Only two short seasons ago, the Sox were the kings of the baseball world and looked to be in a position to defend their turf for years to come.
"How did it all happen?"
That was the question that German ex-Chancellor Prince von Bulow famously posed more than a century ago to his successor as Europe plunged into flames at the outset of World War I.
The then-Chancellor Theobald Bethmann-Hollweg could only ruefully reply, "Ah, if only one knew."
One can imagine Red Sox owners John Henry and Tom Werner having the same conversation as they survey the wreckage of their team in 2020.
Only two short seasons ago, the Sox were the kings of the baseball world and looked to be in a position to defend their turf for years to come. They had Mookie Betts, Mister Everything in 2018 and then only 25 years old; they had franchise building blocks like Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi, both of whom seemed on the verge of superstardom; and they had J. D. Martinez, a model of power and consistency. Their pitching staff was the envy of all baseball, anchored by Chris Sale, considered to be the best left-hander in the league; they had two former Cy Young winners in David Price and Rick Porcello; and they had Eduardo Rodriguez, whose potential knew no limits. On the bench was manager Alex Cora, who seemed to know exactly what strings to pull and when to pull them. Upstairs, in the front office, was Dave Dombrowski, regarded as a baseball guru, the man who'd put it all together.
Now, however, no one fears the Red Sox anymore. They are, instead, pitied.
Ah, if only one knew.
To begin with, Dombrowski lost not only his status as a guru, but before the 2019 season was over, he'd also lost his job. Then Alex Cora found himself entangled in sign-stealing scandals, and he, too, was out of a job. The Red Sox, in order to extricate themselves from luxury tax problems, for which they had only themselves to blame, then did the unthinkable; they traded Mookie Betts, along with David Price, to the Dodgers. The building blocks for the future, Devers and Benintendi, have both crumbled; Devers has become spotty on offense and a liability on defense, and Benintendi has compiled the lowest batting average in all of baseball. J. D. Martinez, while still retaining some power, has lost his consistency, batting approximately one hundred points lower than he'd hit in 2018.
As for the pitching, the story gets even uglier. Sale is out for the season, having undergone Tommy John surgery; Price is with the Dodgers; Porcello was allowed to walk as a free agent and signed with the Mets; and Rodriguez has been shut down for the year because of after-effects from COVID-19. Their replacements have underperformed to an astounding degree; when they hold the opposition to less than double digit runs per game, it's considered a moral victory.
The harsh truth, that the Red Sox of 2020 are embarrassingly bad in every aspect of the game, is not even the worst of the situation. The worst of it is that there seems to be no clear way forward.
The team has been through tough times before, and some of them weren't that long ago. Remember 2012, when they completely imploded with Bobby Valentine at the helm? That team finished in the cellar of the American League East with a record of 69 and 93, but it still had some proven winners on the roster, like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jon Lester. With the addition of a few others, like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Jonny Gomes, plus a change of managers (John Farrell took over for Valentine), the Sox bounced back in '13 to win it all.
It's hard to see that happening in 2021 when their only leader with a proven record of success is Xander Bogaerts.
One has to feel for Chaim Bloom, who finds himself in a no-win situation. It's like being named captain of the Titanic just after it hit the iceberg. His job description seems to be the same as that captain's: save what you can and let the ship sink. That leaves a troubling question. Will Captain Bloom go down with the ship?
There is no way that either he or manager Ron Roenicke can emerge from this looking good. They've inherited a mind-numbingly bad team that is not going to get better in the foreseeable future.
Casey Stengel, the legendary skipper of the New York Yankees who won five consecutive World Series seven decades ago, was asked to comment on his unprecedented success, and he replied, "I couldn't have done it without the players." Casey knew well of what he spoke. When he managed the lowly Boston Braves in the early 1940s, he didn't have the players, and it showed. As is often the case, the manager was saddled with much of the blame for the team's poor performance. When Stengel was run over by a taxi cab in Kenmore Square in 1943, suffering a broken leg, which resulted in an extended hospital stay, Dave Egan, the acerbic columnist for the Boston Record, memorably suggested that the cab driver be named Boston's Man of the Year.
Warren Spahn, the winningest southpaw in history, broke into the majors with the Braves under Stengel, and finished his career with the hapless New York Mets, again under Stengel. He dined out for years thereafter on the story of how he played for Casey before he was a genius and after he was a genius.
Roenicke, like the Stengel of the Braves and the Mets, doesn't have the players, either. Nobody is blaming him for what's happened to the Red Sox -- yet. But the life expectancy of losing managers being what it is, he'd be well-advised, as the old saying goes, not to buy any green bananas.
Meanwhile, the question for the Red Sox is: Where do they go from here? How do they even begin to restore the luster of just two seasons ago?
The answer, unfortunately, is, "Ah, if only one knew."
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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