Sylver: Boston’s quest for a baseball identity
By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
All hail the Dodgers.
Their last 31 seasons since Kirk Gibson’s improbable homer off Dennis Eckersley featured 13 playoff appearances, six times among baseball’s final four, and two losses on the championship stage. And they finally broke through.
Congratulations to Mookie Betts, now a two-time World Series champion and – as a Taco Bell commercial informs me – the all-time leader in DLTs.
Let’s talk about the Red Sox.
Two and a half years ago, I wondered if Boston still cared about their hometown nine. That team proceeded to go out and win 108 games and a World Series.
But it took less than a year for things to flip, as an uninspiring title defense resulted in a huge ratings drop.
Big surprise: 2020 was even worse.
The two participants in this year’s Fall Classic represent the roads diverging in the proverbial wood for Boston ownership and top executive Chaim Bloom. With the Dodgers the Ghost of Red Sox Past, today’s Rays are assumed to be a glimpse at the franchise’s future.
Under Dave Dombrowski, the team traded for Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale and inked David Price to an enormous deal. When that wasn’t enough, they shoved nine figures in the direction of J.D. Martinez. They dealt for Nathan Eovaldi and re-upped the injury-plagued righty because they could.
That’s the kind of big market bravado we’ve routinely seen from the Dodgers. The champs are -after all – the franchise that once relieved Boston of the contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett in one fell swoop. But LA’s scouting and player development has consistently produced homegrown talent to pair with those big names. Ironically, their fans can thank ex-Rays boss Andrew Friedman for some of those moves.
The Sox have Xander Bogaerts (who they smartly signed to a long-term deal) and Rafael Devers (who we hope they do), but those foundational players can’t spackle over all the other holes in the roster. Andrew Benintendi’s career appears to have stalled out at 27. The organization still hasn’t produced a decent Major League arm since Clay Buchholz.
After a topsy-turvy decade with two World Series titles and four last-place finishes, we’ve apparently turned to the Tampa model, which has produced six playoff appearances in the last 13 seasons and two American League crowns.
Whenever the Rays make the World Series, I feel like they’re the injury replacement on a pro wrestling card; like Hacksaw Jim Duggan was supposed to be there with his American flag and clonk somebody with a 2×4, and instead we’ve got Virgil. Every other October for the past decade, they get a bunch of plucky upstarts named Joey Wendle, a collection of post-hype prospects, and a couple veterans experiencing a career year. Rinse and repeat.
Tampa’s all-time leader in hits is Carl Crawford. Evan Longoria is next. OK. But after Ben Zobrist – a perfectly fine player – the names reflect an organization that’s utterly incapable of letting their fans get closer to its players than to the Internet memes they put up on the damn video board: The Artist Formerly Known as B.J. Upton. Conspiracy theorist Aubrey Huff. Toby Hall?
The Rays don’t have an identity. The system is their identity.
For years, the Red Sox had perhaps the most recognizable identity in all of sports. Despite being one of the most competitive franchises in MLB, they were the tortured underdog. When John Henry’s group took over, ownership slipped right into that jacket and it fit perfectly. The Sox blew it in epic fashion in 2003 against the Yankees, then roared back to vanquish their tormentors the following season.
By 2007, they’d become the New Yankees – at least, an updated version of the late 90’s Bronx Bombers – and even that Boston team paused to add an underdog flourish to their championship run, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to Cleveland in the ALCS.
Since then, the Red Sox – and their fans – have lacked a consistent narrative. Henry can put a bullet next to each of his championships on a PowerPoint presentation. The parades were fun. Chicken and Beer, Bobby Valentine, and Pablo Sandoval’s busted belt were not. Neither were the trades of Jon Lester and Betts, potential franchise icons who should still be here but instead wound up contributing to championships in other cities.
Meanwhile, the Patriots took over the top spot in Boston. They had an identity. They didn’t waffle. They took no prisoners and kicked ass for 20 years.
An identity doesn’t necessarily mean Dewey Evans and Jim Rice roaming the Fenway outfield until Just for Men reaches out with a sponsorship deal. But I think most fans would like to see Bogaerts and Devers hang around a while. I’d like to see the Sox develop a pitcher as good or better than Lester who actually sticks with the organization. The Rays wouldn’t do that, but if Henry takes his eyes off the soccer game on TV for a few minutes, he can write a check.
The Patriots’ current identity is that of a team floundering without Tom Brady. Henry, Bloom and the Red Sox have an opportunity. This doesn’t mean putting a freshly-baked pie on the window sill to lure the next Sandoval. It also doesn’t mean pinching pennies in the wake of Dombrowski’s spending spree.
A long-term investment in homegrown talent might give this team an identity, pry open Boston’s championship window, and get some kids who currently watch Tampa Bay Buccaneers games on Sunday out to Fenway Park once the pandemic is over.
Until then, mask up and make sure to thank Mookie for the tacos.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can find him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.