The Boston Red Sox never were America's team. In the days before their recent run of success in the past decade, the Red Sox were neither hated nor overly loved outside the state of Massachusetts.
In retrospect, I figure this has something to do with how nobody in their right mind outside Massachusetts would have gone out of their way to root for the Red Sox back in the day. Who would want to adopt a cursed organization like the Red Sox as their favorite team?
This sense of indifference toward the Red Sox no longer exists. What the general population feels toward the Red Sox nowadays is more like animosity. The present club's general unlikability has a lot to do with that, but Boston's poor public perception has more to do with how the club has simply gotten too big, too rich and too pompous.
The Red Sox have become too much like them. And we all know they are.
The New York Yankees.
It's a point that's been made fairly often over the last couple of years. There's no longer a kind of David vs. Goliath vibe surrounding the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry, and that's because the Red Sox have become too much of a Goliath themselves.
If one thing has become clear this season, though, it's that the Red Sox aren't as good at being like the Yankees as the Yankees are at being like the Yankees. The 2012 Red Sox are an expensive, dysfunctional and depressing mess of a team, and their non-injury-related problems are easily linked to the organization's copycat effort.
But it wasn't always this way. Let's take a stroll through history.
2002-2007: The Glory Years of the John Henry Era
Baseball fans may think that it wasn't until John Henry took over in 2002 that Red Sox started morphing into a clone of the Bronx Bombers.
This is a flawed perception. The Red Sox had a bloated payroll before Henry assumed ownership of the club in 2002. Per USA Today, the Red Sox had the second-highest payroll in the league in 2001 at just under $110 million. They were nearly on the same level as the Yankees.
This was largely due to signing of Manny Ramirez to an eight-year, $160 million contract the previous offseason. That contract never really sat well with Theo Epstein and the club's new management. Following the 2003 season, they even tried to get rid of Manny by placing him on irrevocable waivers. Any club willing to pay Manny's salary was more than welcome to take it on.
Epstein and company tended to favor smaller moves in the early goings, choosing to hunt for bargains rather than sign free agents to absurd contracts. Look no further than the offseason preceding the 2003 campaign, when Epstein brought in players like Mike Timlin, Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, Kevin Millar and Bronson Arroyo. Mueller, Ortiz and Millar all went on to become productive everyday players. Timlin logged a team-high 72 appearances.
The offseason before the 2004 campaign is generally thought of as one of Boston's more exorbitant efforts, but the only big-name free agent they signed was Keith Foulke. Curt Schilling was their other big acquisition, but he came over in a trade.
It's true that the Red Sox tried to trade for Alex Rodriguez, but that deal would have jettisoned Ramirez and his contract, and A-Rod would have voluntarily forfeited money had the union allowed it. On balance, it would not have been an expensive move for the Red Sox relative to the money they were already spending.
In all, Boston's payroll ended up checking in at just under $128 million in 2004, less than a $20 million increase from where it was in 2001.
To put that in perspective, the Yankees' payroll increased from around $112 million in 2001 to almost $185 million in 2004, an increase of about $73 million.
We all know what happened in 2004, but just as significant is what happened after the 2004 season was over.
That offseason, Epstein was faced with re-signing Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez, Orlando Cabrera and Jason Varitek. The only one who re-signed was Varitek, who got a four-year deal worth $40 million.
There were some who accused the Red Sox of a lack of loyalty, but they made it fairly clear that loyalty wasn't high on their list of priorities. They probably could have found ways to re-sign their star players—a trick the Yankees have pulled with the likes of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada in more recent years—but they chose to hold their ground knowing there would be other options for them out there if they failed to get deals done.
And Epstein did find other options that offseason, signing Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement and David Wells. The three of them ended up being busts, but they were signed for less money than Pedro, Lowe and Cabrera made on the open market.
Meanwhile, in the background, the Red Sox were drafting and developing some good young players. They inherited Kevin Youkilis from the previous regime, drafted Jon Lester in 2002, Jonathan Papelbon in 2003, Dustin Pedroia in 2004 and Jacoby Ellsbury in 2005.
All five of them would go on to play starring roles in 2007, when the Red Sox won their second World Series in four years with a payroll of around $143 million, a mere $15 million increase over where the Red Sox were in 2004 and a less than $40 million increase from where they were in 2001.
