Enough About The Red Sox Chemistry

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There is a place for chemistry in baseball and I’m not talking about PEDs. The Red Sox have been lauded for their improved clubhouse atmosphere coinciding with more likable people in the room such as Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, and manager John Farrell. It’s undoubtedly a more pleasant place without the rampant dysfunction and selfishness that culminated in a 69-93 last place disaster in 2012.

To put the team in context, however, they scarcely could’ve been worse in terms of cohesiveness and being on the same page than they were in 2012. The preponderance of the blame is placed on the desk of former manager Bobby Valentine because he’s a convenient scapegoat and is gone. But there’s more than enough responsibility to go around from owner John Henry with his increasing detachment from the Red Sox day-to-day affairs to focus on building the Fenway sports brand, much to the chagrin of the Liverpool football club’s faithful; CEO Larry Lucchino who spearheaded the Valentine hiring over the objections of the baseball people; and GM Ben Cherington who made the ill-fated decision to trade Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey among other questionable moves and whose head is now in the noose with the expensive signings of Victorino, Ryan Dempster and the trade for Joel Hanrahan along with the highly dubious decision to trade for Farrell to manage the team, ostensibly because they knew him and he was there when the team was at the height of its powers.

Amid all the chemistry talk and references—specifically from former manager Terry Francona in his book—that the 2011 club didn’t care about one another, all they needed to do was win one more game over the month of September that year and they still would’ve made the playoffs. You can’t blame a bad mix of players for the horrific final month of the season when they were widely regarded as the best team in baseball from May through August. They had two terrible months and they both happened to be in the first and last months of the season. If the players disliking one another wasn’t a problem in the summer, how did it turn into the biggest issue that led to their downfall?

Chemistry is not to be disregarded, but the media constantly harping on the dynamic of the personalities strikes as hunting for a narrative. If they play well, the new players and better communication will be seen as the “why” whether it’s accurate or not. Because the media no longer has to deal with Josh Beckett and his Neanderthal-like grunting and glaring; Adrian Gonzalez with his deer-in-the-headlights reaction to all things Boston; Carl Crawford and his “get me outta here” body language; and Valentine with his Valentineisms, their life is much easier and they don’t have to dread going to work. But so what? This isn’t about the media and the fans having players with a high wattage smile and charm; it’s not about having a manager who looks like he should be a manager, therefore is a manager even though his in-game strategies are widely regarded as terrible. It’s about performing and last night was an ominous sign for the third closer they’ve tried, Hanrahan, since Jonathan Papelbon was allowed to leave without so much as a whimper of protest and an unmistakable air of good riddance.

Closers blow games. It happens. Truth be told, the pitch that was called ball four on Nate McLouth could very easily (and probably should’ve) been called a strike, but big game closers have to overcome that and last night Hanrahan responded to not getting the call by throwing a wild pitch to let the Orioles tie the game, and then served up a meatball to Manny Machado to torch the thing completely.

Hanrahan is better than Bailey and Alfredo Aceves, but he’s never been in a situation like that of Boston where he’s expected to be a linchpin to the club’s success. He’s also a free agent at the end of the season. This isn’t a rebuilding Nationals team or the Pirates. There’s a lot of pressure on him. The starting rotation is woefully short and the aforementioned personnel and management issues haven’t gone away simply because of their attempts to weed out the problem people who are perceived to have led to the crumbling of the infrastructure. They may have been patched the personality gap to the satisfaction of the media at large, but the players also have to be able to play and play in Boston. Whether they can or not has yet to be determined in spite of the feeling of sunshine permeating the reconfigured room.

