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Boston's a literary town; let's class up the season with some quotes from the unquestioned master of our language.
I've mentioned a few times on here that the Red Sox had long ago gone past the realm of the merely ridiculous and into the positively Shakespearean. Well, because I am exactly enough of a nerd to back that up, I decided to wander through the canon and find a half-dozen quotes that could capture major elements of this most tragicomic of seasons. Hopefully next year will be a bit less open to dramatic interpretation.
(And of course, +1 nerd points to everyone who gets the choice of picture.)
Never excuse; for when the players are all dead, there needs none to be blamed. -Theseus, A Midsummer Night's Dream
There's a lot of finger-pointing to be done after every lost season, as we pick through the debris and try to figure out what went wrong and whose fault it was. Some years it's easy. In 2003, everyone with a functional television or radio knew that Grady Little had just single-handedly killed the season. Some years it's a bit trickier. I'm still not sure we've figured out why the Red Sox just spontaneously forgot how to play baseball last September. This year, though, as we look for things that went wrong, one number just keeps popping up: 56.
Boston had to use 56 players this year. Of the projected starting lineup, only Mike Aviles, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and the now-traded Adrian Gonzalez avoided DL trips. Only five Red Sox players played in more than 100 games, fewer than any other AL team (Oakland had only six, no other team fewer than seven). This alone didn't destroy the season, many of the fill-ins performed admirably and injuries weren't (entirely) the reason that the starting pitching staff vomited up a 5.19 ERA. But when a team expressly built around a small core of star-level players can't put those players on the field, it's not going anywhere.
This is the third straight season in which injuries (some fluky, some not) have done considerable damage to the Sox. Maybe it's just been lousy luck, in which case there's not much to be done. However, it's worth considering whether there's a problem with the medical staff, either in diagnosing injuries before they become worse, or in aiding recovery once injuries occur. But just as large an issue is figuring out how the team can be built to withstand injuries. Has the team been insufficiently diligent in checking out players' medicals before signing or trading for them? Do they need to shift away from the "elite core" idea and build a deeper team? With an offseason of personnel decisions ahead, these questions loom over everything.
Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing... His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search. -Bassanio, Merchant of Venice
For the recently departed Bobby Valentine. I confess to never seeing his tactical tendencies as unusually egregious. He stuck with starters for too long, but it's not like that's uncommon. His lineups were often bizarre, but given Boston's utter inability to ever field a healthy team, there was at least some rationale for tinkering. And of course, the final month of the year saw everyone firmly entrenched in "ain't give a damn, let the kids do what they can" mode. On the pure merits of how he ran the on-the-field team, Valentine didn't recommend himself, but neither did he command instant dismissal.
No, what did in Bobby V during his brief tenure with the Sox was his simple inability to keep his mouth shut. For whatever reason, the man just can not do the tiny white lies that sustain normal human relationships. If you ask him about Kevin Youkilis, he'll say he seems disengaged. If Will Middlebrooks has a bad inning, he'll let loose with the snark. There's something vaguely commendable about a person who simply can't (or won't) pull punches when he's speaking, but I can't for the life of me imagine a time or a place less-suited to that than the Boston clubhouse in 2012. Valentine's smart, passionate, and quotable, he won't lack for a job long. But it's absolutely for the best that that new job won't be with Boston.
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive; yet in the number I do know but one that unassailable holds on his rank, unshaked of motion... -Caesar, Julius Caesar
For the one constant on the Red Sox, the one guy who never changes his approach to the game, even when he ought to: Dustin Pedroia. I'll say it now: he plays too damn hard. He's a second baseman who's suffered numerous injuries, and next year he'll be 30. Given how loudly my back occasionally rails against me turning 30 next year, I can't imagine Pedey continuing to throw himself into (mostly metaphorical) walls the way he does and still being a productive player for the long haul.
But damn, it's great to see that kind of constant, stubborn fight in a player wearing my team's uniform. Down five, up five, crusing to a division title, hopelessly in the basement, doesn't matter. Pedey always shows up to play. At the Johnny Pesky memorial service, Bill Lee talked about the most important thing he shared with Pesky: "We're lifers. You'll have to cut the uniform off us." Dustin Pedroia's one of those guys. Should he have gone on the DL with that thumb injury? Of course. Should Bobby Valentine have told him to sit the last two games of the year, when Boston had nothing to gain from his presence? Certainly. But I want that spirit on this team, as much as I want the strong managerial hand that will rein it in. Hopefully we'll get both for next year and beyond.
