The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
The 2016 Major League Baseball season was one for the ages, capped off with an unforgettable World Series played between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. It was a great year for baseball, I could not help but feel like my team, the Boston Red Sox, squandered a golden opportunity, when they were swept in the ALDS by the Tribe. The 2016 World Series, which featured a team built by Theo Epstein and a team managed by Terry Francona, and a half dozen other players between the two teams won earned World Series rings with Boston earlier in their careers, validated so many of my long held baseball beliefs, but was also a stark reminder that those people I believe in–particularly Francona, Epstein, Jon Lester, and Andrew Miller–are no longer with the Red Sox, and now, neither is David Ortiz. Where do the Red Sox go from here?
The David Ortiz Era is over in Boston, and what an era it was. Barring some kind of desire to play on always nagging feet again, and barring some kind of Instagram rumor being any more than that, we are more likely to see Dave Dombrowski or John Farrell go all Rick Pitino on the Red Sox press corps (Side note: having just re-watched that clip for the first time in a while, that press conference feels like a million years ago, but amazingly, Vince Carter is still playing in the NBA) than we are to see even one more Big Papi walk-off hit. The only David Ortiz highlights Red Sox fans should expect now are when the team retires his #34, when they induct him into the team Hall of Fame, and hopefully when the BBWAA votes him into the Baseball Hall of Fame (Although, I’m not sure when that will be. If it were up to me, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jack Morris, and Tim Raines would already be in Cooperstown, and Manny Ramirez would be elected in this year on his first ballot.). It would have been nice for Ortiz, the greatest playoff performer in Red Sox history and of of the greatest of all time, to get one last deep postseason run, but it did not happen. The pitching could not keep up with their hitting, and Cleveland’s pitching was really, really good. Now it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation in Red Sox baseball.
For a decade, Red Sox Baseball was all about David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jon Lester. Ortiz is now retired, Lester is now going to be at least equally remembered for being a Chicago Cub as he was for his two stellar World Series winning performances with Boston, and while Pedroia is still here, I feel like going forward, it’s about the kids. Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi are the present and the future of the Red Sox, and I am fine with that. These kids are alright, and I am really glad Dombrowski did not have to deal away any of them to get Chris Sale.
I have a feeling the Red Sox’ pitching will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016. I could be wrong, as I thought they were going to be better in the first half of last season than they were, but the way David Price improved in the second half was encouraging, even if he turned back into Playoff David Price in the playoffs. I think Rick Porcello had a great year, but he did steal the Cy Young Award from Justin Verlander. I have to agree with Kate Upton on that one. He has yet to pitch for the Red Sox, but I have wanted for years for them to make a run at Chris Sale. The guy has a bit of a nutty streak in him, best exemplified by that jersey cutting incident with the White Sox last summer, and every picture of him pitching on Google Images looks like his elbow is about to explode, but the dude can pitch, and pitchers with that kind of edge to them have done very well in Boston, from Clemens, to Pedro Martinez, to Curt Schilling, to Josh Beckett (when he cared), to Jonathan Papelbon, to John Lackey, and if any of that attitude rubs off on Price (Porcello showed a little bit of attitude last season too, which I liked), then everybody wins.
I would also be remiss if I did not take the time to mention that Clay Buchholz is no longer a member of the Red Sox, and I am as overjoyed as one can be about something that should have happened three years ago. Clay Buchholz is my least favorite Red Sox player ever, and my least favorite Boston athlete who never (to my knowledge) murdered anybody. Yes, he had good stuff, but his flashed of brilliance were not worth the frustration of injuries and poor performances when Boston needed him. I got off on the wrong foot with him when he first pitched brilliantly after being called up from the minors in the summer of 2007, even throwing a no-hitter in his second career start, but then the Red Sox had to shut him down when he was too fatigued to pitch in the playoffs. I knew he was trouble back then, and when he took a summer vacation in 2013 because his child slept in an uncomfortable position on his shoulder, and then pitched like he did not want to be there in the World Series, I was done. No player has ever done less to earn two World Series rings in Boston. The Red Sox traded Buchholz to the Philadelphia Phillies for a minor league prospect named I Don’t Even Care. All that matters is I do not have to root for him anymore.