Chemistry only goes as far. If they don’t find some starting pitching and have a closer that can finish a game, this discussion on how much more positive the Red Sox are will be all they have to talk about in July because they certainly won’t be discussing preparations for a playoff run.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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The Astros Strip The Spaceship For Parts

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Stat-centric people are looking at the Astros and nodding their heads approvingly at the series of maneuvers that may have improved their farm system and future. GM Jeff Luhnow is implementing the sabermetric template in what’s developing into a case study of how a purely stat-based organization would be run. They’re creating new job titles in baseball circles (Director of Decision Sciences), hiring people from Baseball Prospectus, and gutting the big league club of any and all competent major league players while signing the refuse that’s available cheaply and who have nowhere else to go. If you wanted to see a team that was run by the people at Fangraphs, here are your 2013 Houston Astros sans Jed Lowrie who was traded to the Athletics yesterday along with reliever Fernando Martinez for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi. The players they received may be assets for the future, but financially they cost a fraction of what Lowrie was going to make in 2013 ($2.4 million).

Whether the Astros’ strategy works or not will take at least three and probably five years to determine. As of now, though, MLB has to take a hard look at what the Astros are doing, and decide if it’s fair to the spirit of competition to have a team with what projects to be a $25 million payroll and won’t just be the worst team in baseball for 2013 (that’s a given), but will possibly be one of the worst teams in the history of the sport. To think that the Astros, who lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 could somehow find a way to sink lower than that ineptitude is mind-boggling, but they’ve done it.

When Jim Crane bought the team and hired Luhnow, the organization was a barren, expansion-like wasteland. That’s not an excuse for what they’re doing. The days of teams having to endure half a decade of 100-plus losses ended when the Diamondbacks showed that an expansion team can win if they’re truly committed and intelligent about it. With free agency and teams’ willingness to trade, there is no longer 1960s Mets-style acceptance of being a league punching bag until the young players develop. There’s no reason that a team has to turn itself into an embarrassment while they’re rebuilding.

The Cubs are embarking on a similar restructuring and overhaul with people who come from the same mindset (though not as extreme) as Luhnow. Theo Epstein was one of the first to turn his club into a sabermetrically-inclined organization with the Red Sox in 2003, but he also used scouting techniques and a lot of money to create a juggernaut that won on the field and “won” off the field in terms of popularity and profit. The Cubs lost six fewer games than the Astros did in 2012, but while Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and the rest of the staff alter the way the club is run from top-to-bottom, build through the draft and search for international players to sign, they’re also bringing in veterans like Edwin Jackson and Scott Hairston to join Starlin Castro (whom they signed to a long-term deal), Matt Garza and a few other recognizable players.

In fairness, the Cubs were in a slightly better situation than the Astros when the new front office took charge and the Astros weren’t going to win many more games with Lowrie than they will without him, but the Cubs tried to bring in big league caliber players all winter and the Astros didn’t. The Cubs have more money to spend and a fanbase that’s going to show up no matter what, but the Astros are essentially spitting in their fans’ faces with a team that no one is going to want to go see as a “root, root, root for the home team” group. Houston fans will go to the games to see opponents Mike Trout, Derek Jeter, Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, but they’re not going to see their own Lucas Harrell. By July, the Astros won’t be able to give tickets away.

MLB saw fit to intervene when the Marlins used financial sleight of hand to pocket revenue sharing money. They mandated that the money be used to improve the on-field product. Does realistic competence dictate that the commissioner’s office step in and tell the Astros that this simply isn’t acceptable?

The Astros are trying to run their club like a business, but in MLB or any other sporting conglomerate, there’s a responsibility to ensure a baseline of competitiveness not just for the people of Houston, but for the rest of baseball.

Is it right that the four other teams in the American League West will have 19 games each against the Astros while the AL East is so parity-laden? Clubs like the White Sox and Royals in the AL Central—who have an argument to make a playoff run—can deem it wrong that a playoff spot in the West will have an easier path because the Astros are openly presenting a product that has no intention nor chance to win a vast majority of the games they play through sheer lack of talent.

I’ve long been against a minimum payroll in baseball. If a team is smart enough to succeed by spending less, they should be allowed to do so without interference. That, however, is contingent on the teams trying to compete, something the Astros are currently not doing.

It’s fine to adapt outside world business principles to sports, but unlike the outside business world, a sports franchise is not operating in a vacuum as an individual company. Like the battle between pitcher and catcher, it’s one-on-one in a group dynamic. They’re individuals, but are functioning within a group.

Since there’s no such thing as European football-style relegation in MLB where actual punishment is possible, the overseers need to seriously consider creating a payroll floor to stop what the Astros are blatantly doing because it’s hindering the competitive balance that has long been the goal. The Astros are scoffing at that notion and it’s unfair to the rest of baseball that they’re being allowed to do it with impunity.

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Expressing Anger at Torii Hunter Solves Nothing

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It’s fine to expect all professional athletes to be as accepting and understanding of others as Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe is in regards to the sexual orientation of others. Kluwe has expressed as such publicly, multiple times and as a result people who ordinarily haven’t the faintest clue who the punter for the Vikings is, now know due to his outspokenness on a controversial subject. But expecting every athlete to be so open is not reality. There’s still a wall between certain players and the possibility that in the future there will be an openly gay teammate in their clubhouse.

There are ways to deal with any reluctance on the part of players who are open about their feelings regarding this issue as Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter was when in this LA Times article on the subject he said he’d be “uncomfortable.” Savaging them in the media, getting them to backtrack and/or apologize when they don’t mean it isn’t an effective method to solve the underlying beliefs that led to his statement in the first place.

There are methods though. One is through management of the club saying that if you have a problem with it, we’ll accommodate you…by getting rid of you.

Vince Lombardi’s brother Harold was gay and in his time as a coach, Lombardi had gay players. He also made it a point to tell the other players that if they ever questioned said players’ manhood, they’d be gone. Presumably, he would also have used his power to blackball that particular player from other NFL teams. Nothing stops the side effects of prejudice like fearing for one’s livelihood that if you can’t deal with working X person, then you won’t have a job. It won’t eliminate the core beliefs that led to the prejudice, but it will prevent it from festering and infecting the club.

Interestingly, while Vince Lombardi is often held up as a paragon of conservative values, he was an ardent Democrat. It was Harold Lombardi who happened to be a staunch conservative when the Republican party was about business interests and not about telling people how to live their lives; he was a Republican before the Republican party was overrun by religious fundamentalists who excluded rather than included. That hardline attitude is shaking the ground beneath the feet of the ultra right wingers and religious right with the prospect of party marginalization that accompanies continuously losing elections with the untenable candidates they’re presenting such as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. This is serving to “educate” them far better than an enlightening discussion that’s not going to enlighten anyone.

The bottom line tells all. Losing jobs, losing elections, losing money—it all results in the sudden epiphany of, “Hey, okay. I can work with others! I can be flexible.”

Hunter’s comments have been the catalyst for indignant blog postings and Tweets expressing shock that someone would dare say such a thing on the eve of 2013 when we, as a society, are supposed to be beyond all that, but maybe a little understanding of where Hunter is coming from would be beneficial. When a person is told from the beginning of his or her life that homosexuality is a sin; when the “proof” of this is presented in biblical texts and hammered into their brains at home from their parents; when they hear from respected members of the community such as pastors, priests, and rabbis, and, in conjunction, they’re functioning in the testosterone-fueled fishbowl of sports, do you think they’re going to express a liberalism when it comes to a person’s sexuality?

Because the public doesn’t want to hear what Hunter said, it’s not eliminated from existence.

These are facts and they’re not politically correct. The ever-present litany of clichés for athletes was created for public consumption and is designed to shun controversy. With that, you have athletes saying flavorless sound bytes of vanilla nothingness. Hunter spoke honestly of his beliefs on the matter. It’s opened the door to talk about it and perhaps convince those who think like Hunter that they need to be a little more accepting of an issue that they can’t control and that their resistance in doing so might eventually cast them out if they’re unwilling or unable to adapt to the prospect of having a gay teammate.

The only way to end that type of ingrained feeling of discomfort is to confront it, not by providing standard, pat responses out of fear of public reprisal, but with actual, honest answers so Hunter can be convinced that not every gay person is going to be staring at him in the shower as if he’s their next date; that the person is not committing a mortal sin and sentencing themselves to an eternity of damnation from a behavior Hunter views as against God’s laws; that it isn’t a choice. If Hunter says, “I’d be fine with it,” when he wouldn’t be fine with it, it does more harm than good. Lying can’t make a player who’s gay feel comfortable living his life publicly with the unsaid knowledge that there are players who are steering clear of him intentionally because of it. Only true education, discussion, or at least agreeing to disagree and working together in spite of it can do that.

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ESPN Is To Blame For Rob Parker

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Rob Parker is a symptom, not the disease. In spite of ESPN’s decision to suspend him for his absurd comments about Robert Griffin III, Parker’s presence or absence from the network is not going to cure the malady that infects any sports fan who has no choice but to use ESPN because it has such a wide-ranging hand in every sport.

Is Parker to blame for pushing the envelope with comments that were designed to provoke? Isn’t that the ESPN mandate? To get people to pay attention to them not with legitimate sports news and analysis, but by doing the equivalent of screaming “FIRE” in a crowded theater with impunity? So entwined with every aspect of sports, there’s no escaping ESPN. This makes Parker and his inept ilk in their employ all the more galling. They get away with this silliness, so why couldn’t they get away with deciding not to partake in this fire-stoking, and chose to provide quality and substance instead of resorting to antics like a bad Madonna outfit?

Parker maintains the inexplicable combination of knowing nothing about sports and writing in an amateurish, clumsy fashion. Yet he’s employed by ESPN and treated as one of their “signature” voices with a prominent platform. It’s just easier to find a stable of Rob Parkers than it is to find people who will be able to express themselves in a manner befitting such a pulpit.

Of course Parker’s responsible for what he says, but those claiming he should be fired for his offensive and borderline incoherent statements are missing the point of the entire Parker package: Why is he employed by ESPN in the first place? How can it be that the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” is so incapable of hiring talented, intelligent, knowledgeable people who can draw an audience without having the content secondary to numbers they’re able to accumulate through cheap tactics.

ESPN need only look at the foundation of today’s NFL to understand the narrow difference between “look at me!!!” to accrue a brief burst of activity like staring at a train crash, and attracting a consistent viewer/readership.

The late Hall of Fame NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was a public relations man and knew how to create a business that would provide thrills and watchable sports action without turning it into a circularly ridiculous entity doomed to fail. Tex Schramm was also in publicity (in fact, he hired Rozelle with the Rams) and knew that in order to succeed, he also had to sell. With the Cowboys, that’s what he did: he sold an image. Tom Landry was the football guru; Gil Brandt the personnel “genius”; the Cowboys, with their space-age uniforms, unique style implemented by the religious, stoic Landry and moniker of “America’s Team” wouldn’t have gone anywhere if the product wasn’t high quality. In addition to creating an image and making money, the team won, so Schramm wasn’t tricking anyone with trash. There’s a fine line between sale and scam and ESPN crossed that line long ago. Whether or not they’re aware of it is the important question.

ESPN could learn the separation between entertainment and rubbernecking by examining how the NFL became what it is today in large part because of Schramm and Rozelle.

Rather than emulate the NFL, ESPN has chosen to copy the doomed Vince McMahon project the XFL in which pro wrestling announcers were shoved into a “professional” football broadcast booth and Jesse “The Body” Ventura (then Governor of Minnesota) tried to start a pro wrestling style feud with Rusty Tillman, one of the head coaches who wanted to coach football and not undertake a starring role in McMahon’s carnival. It didn’t work. There has to be something to cling to for the fans to stay and watch. Like McMahon’s main moneymaking venture, the WWE, you know what it is when watching it and if the viewer chooses to suspend disbelief and become invested in the canned nature of professional wrestling, it’s a wink-and-a-nod contract made with the show itself. There’s something dirtier about ESPN when they’re hiring the likes of Parker and encouraging these types of comments, then hanging Parker out to dry when the comments are deemed as “offensive.”

The difference between what Schramm and Rozelle built in the NFL is that if you pull back the curtain behind all the hype, there’s substance for the old-school football fan to still watch the game if they’re not interested in the sideshow. Is that the case with ESPN? Do they have anything substantive—from their intentions to their implementation—left? What is their long-term purpose apart from ratings, webhits, and the higher advertising rates that come along with it?

