Tracking the Red Sox this century should have come with a note of caution: “Warning: May induce whiplash.”
The Yankees arrived in Fenway Park on Friday night for the start of a three-game series that possessed very different meanings to the two participants. For New York, the games represent an opportunity to take fuller form in preparation for the playoffs. For the Red Sox, the matchup moves them closer to the final lengths of a season where the lone potential on-field “accomplishment” would be an escape from last place.
There is something absolute and unforgiving about the humiliation of last place. Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke is pained when he looks from the home dugout at Fenway, confronted with the monumental reminder on the Green Monster that his team resides at the bottom of the five-team A.L. East.
“I don’t like seeing us sitting there . . . I don’t like that," said Roenicke. "Nobody does.”
Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom watched on Thursday night as his former organization, the Tampa Bay Rays, secured their second straight postseason berth. A year ago, he’d been present as the team clinched in Toronto. This year, as happy as Bloom was for his former colleagues, their success reinforced the plight of his current team.
“You never want to do this ever again. It stinks and it’s really difficult, even when you know that you needed to take a longer view and you needed to be very big picture and long-term oriented. You still want to win,” Bloom said. “We need to look forward, but I think the sting of a bad year is with you every day during it. It’s with you after it. And it really stays with you until you wipe it and replace it with a much better year. That’s part of what motivates everyone here and everyone in this game who has success. It’s part of what motivates you to do better.”
The Red Sox are just two years removed from their latest of four championships this century, the most of any team in the sport. Yet as they attempt to rebound from this awful season, they can be forgiven for harboring a measure of envy (at least this year) of those whose existences are less tumultuous, especially their foremost A.L. East rivals.
New York has “just” one World Series since the Red Sox commenced their championship run in 2004. Yet on their way to a 22nd postseason berth in 26 seasons, the Yankees embody the notion of sustainable, perennial contention that has proved elusive in Boston in recent years.
The Yankees haven’t finished with a sub-.500 record since 1992, and they haven’t finished in last since 1990. Indeed, in their entire history, they’ve finished in last place four times ― the same number the Sox have since 2012.
The Red Sox have been an exercise in volatility, particularly the last nine years. Around the extraordinary performances of 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2018, there have been seasons that represented not merely disappointment but embarrassment, and that have turned the plummet from the game’s pinnacle to its nadir from unfathomable to familiar.
One can make the case that the Red Sox have been engaged in a heaven-to-hell commute without precedent in modern baseball. Among the 115 World Series winners, there have been just six instances prior to this year of teams finishing in last place within two seasons of winning it all, a feat that the Red Sox — who followed their 2013 title with last-place finishes in both 2014 and 2015 — have the inside track on pulling off for the fourth time in nine years. (It’s worth noting that last year’s champions, the Washington Nationals, likewise reside in last place in the N.L. East this year.)
Perhaps the closest parallel comes from the Athletics franchise. An early powerhouse in modern baseball, the A’s won the World Series three times in four years from 1910–13, and again in back-to-back fashion in 1929–30. But from 1915–21, they finished last in seven straight years before gradually building toward their second great run.
The A’s followed a similar course in Oakland from 1971–90, reaching the postseason five straight times from 1971–75 and three-peating as champions from 1972–74, then reaching three more World Series from 1988–90 with another championship in 1989. Between those two runs, however, they landed in last place twice and, in the era of seven-team divisions, finished at least 20 games out of first place five times.
Yet the contours of those runs were different than that of the 21st-century Red Sox. Those Athletics runs were two peaks on either side of a wide valley. The recent Red Sox landscape has been jagged, incapable of providing stable footing.
For the Red Sox, in a century of extraordinary success, the extreme year-to-year variance nonetheless represents a failure — at least when the Red Sox find themselves smarting from a plummet. The only way to counter that failure is with yet another rapid climb.
“We apologize — 19 wins at this point in the season is something that is not acceptable,” team chairman Tom Werner said on NESN on Friday. “We’re going to be back.”