Going into 2017, the Red Sox are, on paper, the team to beat in the American League thanks to the addition of Sale. I have my concerns about how sustainable their operation is, though. The 2016 World Series validated how good the people who made 2004, 2007, and 2013 happen were, but with each passing season, fewer of those people are working in Boston. Dave Dombrowski has no emotional connection to that era, and he has not been operating the way Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington were, for better or for worse. The biggest knock on Cherington, who was the initial replacement for Epstein, and a longtime assistant GM to Theo, was that he did not pull the trigger on trades of prospects. With the departure of Mike Hazen (who last year served as general manager under Dombrowski as president) to become general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Red Sox are drifting towards a new philosophy from what helped them win in a bigger way than they have since Dan Duquette was still in charge of the baseball operation.
Dombrowski has shown a fearlessness in dealing prospects from the Red Sox farm system for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz (and even after the San Diego Padres were penalized for improper medical disclosure before the Pomeranz trade, the fact that Dombrowski did not try to renegotiate the deal to get Pomeranz for a lesser prospect than Anderson Espinoza remains a head-scratcher to me), and Chris Sale, which is on one hand refreshing, but at the same time worrying because when he was the GM of the Detroit Tigers, he strip-mined their farm system for an octogenarian owner who demanded the Tigers win now. The Tigers were among the best teams in baseball for a good stretch, even reaching the World Series in 2006 and 2012, but they never won it, and when it was clear they would have to rebuild, Dombrowski was out of a job, and here he is in Boston. The fact that he is operating the same way here as he did in Detroit makes me wonder if he learned from what went wrong there, and while he did have his share of trade success (Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, and David Price, to name three), it’s not the most sustainable way to win consistently. I hope this is what Dombrowski is doing to put his stamp on the team, to make the roster his roster and not Ben Cherington’s roster anymore, but that every offseason is not what the 2015 and 2016 offseasons, with the farm system eventually getting depleted. That is a long-term concern, but it will not be a major talking point in 2017 if the young guys continue to hit.
In spite of their flaws, in spite of the underachievement by the players that were expected to be really good, the Boston Red Sox are a fun team to watch and a fun team to root for in 2016. For the first time since 2013, the Red Sox are still in the pennant race in the middle of August, and that’s a refreshing change of pace for a die hard fan of America’s Regional Pastime. As shaky as the pitching has been this year, the offense has carried the Red Sox more often than it hasn’t, and while David Ortiz is still amazing, and still an enormous part of what the Red Sox do offensively, this summer the torch has been passed to a new great hitter, and you wouldn’t know by looking at him.
Markus Lynn “Mookie” Betts, the Red Sox outfielder who will turn 24 in October, is doing everything he can to crash the season-long party that has been David Ortiz’ farewell tour in the best ways possible for the sake of the team. The Red Sox have an exciting core in the Four Bs (I’m still workshopping the nickname. I’m not married to it. It doesn’t roll off the tongue the way The Core Four does. Why do the Yankees always get to have nice things? I’m open to suggestions): Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and recently called up Andrew Benintendi. While all four received varying levels of hype, Betts has been the most consistent since getting called up to the Majors in 2014, and his ability to hit for power like this has shocked the baseball world to the point where Dave Cameron (not to be confused with David Cameron, the recently resigned British prime minister) of Fangraphs wrote this week about how Betts has defied the comparisons people like him have wanted to compare him to in his professional baseball career.
