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The salty, inevitable 2017 Red Sox, explained

The team was always going to be good. They’re carving out space to figure out the rest.

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox
I’m not mad. I’m actually laughing.
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Baseball is unique among the three major American sports (sorry, Andy Moog) in how it breeds pessimism even in the most hopeful of scenarios. If the Celtics or Patriots were leading their division just over halfway through the season we would likely not have been, living as we have been this year with the Red Sox, in a state of near-perpetual panic about how the campaign was playing out. Nor would we, at the outset of the year, look at the roundly positive projected standings for the team and ignore them near-completely in favor of the demons of our dreams and nightmares.

TL, DR: We know that barring disaster, our basketball and football teams will make the playoffs before the season begins. If we can ignore the idea of a “jinx,” which is fake anyway, we can admit that the Red Sox ought to get the same treatment. The math and the experts have agreed on this from the outset of the season and the team has followed its prescribed path almost perfectly, but that hasn’t stopped us from obsessing over the smallest of details as if each one, if improperly vetted, had the chance to bring the season crashing down. We have done this despite the fact that the team has steadily improved its station throughout the year on its way to first place at the All-Star break.

Nor is it just the fans who seem irritated. Some of the players, David Price foremost among them, are perpetually bent out of shape over coverage of the team. Rick Porcello infamously joined Price’s griping at one point, Dustin Pedroia apparently thinks Dennis Eckersley should give the players a pass on honest criticism and Xander Bogaerts, when asked why the offense was so light earlier in the year, barked back in so many words that the loss of David Ortiz had left the team grasping for answers on offense.

In Papi’s absence there hasn’t just been a relative silence of the bats. There has also been a peculiar, understandable crisis of conscience for a good team that only seems to get better; I think that this is the source of the tension both within and around the club. The Red Sox are good because they have good players, but they are, at our complete and erratic discretion, judged independently, relative to their salaries, performance and attitude. They are judged, in other words, apart from team success in a team sport, beyond the margin of error. That it has always been this way hasn’t stopped some of players from getting salty, no one more so than Price, as they reckon with the media’s baits and switches by working up some of their own. If their gambits are transparent -- and in some cases, transparently empty -- it’s a reflection of some of the criticisms that have been thrown their way, empty or otherwise, and not necessarily the ones to which they are responding.

In some very real ways, the 2017 Red Sox are post-critical. What are we going to tell them that they don’t know? They’re too good to be bad, and the sweet spot for palace intrigue, which was small to begin with, shrinks toward zero as their division lead increases. Winning has always cured everything, of course, but it’s interesting because the Sox haven’t been a hugely streaky team this year. They’ve always been headed to this point, and while the details have been surprising in some cases, the whole year has played out like a buried, uncalled bank shot in pickup basketball. For all our grousing, the points still count.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays
Oh yeah, it’s been fun as hell, too.
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

This is the root of Price’s frustration, I think. Yes, he has shriveled under some extremely kid-gloves shit, but I understand why he is frustrated in view of the bigger picture. If assembling a baseball team really is just a volume play, a numbers game in which the big spenders are likely to win out simply by virtue of being halfway competent buyers of talent, Price’s choice of the Red Sox is still a coup. His signing didn’t happen in a vacuum: He knew he was joining a team full of up-and-coming stars as the one true example of at-cost talent, with the expectation that, with his addition, the sheer goodness of the Sox would make them contenders, and he was right. He also said he knew what the Boston media market meant for him, criticism-wise, and that he was ready for it, and about this he was wrong. He was neither ready nor does he seem to like it.

That said, the “David Price was wrong!” cudgel is as dull as the blades of the #FireFarrell crowd. For all the valid criticisms of him, he’s merely the highest-paid player on a first-place Major League Baseball team and neither the best pitcher nor the best player, but he’s there, doing the hard work of letting his teammates pick him up. That’s not snark; amazingly, being even an even passable Major League Baseball player is hard work, and an average Price is still pretty good. The “free” part of “free agency” is tricky not leastwise because billions of dollars change hands, but because the freedom to choose your own team comes with potential freedom to preemptively cover your own ass, should your performance slip.

It just turns out not to have been true in this case, and it has blown up in Price’s face. On a team like the Blue Jays, Price’s slightly diminished performance going forward could have doubled as a death sentence for everyone involved. In Boston, it has barely slowed down the Red Sox, and he’s been even better than you think, even if he hasn’t been as good as you dreamed. The team has picked him up, but to his analysts and critics, this is reason enough to reframe his day-to-day performance on a day-to-day basis, the deadlines on which they (sometimes) make a salary.

The problem with this relationship is that Price has no reason to reframe his performance solely on a day-to-day basis; he’s working day-to-day, yes, but also series to series, week to week, year to year and, above all, contract to contract. If he was wrong about craving the scrutiny of the Boston media, as he said in his introductory press conference, it’s okay. It can be very bad! That Price has lashed out at the least offensive and stupid stuff possible signals that he’s trying to send messages to sane Sox reporters to leave him alone -- not to solve a problem with no answer, i.e., how to fix the player/reporter relationship completely.

He hasn’t been good about it, but it’s easy to see why he wants to, why he should want to and, above all, why this team has been so prickly during a successful season. Criticism can wear on anyone, and the players don’t need or even want others to represent their views in the press now that they can so easily do it themselves. (It’s not rocket science, though I’d bet Price isn’t great at that, either. Ultimately rocket science is as relevant to his performance on the mound as his media give-and-take.) While there’s likely a correlation between his relative struggles in Boston and his performance, it’s a few bridges too far to suggest his beef with the media is the root of any performance issues.

That performance, by the way, is pretty good, and getting better in 2017:

As Price improves on his own schedule, his anger at reporters, and the team’s antipathy toward their coverage, begins to make more and more internal sense. It isn’t just that the team is just now winning, and it’s not even that they’ve been winning the whole time. It’s that they’re a team, and from the inside, they likely consider the perpetual dread, obsessive bean-counting and overwrought soap opera shit that comprises a huge percentage of baseball talk as a giant waste of time when a team was both built and created — with Price’s help — to finish in first place. That the ace’s aim here is a little off shouldn’t be surprising anymore, but at least in this case he has the luxury of being largely right.