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The Boston tradition of public ridicule and scapegoating goes back as far as the pillories and (hanging tree) on Boston Common, and has been a part of the local sports scene at least since the days when Colonel Dave Egan and the gutless Knights of the Keyboard tried to run Ted Williams out of town. The Red Sox always seem to have a whipping boy, a target of the wrath of the nation. Rightly or wrongly, Red Sox scapegoats of the past have included Bill Buckner, Heywood Sullivan, Bob Stanley, Carl Everett, Manny Ramirez, Dan Duquette, and every manager between Bill “Rough” Carrigan and Terry Francona.
It seems like there always has to be someone with the organization who wears a target on his back. Recently, it was Julio Lugo, whose large contract worked out poorly for everyone involved (except for Julio’s financial manager.) But now the Sox are paying Lugo $13 million to go hit home runs for the Cardinals, so he is gone from our lives at long last.
But now we have a void– who is the target now? Who will now become the whipping boy of Red Sox fans and the pervasive Boston sports media?
Here are the candidates…
Why: He’s just been accused of failing a PED test in 2003 by the New York Times. That’s going to provoke a lot of reaction. He’s stopped hitting in July, after a great June, and his season-long numbers still stink.
Why Not: The fans never turned on him in May, when he was horrid. He probably got more rope from the fanbase than any other big name player who played horribly than I’ve ever witnessed. Maybe more people have finally figured out that most players used some kind of PEDs back in the early 90’s, and will calm down a bit about it and finally learn to just ignore it, like they do with the NFL.
Prediction: He’s going to get some heat, no doubt. He’ll probably start to hit a bit better. But he’d better hope the team plays better and that this blows over a little, or it could get very ugly for him.
Why: He’s been knocked around in four of his six starts. Sure, he’s a Hall-of-Famer, but he did all that somewhere else, not here. Here, he’s a 42-year-old guy coming off serious arm surgery who is 1-4 with a 7.04 ERA. If that continues, then the target will move to him.
Why Not: Despite being pounded, Smoltz is still striking people out and not walking many. These are signs of a guy who can still be effective.
Prediction: He ends up moving to the bullpen, where his still-great slider is all he needs to be an excellent relief pitcher.
Why: Apparently idiot radio is already blaming J.D. Powerless and Associates for the Red Sox offensive woes. He’s got a crappy batting average, and doesn’t show much emotion on the field. (Remember when Baseball People would laud Joe DiMaggio for never showing emotion on the field? Now it’s a sign of not caring. Stoic Drew is carefree, apparently.) His game is on-base percentage, but he’s down to .356, well below his career mark of .389. If you aren’t going to hit, then you probably need to come up with some superficial display of rage and smash some batting helmets and water coolers to get the fans on your side, but that’s not Drew’s way. Also, he makes $14 million per year, which is a serious overpay, even if he starts getting on base again. The more you make, the more likely you are to get the target on your back.
Why not: Some people will always call him Nancy Drew. But he’s a solid $9 million a year player who instead makes $14 million per year. So what? Is that going to keep John Henry from buying another yacht? He’s not going anywhere, since he’s signed through his age 53 season.
Prediction: He’ll start getting on base again, and his right field defense will remain good, and so everyone will go back to ignoring him. That’s when he thrives.
Why: After a hot start, Bay is 1 for his last 597, with 0 RBIs. He’s a free agent, and so if he doesn’t hit, morons will start claiming it’s because he hates Boston and can’t wait to leave. He seemed to hit so much better before he became an American.
Why not: He won’t go back to being a Canadian, but he’ll most likely start hitting again.
Prediction: He’ll end the year with 33 home runs, like he always does. Then some other team will offer him more money than Boston and he’ll leave. And then he’ll hit 33 home runs each year for the next three years, like he always does.
Why: A sure way to become the whipping boy is to put up a 1-5 record with an ERA over 8, get hurt, and then complain about the team to the media. Dice-K was heavily hyped from before he even signed here, and the rule is that everything that is heavily hyped will one day feel a backlash. Even though his salary is a relatively sane $10 million per year, he’s still known as the $100 million man, so that can add resentment to the mix as well. Despite some real success here, Matsuzaka has been a frequently annoying pitcher to watch, continually nibbling around the zone and refusing to challenge hitters, driving up his pitch count, walking lots of hitters and taxing the bullpen with 110-pitch, 5-inning appearances.
Why not: If he’s still on the D.L., rather than continuing to suck every five days, then it’ll be the old out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing. If he comes back and pitches decently, it’ll all blow over.
Prediction: He’ll come back in September and make a few starts, pitch moderately effectively, then get left off the postseason roster, if there is one. He won’t gripe about the team to the press anymore, the controversy over his comments will die back down, and he’ll just be considered a guy who’s had a very disappointing year, but not be a focal point of rage.
Why: He’s “The New Guy.” But he’s not Halladay or Victor Martinez or Adrian Gonzalez, so if the Sox don’t add anyone significant at the trade deadline, 2009 will always be known as “The Year That Theo Could Only Get LaRoche.”
Why Not: He’s a solid corner bat with good hands. He’s got two functioning hips, unlike Mike Lowell.
Prediction: The Roach has a swing that seems tailor-made for Fenway, and he’ll hit enough to avoid the wrath of the fans.
Why: Sure he was World Series MVP in 2007, but that was two whole years ago. As the saying goes, no one can turn on you like a Boston crowd. Lowell’s hip has fallen apart and he can’t run at all. Scoring position for him is now halfway down the third base line. Also, he signed a big money deal after 2007, and it’s not looking like a great value at this point. Big money guys always get more grief than bargain guys. His fielding numbers are atrocious, and his lack of range is hurting the pitching.
Why Not: He’s a classy, respected vet who can still hit for power and has good hands.
Prediction: If LaRoche hits, Lowell won’t need to play every day, and maybe his hip will feel better. So maybe it’ll work out all right. Maybe.
Why: Every Sox manager gets abused by the fans at some point. So far it hasn’t really happened to Tito, but the longer he stays, the closer the day comes when the fans will go after him. It’s a long-running tradition that everyone in New England knows more about baseball strategy than the manager of the Red Sox.
Why Not: Two World Series wins in five years. What more do you want? Get off his back, he’s the best manager the Red Sox have ever had, even if you would play it differently on your video game.
Prediction: The more the Sox win, the less heat Francona will get. But the more they lose, the more flak he’ll catch. Such is the nature of the job.
Why: He is a big fat guy. Not much was expected from him, and he struggled early on. He’s done a good job so far, but if he falls off, he’s going to hear about it.
Why not: He’s throwing harder than he has in years, and has had a very solid season. If the 2009 Brad Penny is your biggest problem, then you have a great team.
Prediction: He’ll continue to hang in there with an ERA of about 4.75 and be a solid pitcher. But, the Yankees will land an0ther big name at the trade deadline, so everyone will consider Penny a failure in comparison.
Why not: He’s dominated AAA and has shown moments of brilliance in the majors. He’s got the ability to be very good in the big leagues.
Prediction: He won’t be traded at the deadline, so anytime any of the rumored trade candidates does something good, half of Sox fans will compare Buchholz to that guy. “We could’ve had THAT guy, but we wouldn’t trade Clay Buchholz! What a blunder.”
Why: He hasn’t hit well for a few years now, though he’s been better this year than last. He can’t throw anyone out on the bases, though some of that is the fault of the pitchers not paying any attention to the runners. A lot of fans were ready for him to move on after last year, but the team brought him back and didn’t go out and get a catcher of the future to replace him, meaning that he’s going to be the main catcher pretty much no matter what.
Why not: He’s The Captain. The leader of the team, he’s still adored by the media, who never fail to credit his intangibles and his magical pitch-calling/pitcher-handling ability, despite never defining what that actually is, or even providing a guess of how much that magical ability might actually be worth. Last season proved that even if he doesn’t hit at all, Varitek will still avoid becoming a whipping boy. Plus, he punched that douche A-Rod on the very first Bill Mueller Day.
Prediction: The pitchers will pay a little more attention to the baserunners and eventually Varitek will throw out a base-stealer before the season is over. So (to steal a joke that’s going around recently) Dunkin’ Donuts won’t have to change their slogan to “America Runs on Varitek.”
