One word, and a reasonable summary of what was being shown onscreen at the time, is what we are being told drove the recent David Price-Dennis Eckersley confrontation on the Red Sox’s plane a few weeks ago. A report from Dan Shaughnessy on Sunday night provided more details on the incident, and, as was the case when the initial, undetailed reports hit our news feeds, Price comes out looking really bad. He, and other Red Sox players, behaved like children and bullied Eckersley for doing his job:
On the day of the episode, Price was standing near the middle of the team aircraft, surrounded by fellow players, waiting for Eckersley. When Eckersley approached, on his way to the back of the plane (Sox broadcasters traditionally sit in the rear of the aircraft), a grandstanding Price stood in front of Eckersley and shouted, “Here he is — the greatest pitcher who ever lived! This game is easy for him!’’
When a stunned Eckersley tried to speak, Price shot back with, “Get the [expletive] out of here!’’
Many players applauded.
Eckersley made his way to the back of the plane as players in the middle of the plane started their card games. In the middle of the short flight, Eckersley got up and walked toward the front where Sox boss Dave Dombrowski was seated. When Eckersley passed through the card-playing section in the middle, Price went at him again, shouting, “Get the [expletive] out of here!’’
While the whole story is annoying, unfortunately I suspect it, like the chicken-and-beer of 2011, will be cited to explain poor play from the Red Sox going forward. The narrative is already unfolding. This is just another example of a thin-skinned, supremely rich athlete who cannot handle criticism, especially in Boston. But I am not sure this is an entirely accurate account of the situation. Of course David Price can handle criticism; he has been doing it for years. For me the more interesting question is: why is Price doing this?
Let’s start by discussing the ‘can’t handle criticism’ bit. Here is a simple fact: Price has been a top-flight major-league starting pitcher for the last ten years. This is why he was given the $217 million contract that is perpetually held against him. Starting pitchers, especially front-of-the-rotation starters like Price, are always the focal point of the game story on the days they pitch. Good, bad, or indifferent, they are certainly one of the players talking to the media after the game. If Price couldn’t handle criticism, he would have washed out of the league years ago. I recognize Boston is different from Tampa Bay, Detroit and Toronto, and every media outlet in Boston has a badge to show you that says so. But Price was on playoff-caliber teams in those cities and has been an extremely self-critical player. Until recently, he has not shied away from criticism. In a Red Sox uniform, there have been a number of occasions on which he was open about not being satisfied, even after a tremendous start (this is a decent example). Maybe his comments are all postgame cliché, but we seem content to bask in Chris Sale’s very similar post-start comments when he suggests he needs to be better after striking out 10 and giving up three runs over eight innings. You know, the ones that are evidence Sale was born to pitch in Boston. Well, that was Price not too long ago. But that is forgotten because Price has a huge contract and didn’t strike out 200 guys in fewer innings than anyone in the history of baseball.
Price knows when he has not pitched well and admits it. He knows he has not lived up to expectations in the postseason, and has signalled that to us through self-critical digs on Twitter. He cannot change his postseason performances past and no amount of reminding him about them is going to make it happen, or even contribute to the way he performs the next time he pitches in October. Yet, there remain people who think they can change minds and/or history by being an asshat on Twitter. I mean, yesterday, there were real live humans trying to convince Chad Finn that Xander Bogaerts is unlikeable. How do you reason with a line of thinking like that? Maybe Price, like all of us, needs to get off Twitter. The echo-chamber of a Twitter feed quickly makes a few voices seem like a majority. Again, I think Price can handle criticism just fine, but handling the nonsense he must be faced with regularly is next to impossible. Obviously some wingnut on Twitter is different from Evan Drellich, or Dan Shaughnessy, or Dennis Eckersley, but after a while I understand how it could all blend into one consistent stream of negativity. The Red Sox are a first place team, projected to win another division crown, yet everyday there is some new thing that is terrible about the team, and he is questioned about a minor aspect of a start, is reminded of his bank account, and/or postseason statistics.
Focusing on the innocuousness of Eckersley’s reaction to Eduardo Rodriguez’s junk outing misses the point. Sure it fits nicely into the ‘David Price can’t handle simple criticism’ narrative, but come on. I doubt Price was that riled up about Eck saying “yuck”. Rather, Eck doing so provided (another) salient opportunity for Price to draw a line between his team and someone criticizing them; this time it was Eckersley, who is reportedly not a Red Sox clubhouse favorite. I do not mean to dismiss what Price and his teammates did. Their actions were bad and they should feel bad. And they should absolutely be able to handle and respond to reasonable criticism of baseball-related activities. So, I just keep coming back to wondering this: why does Price think he needs to take a stand against the media?
Price has been open about his willingness to take crap for standing up for his teammates. This is the sort of thing that has contributed to him being known as a good clubhouse guy. Former teammate Chris Archer suggested Price was going to be a culture changer for the Red Sox. Are we seeing that now? Is this us-versus-them thing an attempt to coalesce the 2017 Red Sox group? Rally the troops to greatness? Are we nearing a Cortes burn-the-ships reference? For the most part, Price has caught the heat for this Eckersley incident but there were a group of Red Sox players who applauded. Have they bought in to the battle? While in Toronto, Price quickly became the ‘social-glue’ guy who bridged all the factions of the Blue Jays’ locker room. He did so with a much calmer approach, but is he trying to do something similar in Boston? Is he trying to fill the void left by noted leader David Ortiz? In case no one has mentioned it in the last five minutes, Ortiz retired last season, leaving the Red Sox’s offense in shambles. Is Price really willing to risk his image in the process, as he has with the way he behaved toward Eckersley? Of course, all of this is just my speculation into what is driving Price’s actions. But the being-a-good-teammate idea seems as reasonable to me as does his sudden loss of his ability to handle criticism.
While athletes fighting the Boston media has historically been a one-sided affair, there may be some method to his madness. The more hostile he is to criticism directed at him or his teammates, the more criticism will come. If you buy the ‘he can’t handle criticism’ angle, this makes him seem like a complete fool, but if he is trying to unite a clubhouse around a cause and take over the league then it only serves to embolden his group. Either way, it is going to be part of the 2017 Red Sox narrative when all is said and done.
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