Mookie Betts has 28 home runs already this year (he hit 18 home runs in 2015, his first full Major League season), and has had two multi-home run games just this week, hitting three home runs against the Arizona Diamondbacks and becoming only the second Red Sox player to have multiple three home run games in a single season (the other was some guy named Ted Williams), and then a two home run game against the division rival Baltimore Orioles in which Mookie drove in all five runs for Boston in their crucial 5-3 win at Camden Yards. He’s not just hitting for power, but he’s hitting for power in big moments. That’s ripped straight from the David Ortiz playbook, but that’s where the Papi/Mookie comparisons stop. Ortiz is a left-handed hitter, while Betts is a right-handed hitter. Ortiz was a low-risk free agent signing after the Minnesota Twins wrote him off, while Betts was drafted by the Red Sox in 2011, and developed in their farm system ahead of schedule. Ortiz was crushing baseballs and giving fans hope for reversing the Curse of the Bambino when I was still in middle school, while Betts is younger than I am. Most of all, Ortiz is a bulky, lumbering 6’3″ beast of a man who gets opposing fans and pitchers alike shaking at their knees by his mere presence in the batter’s box, while Betts is a slight 5’9″, looks like Steph Curry to Papi’s LeBron, and is still getting underestimated by much of the competition. Other than that, they’re exactly the same.
It really amazing how much power Betts is packing into such a small body, and it’s refreshing to see a guy who can hit like that who can also move the way he does, both in the field and running the bases. Usually the Red Sox have guys who are one or the other. Guys like David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Ted Williams if you want to go back that far, they were all great hitters for average as well as power, but you also hold your breath whenever the ball is hit their way. Guys like Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury were all speed, but were never much in the way of power hitters. Betts is the best of both worlds, and he’s younger than me, shorter than me, faster than me (not that anyone cares), is making exponentially less money than Jacoby Ellsbury is right now with New York, and he’s still wearing a linebacker’s number as if he just got called up to Boston last week (One thing I always find mildly interesting is unconventional number/player combinations. I like it when an established, every day player still wears a high number like a recent call-up like Betts is wearing #50, or when Manny Ramirez chose #99 when he was with the Dodgers. Xander Bogaerts wore #72 in the 2013 World Series, but changed it to #2 the next year after Ellsbury signed with the Yankees, for instance. I also really like Sandy Leon this year. Partly because he’s been crushing everything that crosses the plate lately, and partly because he’s a catcher who has bounced between Boston and Pawtucket the last two years, but has a single digit jersey. How did he pull that off? Who in the Red Sox organization does he have dirt on?)!
This may be David Ortiz’ year, and he’s earned the right to be celebrated the way he has, but Mookie Betts has shown us this year that the Red Sox’ offense will be in good hands even after Big Papi retires, and it’s going to be a lot of fun along the way. If the Red Sox make the playoffs, Mookie Betts has a chance to win the American League MVP, especially since Mike Trout’s Angels are out of the picture (On a side note, it’s amazing how fast the baseball writers who vote on awards took Trout for granted. Guys like Peyton Manning and LeBron James both had to win three or four MVPs in their respective sports before people got sick of voting for them, and Trout only won once and before getting passed up in favor of Josh Donaldson last year. Trout should be really be mad at the Angels’ front office for not putting a better team around him. Donaldson won because the helped the Blue Jays end a 22 year postseason drought. Mike Trout only turned 25 a couple weeks ago and he’s already in danger of being the best player to have his prime squandered by an incompetent baseball operations department since Ted Williams, who only made the postseason once in his career, when the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the 1946 World Series, but even then, Ted played in an era when only one team in the American League made the playoffs every year. Trout’s Angels have five times as many chances! Sorry about that. Moving on.), but even if he doesn’t win, Mookie Betts is the most exciting thing to happen to the Red Sox since their fans got used to the idea of winning the World Series before they die. This isn’t the best Red Sox team we’ve ever seen, but it sure is a good time.
