Commentary

Red Sox swoon a product of success

Sustained winning inevitably weakens baseball teams to the point of rebuilding

Updated: April 19, 2012, 2:52 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

One Sunday morning years ago, during the big days, when the Boston Red Sox had shed their skin and had become feared -- even by the New York Yankees -- Terry Francona closed the door to his office as Manny Ramirez walked by, nodded his head toward the clubhouse and explained how the easiest part of his job was when the game began. The real job of managing, Francona said, was being human Kevlar for his clubhouse, shielding the players from distraction, removing from them the pressures of the game to allow them to perform.

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine, Jon Lester
Elsa/Getty ImagesJon Lester got the early hook from Bobby Valentine on Tuesday.

When Francona left amid the plumes of smoke of last year's September implosion and subsequent front office betrayals of his personal life, he could no longer protect them nor could he save himself. In the specter of collapse, being the best team in baseball during the middle of the season couldn't shield him from his enemies who wanted accountability for its beginning and end.

It was very clear the Red Sox players were going to miss his protection. With the season 11 games old and the Red Sox in last place, already the fractures of new personalities (the manager, Bobby Valentine, showing little confidence in Kevin Youkilis' commitment and in Jon Lester by having the bullpen up in the second inning with his ace on the mound in what became an 18-3 demolition at the hands of the two-time defending AL champion Rangers) and the old (Youkilis has never been particularly popular with his teammates and Dustin Pedroia never endeared himself with veterans by playing cribbage with Francona for years) are apparent. For the second consecutive year, the team must dig itself out of early-season trouble, and that will be more difficult because it has not truly healed from 2011.

The Red Sox are a flagship of the sport. Only three teams, each baseball royalty -- the Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals -- have won multiple World Series over the past dozen years. The Red Sox have money to the tune of $173 million payroll, third behind the Yankees and Phillies. They have big names in David Ortiz, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury. They are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. Despite those advantages and the vaunted game-day electricity that is a staple of the fan base and the old yard, the energy surrounding the Red Sox is sour, and has been souring for the past few years -- and that shouldn't come as a surprise.

Expectations are the underside of being a powerhouse franchise, but the Red Sox are in serious, obvious transition that will make it difficult to win as many games as the payroll suggests. Boston is not special in this regard, for the Yankees are in a less serious, but similar transition, and the Phillies -- though their pitching is still in the midst of a great run that started in 2006 -- are not so far behind. The Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox have, in that order, the three oldest rosters in baseball -- and it shows in the reservations analysts have about each team's postseason prospects. This, of course, runs counter to what fans are thinking; October is when the season begins for many fans, who prefer to evaluate a season by the end result, not the journey.

[+] EnlargeFenway Park
Elsa/Getty ImagesFenway Park has been Boston's biggest reason to celebrate so far this season.

For 10 seasons, air has steadily and rapidly been pumped into the Red Sox balloon, and it has soared like a technology stock or real estate bubble to the tune of selling out every game since May 15, 2003. This is the longest sellout streak in major league history, and it survived a disastrous economy. Even though gross ticket sales are down this season, and even though the front office has for the past few years been quietly bracing for the streak to end, it includes two World Series championships and the complete rewriting of the franchise's narrative. It also includes an exhaustive physical and emotional drama that saw the general manager quit twice (the second time for good), Hall of Fame or near-Hall-of-Fame-level players (Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Johnny Damon, Curt Schilling and, of course, Ramirez) come and go, and legendary regular-season and playoff battles with the Yankees that defined a generation of baseball in both cities. It was a time of Promethean highs (2004) and lows (2011). Sooner or later, the balloon was bound to burst. No franchise could be expected to sustain such a draining and taxing regimen for so long a time.

Yet, once fulfilled with titles, expectations are rarely lowered. The key, naturally, is whether a team can simultaneously transition and continue winning. This is the burden of the powerhouse: Front offices in Philadelphia and New York and Boston don't believe their fan bases will tolerate rebuilding years. The price is impatience with young players who don't perform immediately and an overreliance on free agency.

Most teams finish a special period of success -- the 1991-2005 Braves, the 1999-2003 A's, the 1995-2001 Mariners -- with an immediate stretch of dormancy because young players mature, become too expensive and rebuilding is a necessity. Not the big clubs. After a Hall of Fame run that produced four World Series titles, the Yankees pushed out Joe Torre after the 2007 season and failed to make the playoffs the following year for the first time since 1994. The Yankees regrouped not by tapping into their farm system, but by re-signing Alex Rodriguez following the '07 season, netting Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia in free agency after 2008 and winning the World Series in 2009.

A team's spark and energy during the grind of a baseball season is often attributable to the young players it produces, and while the Red Sox scored with Pedroia and Ellsbury, both are now in the second half or second third of their careers.

[+] EnlargeCody Ross
Elsa/Getty ImagesCody Ross and the Red Sox aren't scaring opponents right now.

Money rules and the sellout streak has made the Sox millions, but thousands of real fans haven't been to Yawkey Way in years. Given the combination of the highest ticket price in baseball, fatigue over huge free-agent signings of players not particularly high on the likability scale -- John Lackey, J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka -- ending a season without much professional dignity on the part of the players or the front office, and an odd, disjointed managerial search, Boston baseball feels like it is suffering from a hangover of excess. Less discussed amid the $170 million Boston spends on players is the talent drain due to attrition and injury and change. Where there was once Ramirez, there is now Cody Ross. Where there was Damon, there is Jason Repko. Where there was Trot Nixon, there is Ryan Sweeney. Where there was Orlando Cabrera and Garciaparra, there is now Mike Aviles.

The Red Sox maintain a great advantage in resources: a resilient fan base, economic clout and a famous ballpark. Like the Yankees, rebirth could be just a big free-agent winter or surprising summer away, but even if the Red Sox reach the playoffs this season, they qualify for baseball's new winner-take-all poison game. The Red Sox are in a period of necessary, natural change. Fatigue was inevitable, and through weariness everyone in the clubhouse seems to have finally taken an emotional step back, even though the season has just begun. Even the best parties eventually run out of booze.