Red Sox puberty: the transformation of a franchise and its fans
Like many kids growing up in the Boston area, I grew up a diehard Red Sox fan. When I was 13 years old, the Red Sox were starting to turn into a playoff contender. It was 2003, and hoping for a World Series championship was still like hoping for a fantasy to come true. Nevertheless, I consumed everything Red Sox. Not only did I watch every game that season, I also watched every pregame and postgame show on NESN. I owned countless Red Sox shirts, hats, sweatpants – anything they sold that had a Red Sox logo on it. When I was lucky enough to get tickets to a game, I would show up two hours early so I could catch batting practice.
And so, in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, I was brokenhearted when Aaron Boone took Tim Wakefield deep to end the game with a walk-off home run.
I was so furious with the result that I threw the TV remote at my family TV. I nearly cracked the screen, and let’s just say my father was not happy. I didn’t care. I screamed at him, stormed up to my room and slammed the door, completely disregarding that it was late at night and my mother and oldest brother were trying to sleep.
I can’t imagine myself reacting that way to an extra-inning postseason loss now, and it’s not just because I’m nine years older. My passion for the Red Sox has changed, just as the franchise itself has changed. I don’t watch every game anymore – in fact, I usually only watch when I have to cover a game or nothing else is on TV. I’m no longer that teenager with extreme mood swings, and the Red Sox are not the same team they were back then either.
The Red Sox of the pre-2004 era are gone. Those Red Sox had been loveable losers. To the intelligent fan, the Red Sox would never stand a chance in postseason play. They would always find a heartbreaking way to lose. It was a fact.
But 2004 changed everything, relieving both the burden and the passion of the unfulfilled fan. When the Red Sox won a second World Series in 2007, the fanbase and franchise had not yet changed drastically from what it had been in the pre-2004 era. The Sox were still in a type of honeymoon phase from 2004, and a second World Series championship only added to the pleasure.
Since 2007, however, the team has been going through a puberty of sorts, and just like with a teenager, puberty isn’t always pretty. For 86 years, what set the Sox apart from other teams was a historic World Series drought that always failed to end at the last minute. The Red Sox would get perilously close to winning nearly once every decade, but they would always fall short.
But that identity has been lost. What sets the Red Sox apart from other franchises now? They don’t have the World Series drought, and it isn’t something they put to rest recently anymore. The heroes from 2004 and 2007 are mostly gone. The manager left. The GM left. Both closers left. And while the Red Sox have stepped back as perennial playoff contenders, the other teams in Boston stepped up, especially the Celtics and Bruins. Red Sox fans have other local teams to root for, and those other teams have proven more fun to follow than the current version of the Sox.
This Red Sox team deeply upset its fanbase last September because of a collapse of epic proportions that was due more to lacking personalities and motivations than a lack of talent and ability. To make matters worse, the team has been less than apologetic about its failure to compete in the way the fanbase expects. If this Red Sox team had been me the night of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, it too would storm upstairs and slam doors without any regard for its family.
In response to this new version of the Red Sox, the franchise has lost much of the passion it used to receive from the fans. Those in the offices at 4 Yawkey Way claim that the team still sells out every game, but those watching on TV and attending the games can’t help but notice the pockets of empty seats littering the stands. On online ticketing sites, where Red Sox tickets used to go for way over face value, thousands of tickets are now available for a meager $14 or $15.
By the ninth inning of every game, the park empties out. Fans no longer wait through rain delays or long innings to see their team compete.
One of the most obvious signs of the diminishing fan passion was the lack of a Red Sox presence at the All-Star Game. For the first time since 2001, only one Red Sox player was voted into the All-Star Game. David Ortiz, the lone Sox representative, claimed this was due to the injuries plaguing the team, but there have been plenty of instances where fans have voted injured players into the game.
The fact of the matter is that Red Sox fans did not stuff the ballots this year. After the game, Red Sox fans were complaining about their .500, last-place team on Twitter so much that players Jon Lester and Will Middlebrooks called out the fans for their negative tweets.
So what happens when a franchise like the Red Sox goes through this type of dip in support? Well, it would probably help matters if the team could win a few games, get a few players off the disabled list, and maybe show some remorse for their pitiful September last year, but the process will likely be more difficult than that.
The Red Sox need to find a new identity, just as teenagers going through puberty develop a new sense of self. What makes these Red Sox special? What makes them different from other teams? There is no personality to this team right now other than a cranky group of aging players who did not care enough in September to will themselves to win even 10 games.
Red Sox fans, too, need to find a new identity. No longer are they a group of fans who followed their team despite a lack of trophies for 86 years. Red Sox fans also are no longer a group of fans who are basking in the ultimate reward of two World Series wins in four years.
It will take time to forge a new identity, both as fans and as a franchise. But, like a teenager, despite the current rough times, the Red Sox will pull through this valley. They will emerge, eventually, as a more sophisticated yet still beloved team that, one day, will rule over a Boston filled with the same level of passion it once had.
And maybe, one day, I will again be that passionate fan who attempted to break the family TV after a loss. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working my way back. And once I get there, well, my television better watch out.