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Monday, July 15, 2013

Red Sox and the Zen of Low Expectations

Before you can figure out why the Boston Red Sox have the best record in the American League at the 2013 All Star Break, you need to walk a mile in their cleats. The Red Sox, with 2 World Series wins in the last decade, had changed the narrative from "Lovable Losers" to "Big Bad Bullies." Nothing short of another title was going to satisfy the brazen Boston backers. The fans had tasted victory and were beyond spoiled by it. The team and fans were due for a market correction in expectation, and it came in spades.

The 2011 Boston Red Sox team was constructed to dominate both at the plate and on the mound, with All-Stars sprinkled all over the roster. Need a huge bat to complement Ortiz and Pedroia in the middle of the lineup? Trade for San Diego slugger Adrian Gonzalez. Need to add some speed and excitement to the roster? Sign Carl Crawford. Worried about Jonathan Papelbon's effectiveness? Sign closer Bobby Jenks. After all, if you have the money to build a baseball juggernaut, why not do it?

USA Today summed up the Red Sox offseason power moves perfectly in their 2011 AL East preview:
Season story lines: How good can the Red Sox be after adding 1B Adrian Gonzalez and LF Carl Crawford? Is it really the best team in franchise history? Their biggest concern might be closer Jonathan Papelbon, who blew a career-worst nine saves in 2010. If he struggles, they can turn to Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks. The Red Sox also are eager to see if ace Josh Beckett returns to form after going 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA as back issues limited him to 21 starts.
They were predicted by some to be the "Best Team in Red Sox History." Others claimed they just might be the "Greatest Team in Major League History." They weren't. 

By going 7-20 in September of 2011, they became the first team in MLB history to blow a nine game lead in September and miss the playoffs. While less talented teams like Tampa Bay and Baltimore grinded out every inning, the Red Sox just coasted from game to game. "We'll just get 'em tomorrow," the Sox proclaimed almost daily. Meanwhile, the pitchers couldn't wait to get back to the Clubhouse during games to play Xbox, eat Popeye's fried chicken and crush Miller Lites. They missed the playoffs, and, in the immortal words of team leader Adrian Gonzalez, "God didn't have it in the cards for us."

The 2012 Boston Red Sox season was nothing short of a complete, unmitigated disaster. It was a three ring circus: complete with a carnival barker (Larry Lucchino), circus clowns (the players) and a freak show (Bobby Valentine). It would be easy to blame the front office for once again creating a team of entitled jerks. Or you could blame the players for virtually quitting on their manager a few months in to the season. I personally blame Bobby Valentine. Not because it's all his fault necessarily, but because it's just really really fun to throw Mr. Wrap Sandwich under the bus.

Whichever way you slice it, though, the 2012 Red Sox team lost an unprecedented 93 games. The dark days were back. The Fellowship of the Miserable was coming out of its slumber.

So this all brings us back to the 2013 Boston Red Sox. They purged themselves of the malcontents and under-performers that doomed them back in 2011 and 2012. Instead, they built a roster of less talented but more likable "grinders." They acquired former pitching coach John Farrell after he asked out from managing the Blue Jays. Farrell said managing the Red Sox was his "dream job"; in the eyes of Boston fans, it was a dream to have anyone coaching from the dugout instead of Bobby V.

With all these changes, even the most optimistic Sox fan was hoping for a Wild Card push but felt resigned to another year in the middle of the AL pack. How are they exceeding all expectations and pacing towards over 100 wins? It's simple, really: the Red Sox were never as bad as we thought they were. Whatever psychological barriers they were facing - whether it was bad apples or just plain bad luck - those are clearly in the rear view mirror. 

After two straight disappointing seasons, the expectation bar was set the lowest its been in over a decade. Very little was expected from names like Gomes, Iglesias, Napoli and Nava . Unknowns like Carp, Holt and Workman came out of nowhere and become instant contributors. Stalwarts like Ellsbury, Ortiz and Pedroia played at their usual high levels. Add in the resurgence of John Lackey, the surprising effectiveness of Shane Victorino and the early dominance of Clay Buchholz, and you have the recipe for a special year.

Zen Buddhism teaches that enlightenment comes through meditation, self-contemplation and intuition. More simply put, it is about living in and grasping the now while filtering out previous beliefs and preconceptions. By embracing the now, forging a path away the past and playing like they have nothing to lose, the 2013 Boston Red Sox have found their zen.

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