Sports Outside the Beltway

John Henry: Red Sox are “the little engine that could”

True confessions time. I am a Red Sox fan. This season has held the magical feel of a Championship run, without the typical Red Sox fan baggage of the feeling of doom when the lead shriveled. So different then was the calm assurance I felt when New York closed to within five games almost three weeks ago. The tough stretch that awaited New York would slow down the surging Yankees. Sure enough, a 9-9 record since the 8th of August has restored the Red Sox lead to eight games. As an added bonus I was vindicated. This is not 1978.

But all is not well with this Red Sox fan. And part of it stems from the obtuse notions that fill the head of the management/ownership group that handles non-baseball ops at 4 Yawkey Way these days.

Without further ado, I give you the boss, John Henry.

But Henry understands that while the Red Sox find themselves on firm footing in their fight against the Yankees, both on and off the field, a new challenge is waiting around the corner.

“In 2009 their revenues will move to a higher level when they occupy the next Yankee Stadium,” he wrote. “And we are close to being maxed out in the venerable and magical Fenway Park [map]. So we will be presented with great challenges.

“It will be difficult,” he later added. “We are often called a large market team because our fans provide us with great revenues. But the fact is that we operate the 16th largest television territory as measured by the number of households. The Red Sox are ‘the little engine that could.’ It is because we have such devoted fans who live, breathe, eat and sleep baseball. They are the reason we have been able to build exciting teams. And our players as a group and individually have been a galvanizing force in New England and among Red Sox fans across America . . . around the world.”

If the Red Sox are “the little engine that could,” I’m U Thant.

The Red Sox have used every imaginable and conceivable means of adding new revenue streams possible. Highest ticket prices in the game? Check. Consecutive sellout streak intact? Check. Chartered trips so fans unable to score Fenway tickets can see the Sox on the road? Check. A fan club for the fans? You bet. Their own dating reality show on the team owned Cable channel? Hell yes!

Which makes a purist like me groan. The Coke bottles were fine, I get it, we need to raise money to compete with the Yankees who will spend anything and everything in pursuit of titles. And the new seating venues are wonderful. The packed stadium a testament to the ability to draw fans and fill the coziest and most intimate ballpark in the game. Even while the turnstiles spun to welcome throngs of pink hat clad fans to the stadium, arm in arm with their Bosox boyfriends, to buy overpriced beer and watch the beantown nine, the pervasive attitude on Yawkey Way was that Boston could not compete long term with the Yankees, because New York had the ability to earn far more than the Red Sox.

Reality ought to throw cold water on the Red Sox rationale. Of the last six World Series Champs, the 2004 Red Sox had the highest payroll. The Yankees, who spend more money than Congress, have exactly zero titles in that span. In fact, their last Championship, in 2000, was the last year where homegrown Yankees filled the roster and where the character guys like Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill were preferred. Since then the Yankees have added Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Robin Ventura, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Jose Contreras, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Raul Mondesi, Hideki Matsui, Jeff Weaver, Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, Johnny Damon, Tom Gordon, Bobby Abreu, Kei Igawa and brought back Andy pettitte and Roger Clemens. Lavishing those big contracts on these players have bought the Yankees exactly one fewer title than the Red Sox have in that stretch. Congrats Red Sox, it’s not a competition anymore, we’ve won. We’ve won by spending more than everyone else, except New York, and finding the happy medium between outrageous and truly obscene spending on payroll.

Money helps teams win, that’s true enough. But more than that, teams need to wisely allocate their limited payroll resources. But still we hear the refrain, New York can still outspend us. Oh boo hoo, wook at the widdle Wed Sox team, in first by eight widdle games, and scared of the big, bad Yankees. Break me a freakin’ give.

And if you are looking for a pair of little engines that could, real ones, try Seattle and Milwaukee. Two teams fighting for their playoff lives, with smaller payrolls than most of their competition. Milwaukee had led the woeful NL Central for most of the season, but have yielded to the Cubs, and the Mariners are playing a big three-game series against the LAnaheim Angels of Orange County, California. Both teams payrolls are smaller than the team they are chasing. Those are little engines that can, John Henry.

The Red Sox certainly are not. No other major league baseball team charges what Boston does for tickets, then says to its fan base, “why don’t you and your kids sign up to be members of ‘Red Sox Nation’ and ‘Red Sox Kid Nation.’” They can do it because a select number of my fellow fans are so obsessive of their support that they buy every Red Sox thing they can – including silly fan club memberships. Chances are they watch the God-awful “Sox Appeal” reality show on NESN. And more than likely they have no idea who Butch Hobson was or that he managed the woeful Sox teams of my teen years. They have probably no idea who Denny Doyle was. And probably had no clue about what Dean Barnett was talking about with his former nom de blog (James Frederick Dwight). Come to think of it, they probably had no clue about Dean Barnett, either. The more I pay attention to them, the less a part of that community I feel.

Eight game lead, heading into the Bronx, while the Yankees are reeling. I ought to be atop the wide world of sport. I’m not. I hate what Red Sox Nation has become. Led by an owner who outspends every other team, except New York, but still cries poor mouth when he speaks to the press, and a marketing department so relentless they sell television programs devoted to showing the dating foibles of “real” fans, is it any wonder, I’m wondering whether I will ever be able to cheer for this team without the bad taste in my mouth?

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