BOSTON What did it mean to Boston sports fans that the Heat beat the Celtics in Game 7 of the Conference Finals on Saturday night? Well, it meant they had to start wondering whether Ray Allen and Kevin Garnet would be in green next season. It meant they had to decide whether to root for the Heat or the Thunder in the Finals. And most distressing, it meant they had to turn their attention to the Red Sox.
For those who take pleasure in the misfortune of others, I suppose there is some good news: The Cubs, presided over by Theo Epstein, late the general manager of the Red Sox, are in last place. Seriously in last place. If Theo Epstein sat in the highest row of the bleachers in Wrigley Field, he could not see .500 with a telescope.
Things are also not going so well for Jonathan Papelbon, the closer whose departure has been much and legitimately lamented. It’s not that he hasn’t been closing games when he’s had the opportunity; it’s that the opportunities have been relatively rare for his new team, the Phillies. Like the Cubs, they’re in last place.
By those arbitrary and irrelevant standards, that the Red Sox have spent the last two-and-a-half months crawling out of the cellar in the American League East and then falling back down the stairs doesn’t seem so bad. By any other standards, the Sox might charitably be characterized as disappointing. The only reason we can’t write them off as irrelevant is that in the A.L. East this spring, a .500 ball puts you within a modest winning streak of first place.
If you’re an optimist, you reason that the eventual return of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford will jazz this heretofore inconsistent team. If you’re not, you wonder why Crawford should hit, run and field any better this year than he did last year, and you notice that whatever else Ellsbury has been doing during rehab, he hasn’t been learning to pitch.
Several factors have so far failed to inspire this year’s Red Sox. David Ortiz slimmed down, and he has hit well during the first third of the season. Bobby Valentine has been photogenic during his numerous commercial close-ups.
Valentine has come up with some creative analogies involving the bottom off which the Red Sox have been bouncing since early April. He has expressed his disagreement with an umpire energetically enough to get himself tossed from a game.
Does this mean Boston fans should despair? Of course not. Summer is long, albeit perhaps not as long as the Red Sox would need it to be for climbing into contention. But given the splendid ride the Celtics gave them by very nearly upsetting a younger, stronger, healthier opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals, those fans may find themselves wishing the gap between the recently almost sublime to the currently nearly ridiculous was not so great.