Can the Red Sox win back Boston?

Can the Red Sox win back Boston?
August 14, 2013, 1:15 pm
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It’s a hypothetical question older than time itself (but still a few years younger than Darren Oliver): If a baseball team wins, but no one’s paying attention, do they actually win at all?

Or I don’t know. It’s something like that. Either way, relating that old made-up adage to the Boston Red Sox is obviously a bit of a stretch. After all, at this year’s All-Star Break, the Sox still boasted the fourth highest TV ratings (6.74) in baseball — behind only the Tigers (9.13), Cardinals (8.27) and Reds (7.76) — and in general, you’d still be hard-pressed to find an owner unwilling to pay a hefty ransom in exchange for the level of annual interest and support that the city of Boston shows for its Sox. (Rumor has it that Magic Johnson actually offered John Henry five billion dollars for the rights to Red Sox Nation before he realized he was speaking into a banana.)

But regardless of all that, the conversation locally over the last few years, which has picked up steam again these last few days, is that the Sox aren’t who they once were here in Boston. That they don’t carry the same clout. That they no longer hover above the rest of the city’s sports teams, arms folded and cackling like Bald Bull after a knockout. Basically, that Boston is no longer a Red Sox town.

And that’s true. Right now, it’s not. While the Sox still exist in the upper echelon of baseball’s fading ratings game, around here they’re just one of the guys as opposed to THE guy. This year’s 6.74 rating (which, in fairness, will presumably rise down the stretch) barely beats the 6.3 registered in the regular season by last year’s Bruins. This past Friday night, with the first-place Sox in Kansas City, NESN drew a 5.5. Meanwhile, the Patriots PRESEASON opener in Philadelphia drew a 14.4. And even without access to the ratings, the difference between what the Sox represented in their heyday and where they are today is palpable. Passion has been overthrown by apathy. The buzz, which once consistently rang louder than a Texas chainsaw, now better resembles the sound of a cell phone buzzing somewhere deep inside your mother’s purse. (Just kidding. Your mom still hasn’t learned how to switch her phone to vibrate.)

That leads to three important questions:

1. How did this happen?

2. Why, despite the Sox inspiring 2013 season, hasn’t anything changed?

3. Will it ever change?

Question 1 has been discussed ad-nauseum over the last few years, so I’ll answer it very quickly and move on to more pressing issues.

How did this happen?

The Sox won the 2004 World Series, ended their 86-year drought and allowed every post-pubescent fan to breath a life-affirming sigh of relief. Then they won another World Series, setting a precedent of success that was impossible to maintain. In the process, the owners got greedy, turned Fenway into a cheap whore and the entire Sox experience into an disturbing fairy tale that made die-hard fans feel like strangers in their homeland.

As the years went on, and the Sox repeatedly, albeit understandably, fell short of another title and many of the most charismatic personalities split town, the fan base that ownership was catering to slowly lost interest, while the ones they should’ve been catering to all along felt entirely disenfranchised. By September 2011, and after the embarrassing season that followed, the Sox were left with nothing. Which is exactly what the owners deserved.

Meanwhile, as Fenway Sports Group hacked away at the Sox soul, the Patriots maintained their standard of excellence, the Celtics underwent a resurgence and most recently, the Bruins came back from the dead to awaken an ardent fan base that had been comatose for the better part of 30 years.

Throw in baseball’s dwindling overall appeal, and it was a perfect storm.

But that was then. Now, the Red Sox are in first place. They’re winning at an unbelievable rate and, as we saw again last night, are doing so in inspiring fashion. The roster’s made up (for the most part) of likable characters, the type everyone was clamoring for the last few years. This is a team that the whole city should be rallying around. Especially considering that they’re the only team that’s currently active.

So why is there still a hesitancy from the broader fan base to go all in? Why isn’t Boston ready to care about this team again?

Well, there are a few reasons that have nothing to do with the Sox specifically, but more the general state of Boston sports.

First, as a result of the insane success that this city experienced during its decade of dominance, the regular season has come to mean very little around here. I’ve written about this before, but over this last decade, we’ve truly seen it all. We’ve seen historic regular seasons end in soul-crushing disaster. We’ve seen so-so, underachieving regular seasons result in a championship parade. We’ve seen just enough to destroy our ability to truly lose ourselves in any regular season.

