I have to admit that I haven't been able to write much in the last few months, for a variety of reasons: some positive (family changes, work), and some not-so-positive (family, work, health). However, perhaps the most frustrating thing for me has been that watching the team this season has left me bereft of much of anything to say. It's hard to snark when a team is floundering like this. Even though there have been some very encouraging signs—such as the recent five-game win streak, the promising debut of Will Middlebrooks, and the surprisingly strong performance from Daniel Nava—it's still been hard for me to warm up to this year's installment of the Red Sox.
Although I mocked Fußball in a previous post, I have been trying to get accustomed to it, both because it's the national sport of my current home, as well as for family reasons (it's the only sport my in-laws really follow—and as I've mentioned before, the mere thought of trying to explain the infield fly rule to them is enough to give me nightmares). Oddly enough, the state of soccer here is much like that of Boston sports, as a recent renaissance and rejuvenation of the sport after several years of wandering in the (relative) wilderness had led to some disillusionment on the part of German soccer fans.
In recent months, though, FC Bayern München has been one of the heavyweights on the scene, having advanced all the way to the Champions League finals tomorrow. Their berth in the final was secured by winning two matches against Réal Madrid, a team which everybody had all but written into the finals before the tournament even began. Yet Bayern managed to stave Madrid off: a 2-1 win at home, followed by a 2-1 match that led to overtime and then penalty kicks. (It should be noted that, much like Boston sports teams for many years, they were almost victims of an absolutely brutal officiating call early in the second game that nearly cost them the win in Madrid.)
At the same time, this same club—which, not coincidentally, features nearly half of the starters of the German national team—came out completely flatfooted against their rival Dortmund in the final of the Bundesliga last weekend. It was like watching a warped and fractured version of the match against Réal Madrid: everything that could possibly have gone wrong did. The opposing team lost its goalie in the first half, but they couldn't capitalize. Their headers bounced harmlessly off the top of the goal posts instead of yielding brilliant goals. And their goalkeeper, normally one of the most reliable in the game, suffered a total meltdown at the most inopportune time. Frankly, this team, which looked so formidable less than a fortnight earlier and edged its way one step from the pinnacle of club football, was now reduced to a snakebitten, listless version of its former self.
Watching these two games led me to an epiphany—I was finally able to put into words what has been bothering me about the Sox in recent years.
In many ways, this was a high-speed version of what seems to have befallen the Red Sox in recent years. There's no doubt in my mind that there's tons of talent on the Sox roster, and in their development league. However, that spark of leadership, that ability to rise above adversity, seems to have gone missing from the home dugout at Fenway.
I've left out one other important issue—and perhaps this is the most important of all, under the circumstances. In the Spanish matches, the team played with tremendous unselfishness and unanimity—they were clearly working as a well-oiled machine whose goal was to win. In the Dortmund match, it seemed like every Bayern player was off in his own little corner of the universe; some of them looked like they weren't even in the same plane of reality as the match in progress, as clueless as they seemed out on the field. Instead, it was their opponents, Dortmund Borussia—younger and hungrier, without the level of success, that showed the cohesiveness and determination their better-financed and higher-profile opponents lacked. And this was a season-long affliction, as Dortmund defeated Bayern three times in the course of the season. (Does this remind us of any other teams we've seemed to struggle mightily with in recent years? A certain franchise that makes me want to dissolve every cowbell in existence, perhaps?)
If anything, this appears to be the biggest issue I've had with the Red Sox of the last few seasons. In the early 2000's, this team had an identity, and a sense of camaraderie—they were all in the fight together, and were going to go down fighting as a team. Even when the team rode the backs of one or two players on any given night (such as David Ortiz in 2004, Josh Beckett in 2007, Jason Bay and Jon Lester in 2008), there was still the feeling that it was the Sox that would win or lose.
Unfortunately, it now feels like we've returned to the "25 guys, 25 taxis" era of Red Sox baseball. Call it "25 guys, 25 trucks" if you'd like. But there's still this sense that the team only exists once the first pitch has been thrown, and dissolves to nothingness once the game's over—whether "Dirty Water" plays on the PA system or not. Sometimes, it doesn't even feel like it goes that far—there's no common purpose, no shared struggle.
Perhaps the recent run of success breeded an unfortunate sense of entitlement. Unfortunately, the recent results on the field have done little to suggest that they've learned the lessons from these recent seasons, and do little to inspire confidence that this team can hoist the Commissioner's Trophy at the end of the season. For that to happen will take far more than just Clay Buchholz and Beckett returning to form, Adrian Gonzalez recovering from his slump, and Jacoby Ellsbury returning to the lineup. They will also need to recover the shared identity that those near-championship and championship teams had. Without that, it will be another long winter of discontent for Sox fans.