But masters, remember that I am an ass: though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. -Dogberry, Much Ado About Nothing
For Alfredo Aceves. There have been quicker bridge-burnings by Boston players, and more spectacular blowups at teammates and managers, but Aceves did his best to match them. There were, looking back, little hints of this as far back as spring training, with his vocal preference for starting rather than closing, but I'm not sure any of us anticipated how bad things would get. To put this in perspective, basically everyone in Boston took Bobby Valentine's side in their disputes, which is rather astonishing. An obvious non-tender candidate as the offseason begins. If the Sox can get something back in trade, so much the better.
'Ban, 'Ban, Cacaliban has a new master, get a new man. Freedom, hey-day! Hey-day, freedom! Freedom, hey-day, freedom! -Caliban, The Tempest
For the most telling image of the entire season. In terms of the future of the Red Sox franchise, the Punto Trade was game-changing. Four players due to be paid a quarter-billion dollars over the next six years were sent to Los Angeles, unshackling Boston's payroll and granting them the offseason flexibility they had so devastatingly lacked last year. No more trading Marco Scutaro in order to fit Roy Oswalt under the luxury tax threshold, no more lowballing Edwin Jackson. Boston can act like a big-market franchise again, and as long as they do so smartly, the future is bright.
But that picture says everything in human terms. Take a look at Josh Beckett's smile, and it's not the smile of a man taking his first trip on a private jet. It's the smile of a man who just escaped being devoured by hyenas. There's nothing there so much as relief. Beckett arrived in Boston six years ago as the Next Great Ace, heir to Clemens and Martinez and Schilling. He left as the prime scapegoat for Boston's recent struggles. And the only thing bizarre about it was how inevitable it all seemed.
That smile of blissful relief is something that Boston's going to need to grapple with at some point. Because if we all saw that smile, so did everybody who plays major league baseball. Josh Beckett won a World Series in this town and made tens of millions of dollars doing it, and yet upon his departure looked like he'd just escaped the guillotine. Players have to be looking at that and wondering, "Is it worth the trouble?" That's what David Ortiz was talking about when he referenced "the bad old days." At what point does our media's endless feeding frenzy, and our support of that frenzy, become a liability for the team? Has it already gotten to that point? Is it even possible to change it?
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition... -Henry V, Henry V
For every fan who showed up this year. Look, I understand that "bandwagon" fans can be frustrating. It's hard not to resent people celebrating the good times when they weren't around for the bad times. It was aggravating when the team we spend so much time and energy living and dying with won it all, and the major result was that it became harder to get tickets. Then, when tickets could be acquired, we sat surrounded by people who didn't know who was starting that day, or why there are numbers on the facade of the right field roof. It makes our own fandom feel cheapened to see it picked up so easily, to interact with people for whom baseball is a fun hobby rather than a religion.
I won't tell you not to feel that way, because it's presumptuous as hell. Just as it's presumptuous to dismiss those less-devoted fans as "pink hats" or whatever other term of contempt the angrier talk radio guys settle on. My general call toward hearing a new or not-as-attentive fan saying "Who's this Yaz guy they keep bringing up in the Triple Crown talk" isn't "How do you not know who Yaz is, you fair-weather dope? Get out of that seat and let a real fan get tickets!" It's "You haven't heard of Yaz? Oh, man, he was awesome! Let me tell you about him!" Really, I do this. I often can't be prevented from doing this.
But whatever your approach to casual fans of baseball, or fans who've only picked up a Boston jersey since 2004, can we agree right now that anyone still wearing that jersey today has earned it? This season on more than one occasion had me considering picking up a Nats cap, and I used to practice Wade Boggs's batting stance in my backyard with one of those giant red wiffle bats. And yet here I am, eager to get through these next cold, grey, baseball-less months and start watching the Sox dust themselves off and try again. If that's where you stand right now, whether you started watching two games into Ted Williams's career or two games into the 2007 World Series, whether your hat is blue, pink, green, or 100th-Anniversary commemorative, you're a Red Sox fan. Welcome to the family, and let's see some wins in 2013.