Beyond the Bison: The Long Road to Killing the Demons

By Julian Dorey

Columnist

It’s still pretty cold outside up north. But in Florida and Arizona, the weather is just perfect.

Over the weekend, the pitchers and catchers of all 30 baseball clubs reported for spring training. It’s hard to believe, but baseball is just over a month away. With the new season comes new hope for every team. For some, that hope will die quickly; for others it might linger into the summer.

One team, though, is going to have the most pressure of all from the beginning: the Boston Red Sox.

Who can forget the fateful 2011 collapse of the Sox? They dragged it out all the way to game 162 and then broke the hearts of the Fenway faithful. The most troubling part is the collapse didn’t stop with the players packing their bags the next morning.

For the next several months, rumors swirled far and wide about the players’ clubhouse antics. Numerous reports surfaced about the starting pitching staff—Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, the struggling John Lackey and Clay Bucholtz—taking part in head-scratching rituals like drinking beer, playing video games and ordering fried chicken during games in which they were not pitching. Fans and the media were convinced that the “loose” locker room that allowed this behavior was the reason for the collapse. All I can say is that it couldn’t have helped.

In the midst of it all, two-time World Series champion manager—the man who broke the curse of the Bambino—Terry Francona, was unceremoniously shown the door, largely because of the growing belief within the organization that he was responsible for allowing the reprehensible behavior that occurred on a daily basis in the clubhouse.

As if the collapse, the public embarrassment and the untimely exit of Francona weren’t enough, longtime genius general manager Theo Epstein decided in October to take his talents to the Cubs, leaving behind a giant mess in Boston in the hopes of fixing one in Chicago.

The Red Sox now enter this season without the two men who brought together the 2004 team that ended an 86-year championship drought.

In fairness, the replacements are solid. Immediately upon his departure, Epstein’s right-hand man, Ben Cherington, was named his successor. Shortly after that, Cherington took a very different approach in hiring the next manager, bringing in a polar opposite of Francona, a no-nonsense, tough guy, Bobby Valentine.

Valentine figures to change more than a few things around Yawkee Way. His spring training itinerary already has some Red Sox veterans groaning. But when things go as cold as they did as fast as they did last season change is warranted.

The Sox have a stacked roster. Even with the departure of All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon, they put in place a more-than-capable replacement in fellow All-Star Andrew Bailey. With Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz at the heart of their order and speedsters Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford at the top of the lineup, the Red Sox still figure to sit right around the league lead in runs scored.

The media will make last year’s questionable judgment of the starting staff a distraction all year, so it will be interesting to see how the players deal with it. On paper, the proven All-Star and World Series-winning potential is there in Beckett and Lester. Bucholtz also has been great when healthy. The biggest question mark is Lackey. Since signing an $82.5 million contract two years ago, Lackey has been completely worthless and seemingly lazy. It’s probably a safe bet to say that this is his “make-or-break” season with the club.

Could the Sox win a World Series this year? Absolutely. They have more than enough talent to do so. But shaking the demons of 2011 is going to be an uphill battle, especially in a city like Boston.

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