Baseball 2014, of course

The countdown has begun; or, is it the "shakedown." Hard to tell the difference, sometimes.

The long, grueling baseball season lumbers from the blocks in just a couple weeks. Deals are done. Rosters have been pruned. Expectations set.

Conventional wisdom -- always the captive of herd journalism's bandwagon mentality -- has established the Red Sox as the odds-on favorite. That's entirely because they won last year. Who, you may wonder, was the consensus choice a year ago at this time? Why the Giants, of course, because they'd won the year before. So where did they finish last year? Out of the money, of course.

It's not profound. Nor does it begin to recognize the fundamental fact that thanks to the tricks and contrivances of parity and whims of money it's never been harder to "repeat." In this the "Big Bucks Era," loftily presided over by Bud Selig, only one team has done it and that would be the Yankees. Of course!

How the super axis at the pinnacle of the Red Sox' mile-long chain of command must yearn for the achieving of that last and most precious milestone. Back to back crowns would raise the claim to dynasty but most importantly it would be another heavy rebuke to the much loathed Pin-Striped monolith, chipping away at the last of their weighty distinctions, maybe even making possible a "three-peat" -- Hallelujah -- which might crush the last remnants of Bronx Bomber pretense. I've not consulted with Brothers Henry, Lucchino, and Werner on the matter nor have they sought my opinion but I suspect this goal borders on an obsession rooted in the fear that if it's ever going to happen -- under their watch -- it has to be right now.

So it's no surprise that there's a higher than usual level of testiness in the Brothers' now familiar bluster; a certain sharpened "edge" evident although it's only March. Before their kids even reported to spring camp CEO Lucchino went way out of his way to rattle the Yankee's cage by scoffing at their lavish off-season free-agent binge, mocking it as nothing more than their "old bag of tricks."

It seemed tactically questionable. Why stir them up? And hardly polite, which is no concern of this irascible fellow. Mostly though it seemed odd coming from the straw-boss of the team that a year ago parlayed nine off-season, free-agent, pick-ups into a championship and would never have been able to do that if they'd not luckily found a dupe in the Dodgers willing to assume their own parcel of dumb contract mistakes. Mr. Lucchino may need to be reminded his own team ranks as the second most profligate spender of the "Big Bucks" era. Then he roamed baseball in relative anonymity for a quarter century searching for a bully pulpit equal to his importance. At ancient Fenway he's finally found one. We should let him have his fun.

Interestingly, even more such signs have come from the Lord of the Manor, himself, although by now we should all have recognized John Henry is hardly as bookish as he might sometimes seem, or as mild-mannered as he may like to suggest when it's good for business. This is a fellow who loves the big stage, knows how to cavort upon it, is plenty adept at hardball -- on the field, in the boardroom, or wherever else it's demanded -- and capable of being quite the bulldog when needs require. If there are wise guys still out there who think this guy is a nerd, they should prepare themselves to be taken to the cleaners.

Henry's recent snippy exchange with the Marlins was minor stuff but it spoke volumes. You'll recall the Red Sox sent a mystery collection of unknown scrubs to Jupiter to play the woe-begotten Miami team once owned by Henry but now foremost among MLB's most ragtag outfits. Actually, it was a bush-league stunt by your team, a breach of unstated but accepted norms. No Boston starter had played a single inning in the majors a year ago, nor has a chance of making the team this year. A struggling franchise, the Marlins had jacked prices while heavily promoting the appearance of Baseballs' reigning champs.

Not surprisingly the game was awful, the fans were furious, and the Marlins understandably considered themselves deeply insulted. They've filed a protest and demanded an apology but you can bet the ranch it will go nowhere. From the get-go, Owner Henry's relationship with Czar Selig has given new meaning to the term, "cozy."

If in the end, it's just another silly footnote what gives it meaning is Henry's reaction. "The Marlins should apologize for their regular season line-up," he snorted. Nasty stuff! We'd feared the practice of having one owner call another "pathetic" had died with dear old George Steinbrenner. Our guy is a tiger! Can you imagine Tom Yawkey hauling off like that? Then, of course, Yawkey -- whatever his faults and some were historic -- would never have abided his team insulting one of his lodge brothers.

Don't get worked up. There's no effort here to unfavorably compare Henry with Yawkey as owner or to equate bad manners with outright racism. That's not what this is about. What it is about is how much has changed, and how greatly.

A scanning of the personnel section of the Red Sox voluminous annual press guide reveals stuff you may find positively amazing. They now have in titled roles propping up those aforementioned three owner-bigwigs: two vice chairmen, 13 partners, an illustrious senior advisor (George Mitchell, Esq.), 24 vice-presidents, a senior baseball advisor (stat-guru Bill James), a financial advisor and two special assistants to the GM (house pets P. Martinez and J. Varitek).

It boggles the bloody mind to consider how they can fit 24 vice-presidents into that lyric little bandbox or accommodate 48 titled executives plus those who staff the ball-team itself. At the end of his reign, Yawkey had three VPs, plus a part-time treasurer, and four department heads. Which, you are probably thinking, merely affirms why they went 86 years between championships.

But that's too simple, says I. What it mainly affirms is that this once fairly simple and nicely pastoral game has evolved in little more than a generation into a corporate beast with ever grasping tentacles hardly distinguishable from any other hyper ambitious business in all the other spheres and doges.

One thing is for sure. They are keeping those 24 wild and crazy veep's plenty busy. The baseball operation may have remained fairly quiet over the winter, mainly tinkering at the edges of the on-field product. But the rest of the gang -- those in charge of marketing, sales, promotions, good-will, finance, expansion, plant, media, legalities, services, development and all such related folderol -- have been rolling to beat the band.

Nary a week passes without reports of a new venture being proposed, debated, defended, or advanced related to their relentless expansion or burgeoning brand and nowadays it's all about the brand. How can you market a baseball team? Let us count the ways!

In the end, of course, it's really all about the money and with the high price even of mediocrity being what it is -- as Bill Veeck once smartly noted -- how could it be otherwise.

In probably their cleverest off-season move they jacked the price of all tickets -- highest-priced in all baseball -- yet another near five percent. But they did so mere hours after that Duckboat parade celebrating the World Series ended so there was not even a whimper from the adoring masses, let alone equally adoring media.

Just last week they introduced a new concept for the game-day sale of those 247 Green Monster seats called "dynamic pricing," by which the price per wall-ticket varies according to the importance of the given game. They presented the idea as ''an exciting convenience'' for the fans. But Forbes Magazine -- experts on sports finance -- tells us this new gimmick will reap the Red Sox additional profits of at least $3,000,000 per season.

They didn't mention that. Believe me, Ducky, these folks never sleep.

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