For every quality person ESPN has working for them, there are ten who shouldn’t be allowed to write a personal blog, let along have a forum on ESPN. Parker is one of those people. The only time people care about what he says is when he says what he said yesterday; they’re certainly not going to him for sports insight because he doesn’t have any, nor does he have the skills to present his non-existent knowledge in an engaging way. If he was able to do that, he’d be due a certain begrudging credit for being able to write. But he can’t, so there’s no reason whatsoever for him to be there.

Firing him will placate the masses who are calling for his dismissal as if it would accomplish something, but Parker isn’t the problem. ESPN is. If they fire Parker, they’ll simply replace him with someone else. I’d say whomever it is that replaces Parker couldn’t possibly be worse, but this is ESPN and if any company has the skills and history of discovering the newest-latest in lowest common denominator, it’s them.

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The Yunel Escobar “Slur”

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Perhaps this was a joke that went awry. Since players no longer use a tube of black gunk as eye black and it’s now a clean stick-on, a few teammates could’ve taken Yunel Escobar’s supply of eye black stickers, wrote the offensive terms on them in an ink that doesn’t activate until it reaches a certain temperature—presumably from sweat—and watched as hilarity ensued.

Except it wasn’t hilarity to those who saw it or had their attention drawn to it by the media.

If Escobar did this himself, then it’s piling onto the problems of the multi-talented Cuban since he came onto the scene with the Braves and repeatedly angered Bobby Cox and his teammates with his pouting and brainless play that led to the Braves trading such a gifted athlete to the Blue Jays in the first place.

Is this that big of a deal? It’s offensive, but the controversy from 2011 when Braves’ pitching coach Roger McDowell openly mocked fans with homosexual allusions in coarse terms with children nearby was exponentially worse than clubhouse humor that was meant to be a joke among teammates and turned into a huge mess. In the confines of the clubhouse, where teasing about sexual orientation and playacting in such a way is a regular occurrence, it’s not a big deal at all.

What those who are taking such great offense to this are missing is that baseball players are baseball players and sports clubhouses are sports clubhouses. Because there’s greater scrutiny, closer inspection and analysis of what happens on the field, and a larger number of outlets to bring stories to the our collective attention, it doesn’t alter the man’s world that is big time sports. The world is no longer insular; women aren’t relegated to being secretaries and receptionists; players are making their views on society more known and whether it’s due to religion or the macho sensibility that is prevalent among Latin players, this is going on publicly and privately.

Are there gay athletes in every sport from baseball to football to European soccer to hockey? Of course. Do they laugh along with the joking while putting up a front for appearances and to possibly keep their jobs? Absolutely. Is there anything that can be done about it? No.

That Escobar is a Latin player isn’t to be ignored. It was the same term as what was written on Escobar’s eye black—maricón which means “faggot” in Spanish—that was the genesis of one of boxing’s most storied and tragic events when Emile Griffith beat Bennie Paret to death in what could only be described as a visceral rage that isn’t present even in the most hotly contested fight. Paret, at the weigh-in prior to the bout, had called Griffith a maricón. It’s about as big an insult as can be tossed at a Latin. There’s a large amount of one-upmanship and perception that still remains in big time sports. When the Marlins signed Jose Reyes and told Hanley Ramirez that he was moving to third base to accommodate the new acquisition, it wasn’t simply that Ramirez’s position of shortstop was being usurped, but the idea that his territory was being threatened. Whether it was good of bad for the team was secondary to issues that have more to do with a mentality and culture than anything else.

Despite only two of these incidents being known to the masses in recent history, it’s not indicative of an isolated instance. There are higher-educated and self-described “enlightened” people running around professional sports teams than there were in the past. As recently as 15 years ago, baseball executives in top posts were all male and were almost all former players, legacy cases, or men who worked their way up in one form or another. More diversity doesn’t imply greater enlightenment. There will still be people who think women shouldn’t be involved with the men making baseball decisions; there will still be people who allow their own personal feelings to interfere with whom they hire as on-field staff.

