The idea apparently was formulated more than year ago. Locked inside their secret offices in secret planning sessions, members of the Boston Red Sox’ secret marketing department decided that the perfect celebration of Fenway Park’s 100th birthday would be a 162-game throwback season.
The 2012 Red Sox would stink.
“Let’s try to make the Fenway fan of today have all of the feelings that the Fenway fans of yesterday had,” one bright young man said. “Let’s make the dot-com generation feel the same way those paying customers felt in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. You know, all those years.”
“How will we do that?” a bright young woman asked.
“Got it!” a second bright young man said. “Let’s make sure the team stinks like grandma’s sweat socks.”
If one emotion could be attached to all the games played in all the years in “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark,” it would be disappointment. If a second emotion could be added, it probably would be anger. World Series banners might have been raised at the end of four of the first seven seasons in the park, and two more championships might have arrived in 2004 and 2007, but that 86-year drought in the middle was the dominant historical baseball memory.
The “Sweet Caroline” sing-alongs and timely hitting and slick fielding of the last decade were froth, illusion. Old fans had forgotten their roots. Young fans simply did not understand. Disappointment and anger would be the perfect way, the only way to get down for this 100th anniversary.
“We need that pure pathos of the Buckner Moment in ’86,” the bright young woman said. “We need the Bucky Dent homer in ’78, Johnny Pesky holding the ball way back in 1946 …”
“Remember the old Red Sox motto for selfishness, ‘25 cabs for 25 players?’” the second bright young man asked. “That’s what we need.”
In an effort to get back to this forgotten formula -- back to that time when the New York Yankees were the haughty front-runners and the Red Sox were annual roadkill on the way to the World Series -- a test run for failure was made at the end of the 2011 season. Ahead by 9 ½ games for a wild-card slot, playing the best baseball in THE ENTIRE MAJOR LEAGUES for three months, the Sox went into an epic, record-tying tailspin, finishing 7-20 for the month, losing out on the playoffs in the last inning of the last game of the season.
Chaos descended. Exactly as planned.
General manager Theo Epstein, the boy-wonder architect of the return to glory, quickly took a job in Chicago with the Cubs and no one tried to stop him. (Go ahead, Theo. Good luck. And thanks for all you have done.) Manager Terry Francona, who led the local lads to those 2004 and 2007 championships and once was considered a candidate for sainthood, mayor, governor and an inspirational statue on the Boston Common, was quickly fired. (Yes, Mr. Francona, third door on the left. Don’t let it hit you on the way out.)
Stories emerged that pitchers Josh Beckett, John Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey ate fried chicken and drank beer in the clubhouse during the middle of those September games that slipped away. (Fried chicken? Beer? While we were on the edge of our chairs at home praying the rosary, hoping for a base hit?) The pitchers couldn’t be fired because they made too much money under long-term contracts, but a long list of ancillary employees, from doctors to strength coaches to trainers and certified public accountants, could be sent to the street. (This must be the answer! A better trainer!)
The members of the secret marketing department were thrilled.
“I’d forgotten how nasty everything could become,” the first bright young man said. “We have twice as many headlines than we ever had when we won. The talk shows finally have something to talk about!”
“Hate and animosity,” the bright young woman said. “People are wearing them like an old pair of slippers to the ballpark.”
“Let the bad times roll!” the second bright young man said.
The travails of 2011 seamlessly became the travails of 2012 as a new general manager, Ben Cherington, and a controversial new manager, Bobby Valentine, were named and stories appeared immediately that one did not like the other. Jonathan Papelbon, the closer in the glory years, was allowed to walk as a free agent before the season began and catcher and captain Jason Varitek and forever-knuckleballer Tim Wakefield retired and Kevin Youkilis, a constant at third and first in the glory years, was traded in the midst of the season and suddenly designated hitter David Ortiz, Big Papi, was the only remaining link on the field to those glory years and then he injured his Achilles tendon and … whew, here we are.
The record for THIS September was 7-19. The difference this time was that nobody in Boston cared. The Red Sox are in the American League East basement. The entire season has been a bust, a waste, a flat-out baseball disaster. The team hit levels of futility that hadn’t been seen in 30, 40, 50 years or more. All indications are that Valentine will be fired. The roster already has been rearranged and will be changed even more in the offseason.
If bad is good, the secret members of the secret marketing department outdid themselves. As the final half inning of the final home game arrived last week, the REM song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” came from the speakers. As the inning finished and the Sox completed a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays to finish with a 34-47 home record, worst in 47 years, the song was “Ooh, Child (Things Are Going to Get Easier)” by the Five Stairsteps.
Happy Birthday, Fenway.