The Boston Red Sox traded a highly touted pitching prospect to the San Diego Padres for left handed All-Star starting pitcher Drew Pomeranz yesterday. In Pomeranz, the Red Sox gain much needed starting pitching help, and a guy on a good contract under team control for two more seasons after this one. The trade off is that in bolstering their roster in the short term, they let Anderson Espionoza go, taking one more promising young pitcher away from an already depleted pitching system. Trading the future for the present, sacrificing a high ceiling for a known commodity, and doing these things swiftly are what separate Major League Baseball executives from guys like me with a laptop and constantly open tabs of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. It’s not an easy decision, and in the end, it may not be the right one, but this is what the Red Sox pay Dave Dombrowski to do.
With this trade, Dombrowski is signaling to the Red Sox and their fans that he is going for it this year. Dombrowski has not even been President of the Red Sox for a full year yet, having been hired late late summer after being let go be the Detroit Tigers, and I did not expect him to have the kind of personal attachment to the roster that former GM Ben Cherington, who had been with the Red Sox in various capacities since 1999. This fresh perspective could cut both ways. He might be more willing to deal away prospects he does not believe in and has no attachment to because he did not draft them, but it might not matter to him that the Red Sox continue to compete at a high level while they still have fan favorites like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. By dealing an 18 year old prospect like Espinoza for Pomeranz, Dombrowski parted with a prospect before anyone could find anything wrong with him, and it improves their chances for the second half of Big Papi’s final season.
The thing about prospects in every sport, but especially in baseball where there are so many rounds of the draft that it inspired one of the funnier Onion headlines of the last couple years, is that they’re not all going to make it in the Majors. Not every promising lefty out of high school becomes Madison Bumgarner, in fact most don’t. Ben Cherington fell in love with the guys he drafted. The Red Sox couldn’t possibly keep them all, but he let their stocks fall as they floundered in the minors or flamed out with the big league club, and that is why the Red Sox are in their current predicament. I think they overvalued the pitching talent they had in their farm system when they decided to low-ball Jon Lester in contract extension negotiations before the 2014 season, and they were left exposed in the starting rotation after they traded away Lester and John Lackey, who had led them to a World Series title the previous October. All this was happening while Ortiz and Pedroia weren’t getting any younger.
For all their shortcomings in the pitching department, the Red Sox have done an excellent job drafting and developing hitters the past few years. As much as I get on Cherington for not acting sooner on minor league pitchers like Henry Owens, the Red Sox were absolutely right to be patient and not make a panic trade involving Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, or Jackie Bradley Jr., all of whom appeared in their first-ever All-Star Game earlier this week. In those three guys, the Red Sox have the foundation for great lineups for years to come. The Red Sox offense far exceeded my expectations for this season, and kept the team in contention even with the pitching disappointing at every level from expensive free agent ace David Price to All-Star closer who cannot stay composed in a tie game Craig Kimbrel, to my least favorite Red Sox player ever Clay Buchholz (Seriously, I’ve been done with Buchholz ever since he was too fatigued to pitch in the playoffs as a rookie in 2007. No player has done less to earn two World Series rings in Boston in the 21st century.), but it’s July and for the first time since 2013, the season is not yet over.
This is the last chance the Red Sox have to make a playoff run with David Ortiz. Ted Williams might be the best hitter ever to wear the uniform, but the argument could be made, given the postseason success the Sox have enjoyed since Ortiz arrived in Boston in 2003, and given how many big hits in big moments the guy has had over the years, that Big Papi is the greatest Red Sox player ever. So much of what made him great happened in October, and failure to get there in his final season would be so disappointing. We just had to sit through a season of Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour from the NBA. Kobe, like him or hate him, is one of basketball’s all time greats and a five-time champion, but seeing him play out the string on a historically terrible Lakers team this year was just depressing, and I hate the Lakers.
The much more graceful exit this year was by Tim Duncan, who announced his retirement this week, and who never missed the playoffs in his 19 NBA seasons, all with the San Antonio Spurs. Duncan didn’t put us through a farewell tour, unlike Kobe or Ortiz, but right now the Red Sox have a chance to make Ortiz’ ending more like Duncan’s than like Kobe’s. In 2015-16, the Spurs set a franchise record, winning 67 games in the regular season, and while they did not even advance far enough to face Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, they showed they were as competitive as ever as Duncan became a supporting cast member on a TV show he created, wrote, and starred in for the first 19 seasons before passing the torch to Kawhi Leonard. In 2016, David Ortiz is still a valuable contributor, but wouldn’t another playoff run be the perfect ending before Bogaerts, Betts, and Bradley Jr. take ownership of the team going forward?
Drew Pomeranz probably isn’t the answer to all of Boston’s pitching woes, but the kind of thinking that led to him coming to the Red Sox that gives me hope the Red Sox can have a strong second half, and give the Greatest Designate Hitter of All Time the finale he deserves.
I have lived in New England my entire life, and always took for granted that Red Sox Nation was as staunch a region for baseball fandom as you will find anywhere in North America. The 86 year stretch without winning the World Series gave Red Sox fans an identity, a shared suffering that was passed from one generation to the next. Another city had longer title droughts, but Chicago’s baseball misery was diluted by having two teams (the White Sox won the World Series in 2005 for the first time since 1917 but that was never talked about nearly as much as the Red Sox, let alone the Cubs who still have not won since 1908), and the fact that they ChiSox and Cubs never came as close nearly as many times as Boston did. Winning it all in 2004 was great. For me, that first World Series win will always be the highlight of my sports fandom. Nothing will ever top that American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox. Nothing. Boston teams can win as many championships as they want, and nothing will top 2004, especially anything the Red Sox do, and that’s a problem for baseball.
That last paragraph serves as a warning to Cubs fans and Indians fans, and Mariners fans, and Rangers fans, and Astros fans that your baseball team will never matter as much as it did before your long awaited championship, because it’s not just a Boston problem. The Red Sox have won the World Series two more times since 2004, and the Patriots have won two more Super Bowls, and the Bruins and Celtics each won championships of their own. Boston has done an absurd amount of winning this century. The Red Sox have, along with the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, been one of the models for how to win in modern baseball, so when they’re not winning, instead of getting angry, fans just change the channel. If the Red Sox can’t be relevant, the Pats will be starting back up soon enough and the NBA and NHL have done a great job (the NBA more than the NHL, but still) of turning their 82 game season followed by a two month, sixteen team tournament into a 365 day cycle of relevance with their respective drafts and hot stove cycles. Football and basketball are juggernauts, with football dominating the narrative on national sports radio and TV shows most of the year, and basketball having a real chance to catch football in the United States and catch soccer internationally in the next 20 years. Hockey has a problem in that it’s a regional sport. It’s a niche sport because it matters more than most things in Canada and in certain American cities (like Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh), but in those cities, there will still be interest in the Stanley Cup Final even if their team is not in it. While baseball matters in more American cities than hockey does, it’s relevance is much more localized.