If a team struggles, like the Sox did last year, there’s still plenty of motivation to fly off the handles and freak out over what’s gone wrong. But the opposite doesn’t hold true. It’s sad, but when a team finds itself in first place, like the Sox do now, it’s not “Yaay! This is it! We can do this!” It’s all about the wait-and-see. The only thing that matters is getting to the playoffs, and as long as a team is on pace to do that, fans will remain content but not inspired.

Second, I think there’s an underlying fear among Boston fans of going all in on any team. Sure, in the six years since the Sox won the World Series, this city has won two more championships (2008 Celtics and 2011 Bruins), but over that time, we’ve also lost four championships, and done so rather tragically. There was Super Bowl 42, a loss that will haunt New England forever unless Brady can win one more. There was Super Bowl 46, which so closely resembled 42 that it barely feels real. I think most Patriots fans have blocked out the fact that that one ever happened. There was the Celtics blowing a 3-2 lead in the 2010 Finals, and a 13-point second half lead in Game 7, against of all teams, the Lakers. And just recently, there was the utter devastation that followed the Bruins Game 6 collapse against the Blackhawks.

After all that hurt, you have to really trust a team to let yourself go, and that’s not going to happen in mid-August. There’s still far too much baseball to be played. In the meantime, the lingering effect of past success and more recent failure will undoubtedly hold fans back.

And as this pertains specifically to the Red Sox, let’s be honest. As much as everything seems to have changed on the field and inside the clubhouse, we’re not very far removed from the calamity of the last few seasons. Wounds don’t heal that quickly. Especially with the knowledge that the men responsible for that mess are still in charge. While the players, managers and GM have gone to great lengths to restore some pride in the organization, the Red Sox experience is still littered with subtle yet infuriating reminders of what initially drove fans away. The painful poll questions, bland Twitter talk and unbelievably lame moves like asking fans to sing along with Shane Victorino’s at-bat music. It opens those old wounds, and takes away from the overall experience -- at least while we wait for the pennant to really kick into gear. And as we do, as far as rating are concerned, there’s no doubt that overall interest has also been affected by the lack of superstar players.

I’m not criticizing the team for this, because that would be hypocritical. They’re in first place, what else can you really ask for? But in reality, there’s no one in the rotation that makes you think: “Ooh, HE’s pitching tonight. I can’t miss this one!” David Ortiz is probably the only guy in the line-up that would ever have you say: “Well, I’m probably going to be late for dinner, but it’s worth it. I have to stick around and see this at-bat.” And even the Ortiz experience is lacking, relative to what it was before. Regardless, there are no Pedros, no Schillings, No Mannys, no Nomars. No one who qualifies must-see TV.

Add up the last six paragraphs and lingering lack of interest makes sense.

But will it change? Can it change?

Over the last few days, I’ve heard a few people argue the days of the Red Sox dominating the Boston sports scene are over. That baseball in general has lost its luster, that they’ll never completely win back the disgruntled old guard and/or inspire the attention-deficit disordered new guard. But honestly, that’s garbage.

It’s entirely possible for the Sox to takeover this city again.

But there’s only one way to do it: Win.

That might not be fair, after all, they didn’t win for 86 years yet still dominated everything every year along the way. But that time is over. It’s never coming back. The Red Sox will never reach the heights — as far as ratings and/or pure popularity — that they did in 2004. It’s a useless comparison. You can’t recreate that tension. Young Red Sox fans aren’t brought up the same way. So much of what made the team such an obsession for so many no longer exists.

However, the love for this town and its sports still does. And it’s been a long time since the Sox have brought that out in us. They haven’t won a playoff game in five years!

But as this year’s playoffs get closer, that familiar overbearing buzz will come back. If they actually make the playoffs, the Red Sox WILL take over this town once again. And if they can somehow turn that playoff appearance into one more ring, there’s no doubt that the Red Sox will be back on top in Boston.

The top might not be as high as it used to be. But this will be a Red Sox town once again.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine