Opening Day arrived yesterday with all the urgency of a changeup thrown in February, as it always does. We have seen baseball coming at us for so long, and we have flailed away at it even as any core bit of wisdom was there to hit. Could Spring Training stats – wait for it – actually matter? We know better but we ask every year and it’s on Opening Day that the answer is as clear as day: No! Spring training lies, gleefully and liberally. Last year at this time the Red Sox player getting the most press was Jackie Bradley, Jr., who was basically a non-factor on a title team with a deep cast. This season, Francisco Cordero was cut after throwing eight scoreless March innings. It’s really not for us to understand what’s happening during the spring, and it’s especially not for us to try to extrapolate how the season might go based on spring stats. The season is long enough that it never really matters.
The only way to build a consistent championship team is to work the system without shame (don't rely on hot springs, that is). The bigger teams spend within their rights, the smaller teams take their money without question, and whatever they do beyond this is basically a reflection of the owner. Franchises are playthings for the super-rich by definition, and playthings can be cherished or taken for granted. It really comes down to who gives a crap and who just wants play around.
For a very long time, the Red Sox were in the second group. The Sox’ approach changed drastically with the team’s 2002 sale, but it was the signing of Manny Ramirez the year before that ushered in the age of the modern Sox, even if all Ramirez did was take the biggest pile of money with which he was presented. The only thing that mattered was that the Sox would try to get anyone in the league and were serious about it. It didn't really change the "culture" of the team -- money isn't culture -- but they basically put a sign in front of Fenway offering top dollar, and people came.
The Ramirez deal is similar to the Mariners’ decision to throw $240 million at Robinson Cano this offseason, both in terms of team construction (Felix and Cano; Pedro and Manny) and break with historical precedent, not because the Mariners offered the money but because the Yankees did not match it. Under (mostly) Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees are content to finally spread their minimal risk around. Instead of Cano, the Yankees signed the formidable quartet of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka, and could be one of the best teams in baseball. It’s conceivable that they win the World Series and it’s conceivable that they barely squeak into the playoffs. They are still very good, and always will be.
What’s inconceivable is total system failure, like the Sox had in 2012. This led to last season’s total lack of expectations, and filling that void in a way the Yankees will never be able to match. After a decade of success, the 2013 rebound confirmed what I only dreamed the day Manny got signed: that one day the Sox would be the legitimate equal of the Yankees, and a return to late-nineties Yankees dominance would be a fear no longer worth bearing.
I likely overthink this, and part of it is because I live in New York, but I’m pretty sure we’re at that point. Even after the Red Sox won in 2004 and 2007, the Yankees had a strong argument that what the Red Sox had done could have been viewed as a historical aberration, and they were still ultimately the bullies of both the league and each other. They can't do that anymore, and may not care to do so anyway -- they may be figments of my imagination. I don’t know. I do know that we, Sox fans, are living in the middle of the orgastic future of which we dreamt so long ago, and it's time to drink it up. It is now our present, and it is most certainly a gift.