felt bad for them.

"I could see it in their faces. They were struggling. It was like watching [Mike] Tyson get knocked out for the first time. It was the Red Sox, and they were down and out, kind of like when the Patriots lost that perfect season. You just kept telling yourself, 'No, this isn't supposed to happen.'"

Undoubtedly the contract Boston offered made the Sox an attractive option for Gomes. He said he was not spooked by the underwhelming results of 2012.

"The way I saw it was you had a bunch of talented guys coming back with a chip on their shoulder: Lester, [John] Lackey, Buchholz, Pedroia," Gomes explained. "I needed to be a part of that. And Farrell coming over with his own chip? I needed to be part of that, too."

In spite of this current budding era of good feeling, Lucchino still expects the team's record sellout streak (794 games and counting) to officially come to a halt during this current homestand.

The Red Sox will play an unprecedented 17 games at home in April, prompting Sox officials to offer reduced prices on concessions during the entire month. The strategy was two-fold: to serve as a gesture of appreciation to the fans, but also to draw more patrons to the park.

Some fans grumbled that if the Sox really wanted to demonstrate goodwill, the reduced prices should remain in place throughout the entire season. Lucchino said the team may consider extending the discounts, but added, "If people are thinking that we believe a marketing proposal like this is any substitution for winning baseball, we don't. We know what will bring our fans back with great enthusiasm and speed, and that's a winning, successful baseball team."

The front office of John Henry and Tom Werner and Lucchino know all too well what is required to make that happen. It was their ownership group that created an environment in which the ultimate Red Sox absolute was established: championship or bust.