If the Red Sox miss the playoffs, the playoffs do not matter in New England. I know this because I follow baseball more closely than most people in their mid-20s, and while all my friends were in on the Red Sox title run in 2013, it was really hard to get people to talk about all the compelling stories in the baseball postseason last fall, even that super fun New York Mets team, and even with one of my closest friends literally being named Daniel Murphy. The Red Sox have a likeable young team this year, with their top prospects finally living up to the hype we have been sold from the beat writers for years. The offense has been incredible, and longtime designated hitter David Ortiz has been the rare case of a player on a farewell tour, still playing like has always has. The problem is that the pitching is not good enough to keep up with their excellent hitting, and all of this offensive production could be wasted. If things go south, David Ortiz, one of the greatest playoff performers the game has ever seen, could play out the string in August and September in meaningless games, with the fanbase focusing on Patriots training camp and the potential Tom Brady vs. Jimmy G quarterback controversy. If you’re not in a fantasy baseball league (which I have not been in a few years), it is incredibly easy to lose touch with the rest of Major League Baseball. Baseball should be doing a better job of marketing itself. They have as much good, exciting talent under the age of 27 as basketball and hockey, and all three sports are doing better than football in that regard, but the excitement is localized. Red Sox fans are thrilled about Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr., and we see more of Baltimore’s Manny Machado than fans in other divisions, but a star like Bogaerts, or Betts, or JBJ, or Machado, or Mike Trout in Anaheim, or Bryce Harper in Washington, Marcus Stroman in Toronto, or Trevor Story in Colorado, or Noah Syndergaard in New York, or Kris Bryant in Chicago, or Joc Pederson in Los Angeles, or Carlos Correa in Houston does not get the same kind of national buzz (with the possible exceptions of Harper in Trout) as Karl-Anthony Towns, or Anthony Davis, or Russell Westbrook, or Connor McDavid. The pieces are there to generate interest beyond one’s local baseball club. They just haven’t figured it out.
Baseball, in a lot of ways, is trapped in centuries past. It’s a game without time limits, for the most part, that adopted instant replay long after the other three sports, that feels content to cater to older fans rather than actively cultivate new ones. Some of that is a good thing. The idea of following the same team that my grandparents followed as children is kinda cool. My grandfather died in 2000 and never got to see the Red Sox win the World Series, but I got to see them win it twice while I was in high school. Red Sox baseball is a tradition older than any of the other Boston teams, having played their first season in 1901. The Bruins played their first season in 1924 (making them the oldest current American NHL team), the Celtics played their first season in 1946, and the Patriots have been around since 1960. History can only get you so far in modern sports, though. It was the Patriots, not the Red Sox, that first turned Boston’s championship fortunes around in 2002, and it was the Cavaliers, not the Browns or Indians that broke through first for Cleveland, a team that was rarely if ever relevant without LeBron James on their roster. Kids today do not care about Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, or Sandy Koufax. Why should they? Baseball’s history will always be there, but baseball’s present should be what we’re celebrating.
Baseball needs to lighten up a bit. Cool things happen in any baseball game, but there are unwritten rules that prevent players to act like they’re having fun compared to the other sports. Jose Bautista flips a bat after a dynamite home run in the playoffs last year for the Toronto Blue Jays and old school baseball people lose their minds over it. What could be celebrated as a trending .gif the way fans would celebrate a Rob Gronkowski end zone celebration or a menacing Dirk Nowitzki fist pump or a Jaromir Jagr goal salute is condemned as being bad for the game in baseball. A guy like Bryce Harper plays with the kind of swagger people are used to seeing on a basketball court and people call for him to get off their lawn, so to speak.
I want baseball to do well. I want it to stand the test of time, and I want it to still matter in 40 years. For that to happen, baseball is going to need to adapt to the 21st century. Things could be more fun than they are. The powers that be just need to let it happen.
It’s been an up-and-down season for the Boston Red Sox, and while it’s been more down than up, and more than a third of the roster that won the World Series last year is now playing elsewhere, they have had their promising moments as of late. As playoff aspirations are diminished, if not gone entirely, there is one thing to be excited about. The young talent on the roster has shown its share of growing pains, but there is a lot to be excited about. That’s the best thing Red Sox fans can hope for: let the kids play and get them used to the life of a big league ballplayer while the stakes aren’t as high as they were not last year. If the kids can’t develop, it would be a complete waste of a season. John Lackey isn’t coming back, and while I would love for it to happen, Jon Lester is a long shot to come back to Boston in 2015. What we can hope for is the kids who now have bigger shoes to fill. I love baseball, and there’s always a reason to pay attention, even if your team will not be playing big games in October.
