When I played JV baseball in high school, at the end of practices my coach would gather us around the beaten tailgate of his Toyota 4Runner, which he totally didn’t live out of, and give us a pep-talk. These talks always included a frank assessment of where we were as a team, and that would, of course, require honestly. Brutal, painful, no-holds-bared honestly. Coach didn’t believe in sugarcoating things, and he’d tell us so. “I don’t believe in sugarcoating things,” he’d growl, mouth full of chaw. Then he’d deliver the line that, like a tattoo of an eagle wearing a Taco Bell hat on my neck from a night I don’t remember, will stick with me always. He’d lean in and say, “I’m not here to blow smoke up your ass.”
Which was true. In two years on the JV team I never had smoke blown up my ass, not once. I never saw smoke machine, a lit cigarette, a pair of rubber gloves, or anything else that might be necessary to get the unsavory job done either during or after practice. The origin and history of such a line has always escaped me, perhaps because I’ve studiously avoided googling “blow smoke up ass” but, assuming you’re not a practicing proctologist, perhaps it’s best we move on, except to say this. Red Sox fans: I’m not here to blow smoke up your asses.
This has been an awful month for the Red Sox. In addition to a lousy record, they’ve lost repeatedly in painful fashion, showed a complete inability to pitch, hit in the clutch, field at crucial moments, and, adding injury to injury, endured injuries to key players. So it’s not been good. And because of all that, and because of the resulting anger, sadness, and general negativity surrounding the Red Sox, I thought it might be time to focus on happier things. Because while we’ve been so busy being angry, throwing things, swearing, and writing really mean things on Twitter about the team before reconsidering how silly it would look at the last second and deleting it, there are actually a lot of very good things going on with this team. Right now even! It’s true. Let’s look.
Of the nine players who have comprised the most common lineup, five of them are 26 years old or younger. They include the starting shortstop, center fielder, right fielder, third baseman, and catcher, who collectively average 24.6 years. That’s incredible. And the amazing thing is there looks to be three long-term All Stars in that bunch too. This isn’t a group of random young players assembled because there weren’t other better choices, this is the group you’ve been waiting for as long as you’ve been a Red Sox fan. Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley are the core of a multi-pennant winning franchise. This could be the start of something great.
Remember those incredibly annoying Yankees teams from the late 90s and early 2000s? The ones winning division title after division title and racking up World Series trophies? They were built on a foundation of youth, and even more so, of a group of very good players of similar age spending their careers together. When the Yankees won their first World Series of that era in 1996, Derek Jeter was 22 years old. Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were 24, Mariano Rivera was 26, and Bernie Williams was 27. When that group had won their final World Series in 2009, Jeter was 35, Pettitte and Posada were 37, Rivera was 39 and Williams had retired.
There were many other players along the way worth mention, but the point is, when you have a core group that good, you can fill in around the edges. You bring in veterans, bring up competent youngsters, and try to supplement the core as much as possible, but when you’re starting with that kind of quality at the beginning, you don’t have to do an amazing job to reach the final goal. The Yankees, with that group, gave themselves a huge advantage and over the years, and they managed to take advantage of it a lot. The Red Sox are setting themselves up to be in a similar spot.
With Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley, the catching tandem of Swihart and Vazquez, and Shaw, who may not be a star but looks to be at least a starting-quality third baseman, the Red Sox are already doing well on the youth front. But then there’s Andrew Benintendi, another center fielder (after Bradley and Betts) who is burning through the system. Yoan Moncada looks like he could be the third baseman, left fielder, or first baseman of the future. There’s Rafael Devers, who at 19 has more power in his bat than anyone in the system, which, considering the system, is saying something. There’s also Anderson Espinoza, Michael Kopech, and maybe, hopefully, Jason Groome. Some of those guys won’t pan out, and some will be dealt, but there is a tremendous amount of talent coming. We often say as a fan base that we want to be competitive, which is partly why this past month has been so dispiriting, but this level of talent on the way virtually guarantees competitiveness. And hopefully it should do a lot more than that.
We love to knock the owners here in Red Sox Nation. I’m guilty of it as well on occasion, but the truth is it’s hard to ask for better owners than the Red Sox have had in John Henry and Tom Werner. They’ve made missteps for sure (losing Theo Epstein is a Grade A sin in my book) but think about what they’ve accomplished. They renovated Fenway Park, the jewel of baseball, and made it fit for another generation. I’m bringing my kids there next week for their first trip and they can’t wait. Would we care as much about the Red Sox if they played in a dome in Southie? We’d still care, but the connection to the past, and the environment the games exist in, these things matter. And Henry and company are a huge reason why the team still has Fenway.
They’ve hired smart people and let those people do their jobs unencumbered. Again, there have been missteps along the way (Bobby Valentine comes quickly to mind and hopefully leaves as quickly) but Theo Epstein, GM of two World Series winners, was allowed, before he could call himself that, to trade the face of the franchise in Nomar Garciaparra for a decent starting shortstop and a backup glove-first first baseman. Later Ben Cherington was allowed to ship the team’s stars, virtually all of them, to LA for essentially nothing at all. There are more examples, but those stand out to me as among the most egregious and still, the men in charge were allowed to do their jobs, and in doing so, they followed an unlikely route to a championship.
Finally, be thankful for David Ortiz. We’ve covered him here extensively and I imagine we’ll be doing so more as the season winds down, but please, be mindful of what we’re watching. Remember what Ortiz has accomplished in his career, the amazing hits, the hundreds of homers, and the shockingly clutch performances. Then look at what he’s doing right now. He’s authoring maybe the greatest age-40 season of any player ever. But whether he succeeds in finishing that and scrawling his name into the record books once again or not, this is a season that we should be thankful for because, ultimately we’re watching one of the greats both at the end of his career and in his prime.
For all those reasons, the team’s youth and expectations for improvement, their impressive stable of minor league prospects, their ownership, and the great Big Papi, rejoice, Red Sox fans! Maybe, like at the end of Ghostbusters 2, the team just needs to feel some positivity, some love, to push it in the right direction. But even if the 2016 season doesn’t end in a championship, know that the future is promising, friends. And that ain’t nothing. Indeed at the end of a month like June, remembering that can pull you back from the brink and remind you that things can and will get better.
Winning some damn games now and again wouldn’t be a bad start, though.
Photo by Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports Images