The Red Sox were undoubtedly a high-spending team in the first few years of the Henry regime, but they weren't reckless. For every big-name free agent they signed (J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Julio Lugo, et al), they made smaller moves and more subtle decisions that helped them net two World Series championships.
It wasn't until after their second championship in 2007 when they started to get reckless and things began getting out of control
2008-2012: Things Fall Apart
The Red Sox were quiet after they won the World Series in 2007, but Epstein broke character when he signed Schilling for one more year at $8 million and Mike Lowell for three more years at just under $40 million. Contrary to the offseason following Boston's championship in 2004, Epstein let his sense of loyalty get the better of him.
Those two contracts came back to bite the Red Sox. Schilling never threw another pitch, and Lowell struggled with injuries and eventually became something of an albatross by the time the 2010 season rolled around.
Not that the 2008 season was a disaster, of course. The Red Sox were finally able to rid themselves of Ramirez, who was traded at the deadline for Jason Bay and others. They went on to win 95 games and took the Tampa Bay Rays to the limit in the ALCS despite the fact they were clearly undermanned. The Red Sox still had some championship fight in them.
The 2009 season wasn't a disaster either. Despite shaving over $10 million off their payroll from 2008, the Red Sox won 95 games again in 2009. Youkilis and Pedroia were the club's two best offensive players, and Lester, Josh Beckett and Papelbon all provided tremendous value for the money they were being paid.
Victor Martinez, who was acquired in a midseason trade, posted a .912 OPS in 56 games for the Red Sox.
But the Red Sox were swept by the Angels in the division series in embarrassing fashion, leading to unrest in Red Sox Nation.
It was after that season that the Red Sox started to become more like the Yankees. They ceased to be about subtlety and began an effort to prop up what they figured was a championship club by spending more and more money.
During the 2009 offseason, Epstein spoke of the 2010 season being a "bridge" season that would lead to better days down the road. Those better days just wouldn't come in the immediate future.
Despite this, Boston's payroll increased from $121 million in 2009 to $162 million in 2010. Offseason expenditures included Marco Scutaro, Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre and, of course, John Lackey.
In signing Lackey to a five-year deal worth over $80 million, Epstein effectively called his own bluff. Teams that hint at retooling by speaking of bridges don't typically go out and issue millions of dollars to high-priced free agents. It reeked of a move to satisfy a fanbase—and indeed, perhaps an ownership group as well—that was vocal about its disapproval of the bridge plan.
It certainly wasn't a wise signing. Lackey had a brilliant season in 2007, but his 2008 and 2009 seasons saw him struggle with injuries. He failed to surpass the 200-inning threshold in either season. He also came to the Red Sox with a career ERA over 5.00 at Fenway Park.
It wasn't long before Epstein dished out another big contract to a pitcher, signing Beckett to a four-year extension worth $68 million early on in the 2010 season. This was despite the fact Beckett posted an ERA over 6.00 in his last nine starts of the 2009 season.
Sure enough, Lackey posted an ERA in the mid-4.00s, Beckett posted an ERA of 5.78 and the Red Sox ended up missing the playoffs.
Instead of going back to the drawing board, Epstein basically picked up where he left off before the 2011 season, signing Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million contract and trading for Adrian Gonzalez. He eventually signed a seven-year extension worth over $150 million.
When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007, their payroll featured just five players who were being paid over $10 million per year. Only Ramirez and Drew were making over $14 million.
In 2011, Boston's payroll featured eight players making over $10 million per year. Drew, Crawford, Lackey and Beckett were all making at least $14 million.
This Red Sox team won just 90 games and suffered perhaps the worst September collapse in baseball history.
Instead of getting better as they got more expensive, the Red Sox were getting worse.
Where They Are Now and What It Means
For the record, Boston's payroll has gone up again this season, from around $162 million in 2011 to just over $173 million. This is mainly owed to Gonzalez's extension kicking in and Big Papi getting a pay raise.
The only teams spending more money than the Red Sox this season are the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Yankees are doing fine, but no two teams in baseball are getting less bang for their buck than the Phillies and the Red Sox.