Here are some of the names we’re going to hear a lot in the next few years:
Xander Bogaerts. One of the more overlooked moves by the Red Sox at the trade deadline was sending Stephen Drew to the New York Yankees of all teams. The hatred for the Yankees that I once had in my heart is not what it used to be, and while it might come back if both the Yankees and Red Sox are good at the same time in the future, I never thought I would be happy or excited about a player from the Sox getting traded to New York…until now. I didn’t understand why the Red Sox brought Drew back in the first place. This was supposed to be Xander’s year to be the starting shortstop and prove that he belongs there. When the Red Sox decided to sign Drew in the middle of the season, Bogaerts, who had shown improvement of defense as a shortstop, fell off the map at the plate when he was moved to third base. It was as if the Red Sox were punishing him for struggling at short, which they should have fully expected seeing as he’s 21 years old, and his confidence was shot when he got moved to third. As for Drew, hitting like Nomar in his prime would not have been enough to make that acquisition worthwhile. The team was going nowhere, and his presence was stunting the development of a young player who should be a future star in Boston.
Now, Drew gets to show the Yankees, who will have a vacancy at the shortstop position this winter for the first time in nearly two decades, what he’s made of, and he’s hoping to get paid this offseason. Go ahead. I don’t even care that it’s with New York. Since the trade, Bogaerts has been hitting the ball better, and has made some good plays at short. He might never be a Gold Glove winner, but defense was the most overrated aspect of Jeter’s game, too. If the hitting is there, you’ll take average defense at best from that position.
Jackie Bradley Jr. Bradley is already a better defensive center fielder than Jacoby Ellsbury ever was. He’s already a better defensive center fielder than Johnny Damon was. The kid is a really, really good defensive center fielder. He has great instincts, and makes getting to well hit balls look very easy. He also has one of the strongest throwing arms (along with newly acquired teammate Yoenis Cespedes) in all of Major League Baseball, and deserves to win a Gold Glove this season. The questions with Jackie Bradley Jr. revolve around what he does (or doesn’t do) in the batter’s box. If Jackie can figure out how to hit with consistency at the Major League level, he will be an every day player, and maybe even an All-Star. If he does not, Bradley may find himself platooning with Shane Victorino (if The Flyin’ Hawaiian can stay healthy, and I recognize that that’s a very big if) in 2015, with Allen Craig and Yoenis Cespedes holding down the corner outfield positions.
I’m personally rooting for Bradley to become a star in Major League Baseball. I love what he does in the field, and I want him to validate the Red Sox’ decision not to pursue Jacoby Ellsbury in free agency. He’s struggled at the plate this year, but he’s far from the only Red Sox player to struggle in that department in 2014. Hopefully he learns from the growing pains of this season, and has not yet reached his ceiling as a hitter.
Brock Holt. Holt has been the biggest pleasant surprise of the 2014 Red Sox season. The biggest overall surprise of 2014 was just how bad the team has been after being so good in 2013, but you probably already know that since you’re reading a blog post about the silver linings to take away from the 2014 Red Sox. The 26 year old Matt Damon lookalike is a second baseman by trade, but knew he needed to adapt if he wanted to have a future in Boston because they already had some guy named Dustin Pedroia who isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In 2014, Brock Holt has played every field position except pitcher and catcher, and has secured the hole at the top of the Red Sox’ lineup left by Jacoby Ellsbury when he left for New York. He doesn’t have a defined position, but has proven capable of playing them. He’s a utility player in the sense that he is versatile, but he is an every day player in the sense that he plays every day and the Sox desperately need his bat in the lineup. He’s earned my respect. I’ve learned his name this year, and I’ve finally stopped calling him Steve Holt.
How do you like them apples?
