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Why Were the 2012 Boston Red Sox So Awful?

I never thought I’d live in a world where the Red Sox would win 69 games and finish 26 games out of first, squarely in last place in the American League East. Looking up at teams that they used to feast on, like Toronto and Baltimore. Looking down on…no one.

For the better part of a decade, not winning 90 games was an outlier. Winning in the mid 80′s was a big disappointment. Finishing at .500 would have been a colossal underachievement. Falling below .500 would have been almost laughable. So what does that make finishing 24 games under .500? Is it quantifiable with a word?

Look at it another way. The expectations heading into this season were to make the playoffs – regardless of what happened last September – especially because of the addition of the second Wild Card. The organization and the rest of the modern world figured that the Red Sox were one of the five best teams in an American League that lacked the depth of the National League. The league itself was considered top-heavy, and the Sox were part of that top.

They weren’t the Pirates, who hoped to be able to make a run, but didn’t necessarily expect to. When Pittsburgh fell short this year, it was discouraging because of how strong a first half the team had, but it wasn’t unexpected. The unexpected part was being in contention in the first place after 100 games.

There’s a thought in baseball that everything sort of evens out. The teams that aren’t supposed to be that good come back to earth and good teams who struggle eventually rise up. More than any other sport, that tends to occur.

Except it didn’t in Boston. Not like the Pirates, who probably expected to win 75 games this year and won 79, the Red Sox expected to win 90. And instead, they fell 21 wins shy of that mark. It wasn’t a few wins here or a few wins there that they missed out on…it was 21 of them. They lost their final eight games.

The Red Sox thought, if the chips fell right, they could contend for a World Series. And, they thought if the chips fell wrong, that they would perhaps miss out on the second Wild Card by a couple games, still win 85-87 games and not have to rebuild the entire team. Just fine-tune it a bit, for another run next year.

Instead, the Red Sox have the seventh pick in next year’s draft. Any thought of fine-tuning has been replaced with rebuilding, and a team that was initially built for the long haul just two years ago has already been dismembered and isn’t ready for any sort of haul, long or short.

The whole season has been so bad for so many reasons. The Red Sox are a laughingstock, organizationally. But the number one reason for just how awful life has been for baseball fans in New England since April is the results compared to the expectations.

If we had expected the Red Sox to be rebuilding, or if we had expected them to be a middle of the pack type of team, then this wouldn’t as awful. It still would be a bad season, even with tempered expectations, but it wouldn’t be such a deviation from what we’ve come to know as a standard Red Sox season. The Boston Red Sox don’t have years where they win less than 70 games. They don’t have years where they’re out of playoff contention in August.

Except, apparently, they do. That’s so damn hard to accept.

At some point, the organization became a little Yankees-ish in its ways. It knew it could outspend everybody else, so it actually did outspend everyone else. For the most part, that had pretty good results. Manny Ramirez was worth every penny here, even if it occasionally seemed like he’d be more comfortable in a straitjacket then a uniform. Trading for Curt Schilling worked. The Red Sox used the Yankee model for a while and it got the job done. Two World Series titles, two trips to Game 7 of the ALCS, all in a six-year span. That’s pretty good.

Yet, along the line, it all came unglued. Why, where, I don’t really know. There were irresponsible signings (Lackey, Cameron, Beckett to an extension, Crawford) and there were underperforming players. And more importantly, there was a sense that no matter what, the team would be fine. That’s how the fans felt and it became apparent over time that that’s how the players felt.

“Don’t worry. We’re the Red Sox. We’ll be there at the end. Relax.” 

Then last September happened, and that bubble burst. We all did relax while it was happening  and patiently assumed that the team couldn’t blow a 9-game Wild Card lead in a month. But they did, and out the window went the calm assurance that simply being the Red Sox was enough to be successful.

It’s a huge contrast, because for years before 2004, “simply being the Red Sox” was synonymous with coming up short. When that all changed, maybe it wrongly changed our expectations and view towards the franchise. We weren’t content with being the lovable losers anymore, not after we’d won. We wanted to be the Yankees.

And right down to a T, we became them. We beat up on lesser opponents, sold out Fenway every night, suddenly had an enormous national following yet were also despised by everyone who was not a fan. Beating the Red Sox, if you were another team, became something to shoot for because of the arrogance of an organization that simply decided it was the best because it won a couple of times.

We became the bullies, but without the pedigree to be bullies. The Yankees have the pedigree, because they’ve won 27 World Series titles and 13 of the last 17 American League East titles. They love that everyone hates them. They love being the villain. And they also know that yes, just being the Yankees is good enough. They will be there at the end. There’s a long, long history to back that up.

There’s no such history in Boston. If anything, there’s an opposite history. Eventually, while trying to emulate the Yankees and also trying to beat them, everything collapsed on itself. The Red Sox couldn’t maintain their status as a villainous front-runner the whole time. They’ve always been a gritty underdog, the good in a “good vs. evil” war with the Bronx Bombers. The Sox tried to even the playing field in a way that doesn’t usually work, at least not for the long haul.

It works for the Yankees because they outspend to a point where it’s comical. They outspend the Red Sox by $80 million even when the Sox have the second-highest payroll in baseball. That’s why the model works for them. But if you aren’t willing to literally spend every single dollar you can in order to put the best team out there, then it’s not going to work. You can’t half-ass the outspending procedures.

You either pay the absolute most, and get the best (Sabathia, Teixeira) or you pay the second-most and get guys who you want to compete against the best, but don’t have it in them (Lackey, Gonzalez). There can’t be two Yankees. You can’t beat them at their own game.

It’s like a Ponzi Scheme. At least that’s how it feels. For a long time, there’s unprecedented success and wealth. Everything seems perfect. It seems like you’ve hit the jackpot, and it’s going to go on like this forever.

And then the rug gets swept out, and not just a little. The whole thing. It collapses on itself because it’s impossible to sustain, and suddenly you go from being rich and living a life of luxury to being bankrupt and fighting in court to stay out of jail. The Red Sox had a system that brought them initial success, but wasn’t sustainable. Now, they’re bankrupt.

So maybe we were spoiled for a while, with all this winning and laughing at the rest of the league for being small-market losers who had to build up through the draft and couldn’t throw hundreds of millions of dollars at everyone else in free agency. Peasants.

I’d trade spots with the Oakland A’s right about now.

We let our expectations balloon, and then it came tumbling down like London Bridge. If this is what had to happen for the organization to get back to what it’s supposed to be – and hardworking, tough, underdog-type team – then so be it. Yes, the Red Sox are still going to be able to outspend most teams. Yes, they should still have more talent then a lot of others teams, which makes the underdog storyline a tough sell. But if they spend the money responsibly, if they fill the team with a mix of high-priced guys and guys who just want to earn their keep, then who knows. Maybe they can be a Yankees-underdog hybrid, with pieces from each model.

They can’t just overpay everyone, and they can’t pretend they’re a small market team. It’s a balance. This year, that balance netted them a 69-93 record, and that’s something even my 64-year-old father even thinks is absurd. He hasn’t seen a season like this one since he was a kid.

Let’s hope he never has to again.

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