The phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is a conversational maxim we’ve all heard at one time or another. In most circumstances, it’s true. That is, until a tipping point is reached. Then, rather suddenly, the platitude’s veracity turns wrong. Very wrong.
A change in conversation
Through eight games, the Boston Red Sox have posted a record of 5-3. Not great, certainly not bad, but the start has spurned exactly what the organization so desperately wanted: relief. They needed this. I mean, they really needed this. The conversation had to be changed. And fast.
But before we peer forward to the land of possibility, it’s only appropriate we look back. Frankly, I don’t know how we got here.
We went from waxing poetic about alleged shots of Jack Daniels taken before the 2004 World Series to storming Yawkey Way, with pitchforks in hand, complaining about beer in the clubhouse during the September collapse of 2011. The vibrant romanticism of "Cowboy Up!" turned into to the pure shame of the Bobby Valentine era. And members of the media helped promote the idea that somehow rooting against the Red Sox – more particularly the ownership group – earned you a seat at the cool kids lunch table.
Whatever the case may be, a real paradigm shift in the conversation occurred, and the dialect had very little to do with what was going on inside the diamond. To its detriment, the ownership group did nothing to impede this downfall. But it’s not about them or the ancillary crap, like reports of signing players based off their marketability, not potential production; “Sweet Caroline” and the infamous sellout streak that never really was a sellout streak (which, thank God, mercifully came to an end Wednesday night); the commemorative Fenway 100 bricks; and the despicable manner in which former manager Terry Francona was thrown under the bus following his resignation. None of that garbage is of import. Not after 5-3. Not today, anyway.
In sports, the line of demarcation between “good” bad publicity and “bad” bad publicity is directly correlated to on-field production. It’s a three year process.
• Year One, questions like “what happened?” are uttered by fan bases.
• In Year Two, most everyone begins to get testy, bemoaning some version of “Alright, guys – let’s pick it up.” There’s still interest, but bandwagon fans turn their attention to other distractions, leaving the diehards to ponder their own allegiance to the team.
• And if things aren’t remedied by Year Three (Jets fans call this year “The Tebow Experience”), every owner’s worst fear comes to life: crickets. Bad publicity turns into indifference, and the public conversation about the team stops.
For the Red Sox, Year Three was upon us. I’d argue Jon Lester’s performance in Yankees Stadium on Opening Day (5 IP, 5 hits, 7 strikeouts, 2 runs allowed) was the most important in-game moment since the 2011 loss in Baltimore that prevented Boston from earning a postseason berth. That’s not hyperbole, that’s truth.
Forget the garbage
Let’s go back to the bad publicity ordeal: entertainment is a weird business. Entertainers need an audience more than an audience needs them. Betray that investment and we aren’t coming back. In the end, I don’t know when “winning” ceased being a term of endearment for Charlie Sheen; when we finally gave up on Lindsay Lohan’s acting career; or when Mel Gibson’s image traversed from Oscar-winning actor to anti-Semite figurehead (OK that’s a lie, I have a pretty good idea of when Mel made that journey). It didn’t happen in an instant. Bad publicity kept adding up; and for those entertainers, the spotlight is seemingly forever dimmed.
In the months leading up to this season, I started to ponder whether the Sox, under this leadership group, would come ever back. But the truth is this: the garbage never should have mattered. At its core, sports is a business. We realized this long ago and we’re constantly reassured of its circumstance from agents and players. Owners will downplay the notion, but profit margins do matter. Maybe John Henry and Co. lost their way, but whatever – to me, this was always about something more.
It was about 'Tek’s steadiness, Pedro’s smile, and Wake’s mediocrity (slight dig, but true). It was about Schilling’s toughness; Pokey Reese scooping up a ground ball and exorcising 86 years of demons in one simple toss to first base; Mark Bellhorn hitting a dinger off Pesky’s Pole in Game 1 of the World Series; and our concession and agreement to let Manny be Manny, for better or – most times – for worse. It was about Papi. It was even about the Rem-Dog; about Red Sox Nation; and all the pageantry that comes with summer nights at Fenway Park.
I’m a realist. Gun to my head: I still think the Red Sox won’t win 90 games. They probably won’t make the playoffs. But after nearly two years of waiting, it’s finally about baseball again. The tension of everything else is pushed aside. Isn’t that a relief? Hmm, that word again, “relief.” Maybe it wasn’t just the ownership group that desperately wanted that feeling, after all.
Follow Ryan Hadfield on Twitter @Hadfield__