Why: He’s the guy in charge of building the team. If anything bad happens, it’ll be laid at his feet. Many sportswriters still resent how young he was when he got the job.
Why not: He’s delivered. Bottom line: Two World Championships mean a lot, and the fans who are loyal and who realize how hard it is to win something will support him. The farm system is in fantastic shape.
Prediction: As long as Drew gets on base and the pitching holds up, people will be fine with him. But if the Sox don’t make the postseason, or get knocked out by the Yankees, Theo will get some heat.
Why: The Red Sox hit better last year, and aren’t hitting lately. Ergo, the batting coach got dumb and needs to go.
Why not: The Sox still have a lot of good hitters, and they’ll probably come out of this slump soon.
Prediction: If the team starts hitting, no one will pay attention to the hitting coach. If they don’t, then it’ll be because Magadan didn’t tell them to stop whiffing and start hitting home runs instead.
Why: Because he’s Julio Lugo. Sure he’s gone, but he’s still collecting Red Sox paychecks. If he continues to play well in St. Louis, he’ll engender irritation for not doing it here.
Why not: Out of sight, out of mind. He’s not costing us games anymore, just John Henry’s money.
Prediction: The real Lugo will stand up and he’ll start sucking again, complete with bad throws, poorly turned double plays, evaporating range, and the deer in the headlights look in clutch situations. But hey, we’ll always have the 2007 World Series.
Why: He’s back in the leadoff spot, where he’s struggled to get on base. He’s got little power and a poor throwing arm. His 2007 postseason got everyone’s hopes too high.
Prediction: He’ll be good enough (and handsome) enough to avoid any fan rage.
Why: Last year’s MVP and MVP candidate aren’t likely to finish with numbers as good as last year’s.
Why not: They are gritty, grindy, gutty gamers, according to the media. They are kind of funny looking “regular guy” types that the fans have really embraced and identified with, because most of the Red Sox fanbase is funny looking white guys who are either chunky and goateed or puny and cocky. (Or both.)
Prediction: It would take a horrific decline in production and some incident or crazy quote for either of these fan favorites to become whipping boys.
Why: They could start pitching really poorly and/or get pounded in a big game.
Why not: Even that probably wouldn’t be enough to make them true whipping boy targets of rage. Wakefield is now an icon, who’s been through so many highs and lows already, his status isn’t likely to change. Lester is the young, homegrown kid who beat cancer, won the World Series and then became an excellent pitcher. Beckett is the ace who was unhittable in leading the team to the 2007 championship. It would take a huge, totally unforeseen series of incidents to change their statuses. (Statusii?)
Prediction: Unlikely that any of them wears a target on his back this year.
Why: He’s hitting .207 with a .277 OBP and no power. He isn’t throwing out baserunners, and pitchers have an ERA of almost a run and a half higher when he catches instead of Varitek.
Why Not: He’s a rookie backup catcher, so who cares? Of course he’s going to suck. If backup catcher is this team’s biggest problem, then they are in great shape.
Prediction: Everyone will continue to ignore him, because he’s the backup catcher.
Why: you don’t need to play that much to draw attention and ire if you play poorly enough. Witness Nick Green with two errors in the 9th inning the other day. If you are the clear goat that costs the team a big game in the pennant race, you can become the whipping boy, even if you’re a middle reliever or a benchwarmer.
Why not: Some of the regulars will screw up and blow games too. And they make more money and get more attention. And scrubs aren’t supposed to be good anyway.
Prediction: Other than a few isolated short-term incidents, the big names will likely take more heat.
Why: He’s a closer, and closers eventually blow saves, that’s what they do. Also, he seems like kind of a rockhead. He supposedly wants a huge contract to play somewhere else, quite possibly NY. He has allowed many more baserunners this year than last, and has regularly made saves an adventure.
Why Not: He dominated in 2007 postseason run, with the pressure on. He’s shown he can come through in a big way with everything on the line. Ugly saves are still saves.
Prediction: This time, there will actually be no Red Sox whipping boy, not even Paps. The team will make the postseason and do well there, and if they fall short in the end, this time the fans won’t find a scapegoat to blame for everything, they’ll be more accepting, after two championships in five years.
And then all the children of the world will join hands and sing songs of peace, joy and harmony in a magical land of chocolate.