The media is acting indignantly at Escobar because they’re supposed to act indignant. Certain new age segments are turning ashen, shocked that such a thing could exist and be accepted in this day and age. These are entities that are either ordered to write about a situation that’s become known and aren’t surprised and those who don’t have the faintest clue about what’s customary inside a big league clubhouse.

MLB is investigating the Escobar incident because they don’t want to alienate a large segment of the population. It’s a business and uttering slurs against any bloc is bad for business. But considering what inside baseball people know of what’s normal in the sanctity of a clubhouse, I’m sure there are many who are shrugging and saying, “It’s just a dumb baseball player or a joke that went wrong.”

Escobar will be punished because MLB has no choice in the matter, but this type of thing is reality that wound up in the news. It’s as monolithic as the farm system, advance scouting, and players complaining about their contracts. One punishment for show is not going to make it stop.

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John Henry’s 2012 Of Apologies And Damage Control

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Owner John Henry wrote a letter of apology to fans of the Liverpool football (soccer) club for their bad start and to do damage control for the decision to loan striker Andy Carroll to West Ham United without finding someone to replace him.

I’m pretty much summarizing what’s in this piece in the New York Times. I have no idea what Henry’s ownership group has or hasn’t done with Liverpool and whether it’s positive or negative, explainable or ludicrous. I do know what’s gone on with the Red Sox, however, and even predicted it almost to the letter.

Henry’s had a busy and bad week as Liverpool’s struggles coincide with the Red Sox having lost 7 straight games on a West Coast swing—so bad that Henry flew to Seattle along with GM Ben Cherington to meet with manager Bobby Valentine. Speculation was rampant that flying cross-country signified that Valentine was about to be fired. He wasn’t and the Red Sox nightmarish season continued with Valentine as they again lost to the Mariners.

It’s not simply that the Red Sox are losing, but they’ve become resigned to losing and to this hellish season that is thankfully coming to an end. In all of his years as a manager in both the U.S. and Japan, in the majors and minors, Valentine has always put forth the optimistic, upbeat, and confident tone of knowing what he’s doing is right and that if he keeps trying, eventually things will fall into place. This season has sapped that from him. Valentine looks to be a man who knows his fate, and in some respects wants it to happen. Yes, there will be the embarrassment of having come back to the dugout amid much fanfare and presided over a disaster. No, he’s probably not going to get another chance to manage. After this, I’m not sure he wants one. The Red Sox are an infighting, unlikable monstrosity. It’s hard to picture Valentine managing the team when they home on Friday and presumably, he’s waiting for the axe to fall and will be grateful when it does. His contract runs through next season, so he’ll get paid whether he’s dealing with this aggravation or not.

The manager gets the credit and takes the blame and a portion of this is Valentine’s fault, but the Red Sox season wouldn’t have gone any differently in the won/loss column had they hired Pete Mackanin, Dale Sveum, John Farrell, Sandy Alomar Jr., or Gene Lamont. Valentine has become a convenient scapegoat for what’s gone wrong, but in the end it’s the players.

The purpose of Henry’s flight to Seattle is unknown. From the outside it appeared to be a pretentious, “Look I’m doing something,” effort. Perhaps he should’ve flown from Seattle to Liverpool to try to get a handle on his other mess.

Henry’s apologies and pledges to fix what’s gone wrong with both franchises will be of little consolation to fans who’ve grown as accustomed to success as those of the Red Sox and Liverpool. It’s a toss-up as to which fanbase of the teams owned by Fenway Sports Group (FSG) is more passionate and, at this point, angry. But the season for Liverpool just started and their fans hold out hope that something good can result from their anger. Unfortunately for Liverpool, there are no diversions to catch their attention if that doesn’t work any better than it did for Red Sox fans. Liverpool fans need only look at what’s happened in Boston and gaze into a possible future that was overseen by the same man—the man who keeps apologizing. Red Sox fans accepted their reality long ago and are waiting for the beheadings to begin with their baseball team as they look toward the NFL season and the Patriots.

The Fenway Sports Group doesn’t own them.

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