Christian Vazquez. When the Red Sox designated for assignment and eventually released veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski (who has since been signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, who were desperate for help behind the plate with Yadier Molina out with injury) last month, it meant it was time for Christian Vazquez to shine. Vazquez was the top catching prospect in the Red Sox’ farm system, and has adjusted well to the big leagues. He never got to catch for Jon Lester, as Lester was using David Ross exclusively before getting traded to Oakland, bu he’s gotten experience working with pretty much every other pitcher during this month of high turnover. Vazquez also has the luxury of having an experienced veteran and one of the most well liked players in the game in Ross as his backup and mentor. I don’t know if there’s a better catcher to show a younger guy the ropes in Major League Baseball than David Ross these days.
Vazquez is very good defensively, has a great arm, and has been hitting the ball well since getting promoted from Pawtucket. We’ve seen learning curves with young players before, but Vazquez seems to be taking it all in stride and seems more than ready to catch at the Major League level. He is friends with Yadier Molina, who has been the best catcher in the game of baseball over the last five years, and if Vazquez turns into even half the player Molina is, then they’ve got something to be happy about.
Mookie Betts. Betts is even younger than Xander Bogaerts, and he has made it to Boston more quickly than anyone anticipated. Like Brock Holt, Betts is a second baseman by trade, but he’ll have to learn new positions to get playing time because that’s the one position that’s spoken for long term in this town. According to Wikipedia, Betts’ parents named him Markus Lynn Betts so that his initials would be MLB, and that the nickname “Mookie” was inspired by former NBA point guard Mookie Blaylock, making him the second great item of American popular culture inspired by the former New Jersey Net, Atlanta Hawk, and Golden State Warrior. I was surprised. I thought as a baseball player, he’d be more likely named after New York Mets’ fan favorite Mookie Wilson than the grunge-inspiring Blaylock, but I’ve been wrong before.
Betts was ranked as the 74th best prospect by Baseball America going into the 2014 season, and started the year playing for Boston’s AA affiliate Portland Sea Dogs before getting promoted to AAA Pawtucket, but was rushed to the Majors as quickly as he was out of need, when the Red Sox outfield failed to produce with Shane Victorino constantly injured. Since getting there, Betts has shown flashes of brilliance, including this incredible catch in center field. After the trade deadline, the Red Sox suddenly have more outfielders than they know what to do with, but Betts has certainly made a case for himself as Ben Cherington tries to map out plans for the Sox in 2015 and beyond. I love the energy Betts brings to the Red Sox, and I hope to see him become a consistent Major Leaguer in the years to come.
Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster. De La Rosa and Webster were the two young pitchers the Red Sox acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2012 trade that sent Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto out of town. If that trade had just been a salary dump, getting those overpaid malcontents off the books and starting over as an organization, the trade still would have been a home run for the Red Sox, considering that they were able to win the World Series in 2013 after picking up the pieces from 2012 with minimal Major League contribution from those two, but getting two promising pitchers makes it that much better. Both pitchers are now in Boston’s starting rotation, and they both pitched well this week. De La Rosa, 25, who has been excellent at Fenway Park this season, had perhaps his best road outing the other night in St. Louis, before the bullpen blew the game and he got a no-decision. De La Rosa has shown flashes of brilliance, and the instruction he’s received from Red Sox legend Pedro Martinez (who will always be my favorite baseball player) has certainly paid off.
Webster had his best Major League start of the season last night in Anaheim, allowing just two runs on four hits over six and two thirds innings against a formidable lineup that includes Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Josh Hamilton. At the Major League level, he’s still walking as many batters as he strikes out, but the sample size is still small. He showed resilience by pitching the way he did in Anaheim after getting shelled and pulled out of the game in the third inning in his last outing against the Yankees. Webster is only 24, so I expect him to get better as he goes along.
In addition, there is Brandon Workman, who pitched well out of the bullpen last year, but has been up-and-down as a starter for the Red Sox this season. Anthony Ranaudo got his first win in the Majors against the Yankees last week. Henry Owens might not make it to Boston until next year, but he’s been lighting it up in Portland and Pawtucket in 2014. There is a lot to be excited about with the Red Sox, even if the current American League standings are less than uplifting. The future is soon, and it should be pretty fun.