The Red Sox are 55-57 through 112 games, putting them on pace to finish under .500 for the first time since 1997. Therefore, you're not wrong if you're thinking that this is the worst Red Sox season in recent memory.
And it's no accident.
As our little trip down memory lane goes to show, the Red Sox were the envy of the league between 2002 and 2007 because they ran a tight ship. They spent a lot of money, sure, but they also made a lot of clever moves and managed to make big trades while keeping their farm system well stocked with top talent. It was a juggling act; a damn good one.
A lot of clubs around baseball have no choice but to do this on a yearly basis, but World Series championships have a way of changing things. One taste of success easily leads to a craving for success, and a craving like that can lead to questionable decisions. The Phillies of the past few seasons are a good example.
What's amazing is that the Red Sox didn't really let this happen after they won it all in 2004. They just went about their business, and they made choices that ultimately led to another championship in 2007. They were able to get there because they didn't let disappointing seasons in 2005 and 2006 lead them to do anything stupid (though the Dice-K deal is certainly debatable).
And this is where the Yankees figure into the discussion. Their dynasty in the late 1990s and early 2000s was built not on the backs of high-priced free agents, but on the backs of draftees like Jeter and Posada and bargain finds like Orlando Hernandez and Scott Brosius. It wasn't really until after the Red Sox emerged as a legitimate threat to them in the early 2000s that the Yankees fell into an old pattern of doing drastic things in hopes that their problems would go away.
Take what they did following their loss in the 2003 World Series, for example. The following offseason, they traded for Kevin Brown, traded for Javier Vazquez, signed Gary Sheffield and traded for Alex Rodriguez. Their payroll ballooned from a little over $150 million to over $180 million.
More recently, one can look to what the Yankees did following the 2008 season, which ended with them missing out on the postseason for the first time since 1993. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars to bring in CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.
And for the first time, the Yankees' big spending worked. They went on to win their 27th World Series.
You'll notice that it was after this happened that Boston's payroll started to escalate. It was just over $120 million in 2009, and it now sits over $50 million higher at $173 million. Once they saw the Yankees throw money at their problems and win the World Series, the Red Sox followed suit.
Obviously, their efforts to be more like the Yankees have failed miserably. There are good reasons for this.
Not even the Red Sox can be too much like the Yankees simply because they have way, way more money to play with than any other team in baseball. Payrolls of over $200 million have become a common occurrence for them, and they've been able to afford these payrolls (and the resulting luxury tax penalties) thanks to TV money and steady attendance.
The Yankees are the only team that can afford to go as high as $200 million, and the difference between $200 million and, say, $175 million is huge. The Yankees are trying to lower payroll now, but there's no denying that they made the most of their extra wiggle room in the past couple years.
Such high payrolls were also made possible by the fact that the Yankees were once headed by an owner in George Steinbrenner who cared little about the price of victory. And though he became less involved with the club following the 2006 season, the organization still operated like he was running the show. It helped that Hank Steinbrenner had a say in things, and he's nothing if not a chip off the old block.
Nothing should be taken away from what John Henry has done for the Red Sox since taking over in 2002, but he's become more and more distracted by other business ventures in recent years. He got into NASCAR in 2007 and has split his attention between the Red Sox and Liverpool FC ever since 2010.
It's therefore no surprise that the infrastructure of the Red Sox has all but broken down completely since 2010, with things boiling over to an ugly degree this past offseason when Terry Francona and Theo Epstein both parted ways with the organization amidst nasty vibrations.
Instead of doing something to quell the unrest, the Red Sox hired a manager in Bobby Valentine who was a lightning rod for controversy back in his days managing the Mets.
And in retrospect, that's not a shock. The drama the Red Sox have been dealing with since the end of the 2011 season is new for them.
The Yankees, on the other hand, have specialized in such drama throughout their history. They've also specialized in winning anyway no matter what kind of drama they may be dealing with at any given moment. For all the negative things that can be said about the Yankees, they deserve due credit for being resilient.
Big spending. Recklessness. Drama. Resiliency. Winning. These are things that come with the territory where the Yankees are concerned. It's a strange mix, one that is unique to them.
The mistake the Red Sox made was assuming that they would be able to borrow this mix from the Yankees without any problems.
There are problems, alright. And the way things are looking, these problems aren't going away anytime soon.
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