Can Red Sox meet great expectations?
ARLINGTON, Texas -- How do you become the stuff of legend before you've played a single game?
Judging by the advance reviews attesting to their greatness, the Red Sox should begin the 2011 season Friday afternoon by following Shoeless Joe out of a mythical cornfield instead of climbing up the dugout steps at The Ballpark in Arlington.
Who hasn't picked the Red Sox to win the American League pennant this year? Out of 45 "experts" making predictions for ESPN, a group that includes former players Doug Glanville, Orel Hershiser, Rick Sutcliffe, Mark Mulder, John Kruk and Dave Winfield, 42 said the Red Sox will be playing in the World Series in October. Another making that declaration for the Worldwide Leader was one Aaron Boone, who used to be in the business of shattering Red Sox dreams instead of promoting them. Tin-pot dictators hold elections less one-sided.
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Sports Illustrated proclaimed in this week's cover story that the Sox will win 100 games, echoing a goal stated by Sox pitcher Josh Beckett early in spring training.
Brian Cashman, general manager of the team usually on the receiving end of such across-the-board acclamation, the New York Yankees, declared the Red Sox favorites early in spring, and was immediately called out for practicing a little gamesmanship by Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino.
The dry-eyed wise guys in Vegas have set the odds on the Sox winning the Series at 9-2.
About the only well-known prognosticator who hasn't weighed in is President Obama, evidently still reeling from his selection of Kansas to win the NCAA men's basketball tournament. He's also a White Sox fan, and the last thing he needs on his speed dial is Ozzie Guillen bending his ear. (Just ask Bobby Jenks.)
Even before the first pitch, there already was one widely publicized episode of sour grapes, Orioles manager Buck Showalter telling a magazine writer in an unguarded moment that he'd like to see how smart Theo Epstein would be working on an allowance instead of making unlimited withdrawals on John W. Henry's ATM account. Showalter's snarkiness drew a rebuke from Sox manager Terry Francona and the Orioles' manager eventually called the GM with an apology.
As it happens, the champions by acclamation are opening the season against the Texas Rangers, the bemused American League champions of 2010 who must be wondering how they relinquished their most-favored-nation status seemingly overnight. Maybe that's why C.J. Wilson, the left-hander who handled the Sox with ease last season and faces them in the opener, expressed something less than awe Thursday when he told Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald, "It's not like all of a sudden they have the ghost of Ted Williams playing for them or something."
And what about the 25 men whose future has been so grandly set before them, as if all that is required of them is to stick to the script and they'll soon be booking guest spots on Letterman? What do they make of these serial man-crushes?
A stroll through the Red Sox clubhouse offered a variety of answers, ranging from Dustin Pedroia's predictable defiance ("We don't have to prove anything to anybody but our team") to David Ortiz's humor ("Wish us good luck") to a what-else-is-new rejoinder from Francona ("I really haven't understood some of the questions," he said. "The expectations have always been like this since I've been here").
Reliever Daniel Bard is beginning his second full season with the Red Sox. When the Sox last won the World Series, in 2007, he was enduring a pitiable first year of pro ball, trying futilely to find the strike zone.
Now Bard, whom new pitching coach Curt Young says has one of the best arms he's ever seen, is one of the obvious reasons the Sox are projected as such heavy favorites, a prime piece of a reconstituted bullpen that looks vastly improved over last season's underachievers.
Posed this question -- is it better to be favored by all, or picked by no one to win -- Bard preferred the love.
"As much as it's cool to be the underdog and win," he said, "more often than not the team that is picked to win comes out on top."
The preference for picking the Sox comes as no surprise to him.
"It's hard not to," Bard said, "but with baseball it's such a long season, it seems like all the averages play out true to how they're expected. It's not like football, where a team can get hot and win four or five games to make the playoffs, then make a run. You've got to do it for a long time in baseball."
Bard elaborated, employing an appreciation for past performance as a reliable predictor in terms that would make statistical analyst Bill James proud.
"Guys who have done it in the past are probably going to do it in the future," he said. "Guys who haven't done it in the past are probably not going to do it. It happens, obviously, but usually baseball kind of stays true to form. Until the playoffs, then it's kind of a crapshoot."
So, then, is it Boston's division to lose?
"To me, you can't point to a weakness on this team," Bard said. "I can't think of one. Even the places where we might not have that much front-line ability, we've got depth. We can go five deep in the bullpen in Pawtucket. We're not going to lose anything bringing those guys up. We can take a couple of injuries this year and still be OK.
"Last year, 1 through 25, I think we were awesome. Once we had to dig deeper, there wasn't a lot there. They've addressed most of those problems."
Crawford relished being on the team that might as well have been on Pluto in a galaxy where the Yankees and Red Sox occupied the only two planets worth mentioning. "When we weren't hearing about ourselves," he said, "that made us want to win it more."
Gonzalez took the pragmatist's view, which on first impression is the typical MO for a generally quiet, "I'm-here-to-play-every-day" practitioner who has the makings of a working-class hero, regardless of how many of Henry's millions he ultimately takes home with him.
"It doesn't matter," Gonzalez said. "We've got to go and play the game. What people say, predict this or that, it's just somebody's opinion. At the end of the day, it's how we play the season, how we play the games. If we go out there, and day in and day out play better than the other team, we're going to win. If we don't, we're not.
"I've learned that talent at the end of the day matters, but you have to play the game right and execute the game. That's when you win."
Mike Cameron has played in the big leagues since 1998. He has been on a pennant winner (the 2001 Seattle Mariners) but has never been to the World Series. Just because most everybody is picking his team to get there this season doesn't assure him of a ticket this October, but he said it is a great hedge against creeping complacency.
"The expectation level has never changed here," he said. "That pedigree has been here, as far as that is concerned. As players, I think everybody is humble enough to understand the talent shines as well as we play.
"With so much talent in this room, everyone wants to play well. We understand that Theo and Mr. Henry went out and put this club together to try and have a special year. As players, we don't go off that. We try to stay healthy and play well for each other. This is just the start of the grind."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.