Sunday March 31, 2013

Boston Red Sox fans -- those in Berkshire County and throughout the wide expanse of Red Sox nation -- are finding out this spring what it is like to be a fan of the Kansas City Royals. The Red Sox are coming off a last place season in the American League and the baseball punditry is in general agreement that another last place season may be in the offing. For Red Sox fans who have grown accustomed to playoff appearances and the occasional World Series sweep, these are unsettling times, the anticipation of the new season replaced by a feeling of dread.

However, there is hope to hang on to, like a life raft. For one thing, the team’s major league record "sellout streak" of 793 games is expected to end in April. Because the streak was based on tickets distributed, it continued even last September when Fenway Park appeared to be one-third empty on a typically forlorn weeknight. The streak had gone from a source of pride to a source of ridicule, and its end will symbolize an end to ownership’s determination to cling to a gloried past in spite of the arrival of harsh realities.

Ownership, which had grown comfortable opening the gates and allowing frenzied fans clutching over-priced tickets to flood the ballpark, now has to scramble to fill the yard. Anticipating empty seats in April, the team is pushing free food, reduced-price beers and other deals routinely offered by down-market teams like the aforementioned Kansas City Royals, not the storied Boston Red Sox. In an ideal world, the Red Sox struggles will scare away the front-runners -- corporate types, celebrities, tourists -- resulting in lower prices and more open seats for the devoted, old school Red Sox fans who can’t get closer to the team than NESN.

What will those loyal fans see upon arrival at the ballpark this season? There will be charismatic, reliable second baseman Dustin Pedroia, promising third baseman Will Middlebrooks, a couple of prospects -- and a bunch of retreads and flawed players. First baseman Mike Napoli will hit a lot of home runs if his hip holds out. Centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury will have a good season if he remains healthy and is motivated by the prospect of a big free agent contract to play somewhere else next year. The pitching staff, which has still not recovered from the hideous collapse of September 2011, consists of one question mark after another, with the only certainty the inevitable meltdown or meltdowns by volatile hurler Alfredo Aceves.

Management wanted the team to become more likable, and with the departure of high-priced sourpusses Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the Sox are easier to root for. But they don’t appear to be any better.

Misery loves company, of course, and it is possible that Berkshire fans of the New York Yankees will be as unhappy as their Boston counterparts. The perennially successful Yankees enter the season with their first baseman, shortstop, third baseman and centerfielder, all of them stars at one point or another, on the injured list, and the pitching staff looks old and fragile. When the Yankees host the Red Sox Monday afternoon, it could potentially be the beginning of a long season for both.

For the lords of baseball, a season without any performance-enhancing drug controversies will be regarded as a successful one. While the rejection last year of several steroid-marred candidates for the Hall of Fame was welcome, their continued presence on the ballot remains a reminder of that dark era. The suspension in 2012 of Melky Cabrera when he was leading the National League in hitting was a reminder that the era isn’t over. Commissioner Bud Selig’s declaration of the era’s end has proved to be as empty as President Bush’s declaration of "mission accomplished" in Iraq 10 years ago.

The PED issue, and the problems facing the "local" teams aside, it will be cause for rejoicing tomorrow afternoon when the first pitch is thrown in the Yankees-Red Sox game in the Bronx. Baseball is back, and summer can’t be far behind.