Despite a decade of athletic dominance, Boston fans have been rudely reminded of the feelings of betrayal that preceded that decade. Even worse than the Red Sox historic September collapse is the scandal which has broken, which has left Popeye’s Chicken on Brookline Avenue in a wash of free publicity.
But the chicken and beer is not the issue here. Extracurricular activity aside, the problem is that Boston’s top-of-the-rotation men — Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and John Lackey — spent parts of this slump in the clubhouse while their compatriots fought to give them the chance to pitch in October, something none of them have done in three years. This was never what 2011 was supposed to be. Lackey, given the game-two start at the beginning of the season, was projected (God knows why) to return to the ace form that helped lead the Angels to the ALCS in 2009. Similarly, Beckett, having recovered from back issues that allowed him only six wins in 2010, was slated to be an ace pitcher out of the four slot. All of this, in addition to All-Star free-agent acquisitions Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, and the Red Sox were an early favorite to win the American League pennant in 2011, just as Theo Epstein had promised five years earlier.
Let’s set the way-back machine to July 31, 2006.
What makes Lester’s involvement in this scandal so troubling is the road that brought him to the Red Sox dugout. At the time, the Red Sox were leading in the AL East and expected to be highly active at the trade deadline. But as four o’clock deadline passed, the roster was the same as it had been; no blockbuster deal characteristic of the Epstein regime had come to fruition.
Rather, the talk in Boston and around the baseball world was the deal that wasn’t. Andruw Jones did not go from Atlanta to Houston, Houston did not send Roy Oswalt to the Red Sox, and all because the Red Sox refused to part ways with pitching prospect Jon Lester. The Braves would have received relief prospect Craig Hansen, as well as Coco Crisp to supplement the loss of Jones, and while both were key contributors, Lester was the gem.
Epstein admitted that the lack of moves may hurt their chances for 2006, but recognized that they would be giving up too much to just try to win that year. Instead, Epstein promised that they were building towards championships in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
As it happened, Boston fans would not have to wait that long. Keeping Lester paid immediate dividends in 2007, when he made a spot start in game four of the World Series against Colorado, getting the win and propelling Boston to its second championship in four years.
The following year, Lester started game seven of the ALCS in Tampa and opened the 2011 season in Texas as the ace of the Boston staff. He had earned his spot as a bona fide leader with the Red Sox. That was what made his comments earlier this week, and his apparent actions this season, all the more disappointing.
Lester wrote off the drinking as having “a rally beer” that no one would have known of had they not lost. That he could justify his absence by saying the same things were happening when the Red Sox were the best team in baseball is disillusioning. What made the 2004 championship run so special, aside from the historic weight that it carried, were the players who were contributing. The self-proclaimed “Idiots” earned that title from their loveable antics in the dugout headed by Kevin Millar; the 2007 team had a spoon band in the bullpen and referred to themselves as a pirate ship with nicknames only they knew. Even the injury-riddled 2010 squad had Adrian Beltre’s head to play with. Those teams were fun to watch and fun to root for, while this promising 2011 squad played what my dad referred to all season as “boring, uninspired baseball” — and that was when they were winning.
No, beer should not be the issue. Had they been sticking to peanuts and Cracker Jacks, the problem would be just as prevalent. Fans must recognize that the anger need be directed at key leaders — guys towards whom fans were turning to plug the leak — who were shirking their intangible responsibilities.
This drama is reminiscent of the 2009 New England Patriots. Composed of essentially the same core of guys that put up a 16-0 mark in 2007, the 2009 Patriots had a balanced group of egos that eventually came to a head and spilled over in the divisional round of the playoffs. Locker room reports had already leaked out earlier in the season about team leaders Adalius Thomas and Randy Moss coming to team meetings late and falling asleep in video sessions. By the start of the following season, Thomas had been replaced and Moss was soon to follow.
Lackey won’t fall under much scrutiny as he has already been written off by Red Sox nation, but Beckett is meant to be a veteran on this team in the truest sense of the term, and the organization put its faith in Lester in 2006 and the fan base followed suit. What hurts the most is that, this time, faith was not rewarded.
Meanwhile, Andruw Jones’ and Roy Oswalt’s teams each won their respective divisions this year.