Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Boys of Summer Meet the Crabby Moralists of February

When adoring fans give a ballplayer the nickname "Panda," the guy's not going to be built like circa 1985 Marvin Hagler. But to go by the reporting from Fort Myers, the hopes and dreams of the 2016 Red Sox are already crushed under the mass surrounding Pablo Sandoval's waistline.

This morning, Chris Gasper of the Globe sensibly reminded fans that it doesn't matter if Sandoval is a butterball, only that he hit the ball much better than he did in 2015. Still, Gasper wrote it would be nice if Sandoval showed some "penitence" when talking to the media.

Penitence? Did Pablo rob the poor box over the winter? Has a .246 average become a sin worthy of the confessional?

Hanley Ramirez took his first public drills at first base two days ago. He looked like all players do the first day of spring training, as if he was enjoying himself just fooling around at the game, which he was. Reporting on 98.5 FM, Dan Roche of WBZ, one of the nicest men extant, sternly noted that he'd give Hanley a pass on that, but he had better start seeing Ramirez taking hours of remedial first base instruction from coaches from here on in.

Roche is maybe the most unabashed Sox fan in the media, so honest in his homerism it can't be held against him. He was obviously reflecting a widespread public attitude that Ramirez must prove himself worthy of Soxdom by displays of suffering, or at least sweating.

Let me remind Roche and all others interested of the Sox of a few points. First base has traditionally been (and in the National League still is) where teams have placed players who swung a mean bat needed in the lineup but were indifferent or worse fielders. It is the least demanding defensive position except pitcher. It's nice if a pitcher is a Gold Glover, but if he can't get guys out, it's meaningless. Same goes for first basemen. If they can consistently hit for power, their glove work is a frill. They can get by with mediocrity. Forty-homer guys can get by as butchers.

Fifty years ago, manager Gene Mauch of the Phillies explained his decision to move slugger Dick Allen from third to first by saying, "if you can play catch, you can play first." No offensive to all first basemen everywhere (I was one!), but the truth of that statement has never been successfully challenged.

In Ramirez's case, his critics are missing the essentials of his Sox situation. What Ramirez needs isn't a better work ethic afield, it's not to get hurt the way he did in 2015 (and '14 and '13 for that matter), so that he can play in enough games to hit the 25-plus homers and 90-plus RBI that make him of any value to Boston. If that requires taking a lackadaisical attitude towards digging errant throws out of the dirt, well, that's part of the price of having two DHs on one roster.

I don't expect any of the above to sink in around here. Not after I read Dan Shaughnessy in the Globe this morning. He ended a routine "veteran returns to spring training" column on Dustin Pedroia with the peculiar phrase, "It feels somebody needs to yell at these guys."

What for, Dan? Aren't they putting their sanitary socks on correctly? Shaughnessy is fond of saying that writers say good things about players and teams when they win and bad things when they lose, which is true, but here's he's ripping a team when nothing is happening at all, when covering first base drills have barely begun.

2015, like 2014, was a lousy season for the Sox. All plans went wrong and many key players, Sandoval and Ramirez leading the pack, contributed little or flat out sucked. That's unfortunate, but it's not a crime to be punished. It's just a horseshit year to be forgotten as quickly as possible when pitchers and catchers report and the new season begins.

Let me add, the new, long, long season. Baseball at the major league level is a hybrid creature, an incredibly demanding sport which is also a stone blast to play. It can't be played well without self-discipline, but it also can't be played well without appreciating its pleasure principle, the fun which makes it possible to stay sane during the endless trek towards October and hopefully November. When players fool around in simple enjoyment of their silly game in spring training, it's just as important to their performance come Opening Day as all those first base drills.

At the second spring training I ever covered in 1981, Sox manager Ralph Houk was informed Tigers skipper Sparky Anderson was conducting three hour plus two-a-day workouts at his camp. Houk laughed and responded, "tell Sparky I don't know enough baseball to do that." He didn't add, "neither does anyone else," because we already got his drift. Houk's spring trainings featured hours of many players standing stock still. In that strike-interrupted season, Detroit and Boston had identical records.

Baseball ain't football. Grim resolve is NOT the attitude needed. If any team were to enter spring training with the suppressed rage and humiliation the above media members and so many of their audience wish, it'd be the most miserable group of humans imaginable by late July. It'd also be about 15 games out of first.

Luckily for Sox fans, baseball is too much fun for players not to have any, no matter what outsiders think. What I'm reading and hearing out of Fort Myers so far makes me worry more about sports journalism in general than about the home team.

Baseball, like all sports, is serious and fun all at once. If you don't capture the fun, you're not doing a good job of reporting. If you're not HAVING some fun, find another racket offering more money and security. God knows, there are a lot of those.

I'm just another old fart and I know standing in front of time and change is a fool's endeavor. But I can't help thinking "somebody needs to yell at these guys" has become my former profession's motto.


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