At 2:05 p.m. on Thursday, the Red Sox were supposed to unofficially (but officially) deliver a knockout punch to winter and welcome us to spring.
More than that, they were supposed to prove something to us.
Let’s not forget team chairman Tom Werner standing on a stage in Springfield, Mass., in January, telling thousands of fans at Red Sox Winter Weekend that the Sox were going to be playoff-bound, just a month before the team traded Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers.
“I’m looking forward to the media giving us low expectations and then we’re going to be there in October,” Werner said.
Expectations were definitely low. Really low.
When spring training was settling in, before the coronavirus changed our world, I was eating dinner with some media friends in Fort Myers, Fla., as we tried setting the over/under on wins for the 2020 Red Sox.
I settled on 77. The others settled around 85.
This was before Chris Sale got hurt, but there were enough injury concerns in the starting rotation already. Betts and Price were gone. Alex Verdugo was clearly not going to be ready to play.
A year earlier, the Red Sox were already a mess. It was a team overflowing with talent, but too many big names didn’t perform, many started trending downward and it was clear change was coming.
But the offseason was slow and choppy. We knew they were trading someone to clear salary — and if we knew, imagine how aware the players must’ve felt — which only left us wondering who would leave and where they’d be going.
The mistake the Red Sox made was one of messaging. John Henry didn’t help his front office in August, when he declared to the world that the Sox wanted to get under the luxury tax threshold, but it made sense from a messaging standpoint.
Get out in front of it. Tell the fans what’s really going to happen.
The problem was that the Sox didn’t stand by it. They quickly backtracked with the now famous and often-uttered line, “it’s a goal, not a mandate.” Henry said it was a media-contrived narrative. The Sox insisted they’d still be competitive. They kept saying they had World Series aspirations.
It was clearly a bunch of baloney, but it further muddied the imagery for what a 2020 season might look like.
What would’ve happened if they just leveled with the fans and said, ‘hey, like Henry said, we’re taking a step back this year to reset. But we have a lot of young talent we’re looking forward to seeing on the field. We want to get some new faces in here and try some new things. We want to see what we have in the farm system. We want to learn who will be part of the next great Red Sox team.”
It’s not an admission of defeat. A young team can still surprise. We see it happen every year. But it might’ve helped earn some trust from the fan base and let folks start to picture a rebuilding season that they could actually get behind.
So even when the team got off to a bad start, which seemed inevitable with only three big league starters in the rotation and a top-heavy lineup without much depth, fans wouldn’t have been overly disappointed and still found reasons to keep watching.
Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers are clearly cornerstone players, and they’re both under team control for years to come. It was going to be a big year to see if Andrew Benintendi would take the next step, especially taking over for Betts in the leadoff spot.
Michael Chavis had something to prove and he’s already somewhat of a fan favorite. The acrobatic Jackie Bradley Jr. was in a contract year and had a lot to play for. Darwinzon Hernandez is electric. Eduardo Rodriguez might have a 20-stikeout game or a no-hitter in his future. And maybe we’d get to see rookies Bobby Dalbec, C.J. Chatham, Tanner Houck or Bryan Mata at some point in 2020.
One thing is always true about Red Sox fans: They show up. Even while ratings slip and interest clearly fluctuates heavily from year to year, Fenway Park is always at, or close to, capacity. People care. They love coming to Fenway. And while it seems to have become much more of a place for tourists than for locals over recent years, when the average family is getting priced out of most games, it still feels like a special place to be.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, and our country’s slow reaction to it, we’re getting robbed of that feeling we expected to have on Thursday afternoon.
But whenever baseball does return, when the gates finally re-open and we hear the “Cheers” lyrics, “you want to go where everybody knows your name,” Fenway Park will be buzzing again.
Whether the team stinks or not.