Maybe we’ve become spoiled here in the center of the sports universe, but there’s something less than stirring about the notion of the World Series champion Boston Red Sox opening the defense of their title some 3,000 miles from home, at T-Mobile Park, the somewhat antiseptic environs of the Seattle Mariners. And in March, no less.
But here we are, at the beginning of another baseball season. Chris Sale will do the opening day honors tonight when he takes the mound against a Seattle team once again expected to be AL West also-rans.
It was Sale, of course, who gave us the transcendent final image of the 2018 season, buckling Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado at the knees for a series-ending strikeout.
Now, a mere 151 days later, baseball is back, and it feels like the glow from that last strikeout has yet to wear off.
Red Sox fans, never ones to pass up the opportunity to complain or offer dire predictions even in the best of times, seem positively mellow this spring. Maybe it’s the idea that the absurd “Curse of the Bambino” has finally been shed after four Series wins in 14 years. Maybe it’s the lingering after-effects of the Patriots’ somewhat unexpected Super Bowl run. Maybe it’s just the return of warmer weather, but baseball fans in these parts seem to be taking the “What, me worry?” approach to the 2019 season.
As always, there is plenty of uncertainty headed into April. Four-fifths of the team’s starting rotation -- Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez -- have lost time to injury over the past few seasons. Two of team’s three best hitters -- J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts -- can all be free agents at season’s end. The third, Mookie Betts, can be a free agent in 2020, unless the Sox can scrape together something north of $30 million a year to keep his all-world talent parked in right field. Craig Kimbrel, the best closer of his generation, wasn’t resigned, leaving the bullpen a question mark. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia should be back at some point this year, but there’s no telling whether his surgically repaired left knee -- at this point held together as much by force of will as medical science -- can withstand the rigors of a 162-game season.
In most years, that’s a sports talk radio caller’s dream offseason. Entering the new season, however, Sox fans seem to finally be acquiring some of the same confidence bestowed upon the Patriots. In Alex Cora we trust.
That’s because there’s plenty to like about the 2019 Red Sox, especially if you enjoyed the 2018 version. Save for Kimbrel, all of the team’s key players are back. Betts, who remains one of the best baseball players on the planet, is part of an outfield that ranks among the best in the league defensively. Price and fellow starter Rick Porcello are Cy Young winners, and Sale should be. Bogaerts is one of the most underrated players in the league, and this may be the year baby-faced third baseman Rafael Devers breaks out.
At the helm is the preternaturally calm manager Cora, whose upbeat honesty and openness struck a chord with players and fans alike. Truth be told, these Red Sox are likable, something that couldn’t always be said of past teams (looking at you, Carl Everett).
It may be too much to ask the team to win 108 games again, especially with the New York Yankees adding to their pitching depth and a Tampa Bay Rays team that always finds a way to be competitive on a shoestring budget lurking not far behind. But it will almost surely be another season of playoff-caliber baseball, played out in the best park in the majors. No wonder Red Sox fans seem more relaxed these days.