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Identity in Crisis - by Chris Covey

September 22, 2011

Apparently, I missed a staffing change in the past week. But I guess David Ortiz is now the Red Sox manager. Whether or not he will continue to be the designated hitter is still unknown, but we do know his first move: Aceves will pitch in the starting rotation and no longer out of the bullpen. David, whatís your next change? How will you fill the void in the bullpen, now that you took the most versatile and one of the most effective relievers and moved him into the starting rotation, a role that he has had varied success with? What are you going to do at third base? The batting order? Tell me, Mr. Papi, I need to know!

These are all issues that Boston needs to deal with, but luckily, Ortiz does not. He needs to hit; thatís about it. What he said isnít all that radical -- radio shows have been pondering that move since Buchholz went to the DL -- but making those comments is certainly a problem. Remember being a kid? If Mom said no, ask Dad. The goal was to get the answer that you wanted from one of them, but the unintended consequence was often Mom and Dad arguing about some foreign concept called a ďunited frontĒ -- and would never lead to me getting to stay up later. Ortiz, when youíre being interviewed, itís your job to present a united front, just like Mom and Dad. The media is looking for -- needing -- a reason to report drama. Ortiz is one of the faces of the organization, he needs to be on the same page.

Just the other day, Tom Brady gave the perfect example of what to do in such a situation. During a radio interview with WEEI, Brady was asked about criticism of teammate Ochocinco and whether it was accurate; he replied that ďnone of those guys have any clue what theyíre talking about.Ē Should we take it, from this quote, that Ochocinco is really hitting the books, spending hours watching game film and running routes? I donít know and it doesnít matter. What matters is that Tom Brady has every player, and coach, in the locker roomís back. Baseball is different than football in respect to how much of a team sport it is. Baseball is more a collection of individuals trying to win their particular battles, which in turn helps the team. But you canít tell me that it doesnít make a difference knowing everyone has each otherís backs, or feeling like one slip up, and the face of the organization will question you in front of the media.

You know who isnít complaining to the media, questioning their manager? The Tampa Bay Rays, who are sniffing a playoff spot. No, theyíre strutting from Boston to New York, in their matching Letterman sweaters knowing that they will go out there, and against all odds, try to win every at bat and every inning. The confidence and belief that one can win goes a long way when climbing up the hill the Rays have had to climb -- it also helps to be able to bring up Matt Moore down the stretch.

Thatís what worries me the most out of everything. The Rays look like they are stoked to be playing baseball and like they believe they can win. The Red Sox look like they are trying to wish their way into the playoffs. They donít have an identity and lack a swagger. The Rays have that swagger. Even the Yankees have an identity. How would you categorize this yearís Red Sox? Theyíve got gritty, dirty, donít-take-a-single-play-off players like Pedroia or Youkilis (when heís healthy), but can they really pull off a blue collar identity with the third highest payroll. But they arenít really a team of slugging veterans either; Nor are they a Phillies-esque team with pitching so good, that even one run of support will often be enough.

The Red Sox are a difficult team to place, difficult to quantify. And in baseball, you can quantify a lot; but not everything. And specific identity aside, it is difficult to gain even a sense of unity with people questioning their teammates and managers. Without getting too corny, I think that a supportive environment, where guys are really pulling for each other and really care for each other, leads to more confidence, which leads to better production on the field.

I am astonished at how many players speak to the media about things going on in the locker room. Itís a long season, and there are interviews after every game. Itís understandable that some of the frustrations would slip through. But suck it up, fellas. You donít sell your teammates or managers out. Just last year, Youkilis came out and questioned the devotion and toughness of Ellsbury. I love Youkilis and hope he plays with the Sox for a long time, but youíve got to be kidding me! You canít tell me that players, when in a supportive environment, wouldnít perform better. Maybe Gonzalezís lack of power production is coming from pressing too hard, afraid of Pedroia questioning his clutchness in an interview; maybe Bard is worried Papelbon will comment on his pitch selection on a radio show, so heís forcing it in there and blowing leads. I know I do better at my job when I feel like my coworkers are supporting me and when Iím happy to come to work; why would it be any different for professional athletes?

These guys are going into battle, where every game down the stretch is a playoff game, a must win game. There cannot be questions of loyalty. In basketball, you can see it. When a team becomes more than the sum of its parts, itís a beautiful thing. Iím not a hockey expert, but itís a sport of true toughness where each player will go to war for each other. And football epitomizes it most of all. Goal line stands. A final shove to help the quarterback gain the inches needed to convert a first down. Any big play on special teams.

Itís harder to see in baseball. The game has been almost completely broken down into advanced sabermetrics, turned people into numbers. But who would have thought a trade in which a team lost a franchise short stop and gained a defensive specialist would lead to a World Series? In 2004, Nomar was bringing a palpable, gray cloud over the locker-room. At the deadline, The Red Sox made several moves that resulted in Orlando Cabrera taking over at shortstop. Nomar, the golden child of Boston, the shortstop that could do no wrong, was traded for Cabrera, who was batting .246 until being traded to the Red Sox and subsequently batted .294 for the remainder of the season. You canít tell me that itís just in the numbers.

You know why the game canít be completely translated to paper, to sabermetrics; why people canít be translated into numbers? Because itís a game! A game is something that you derive fun from. Something you get dirty doing. Itís a time when you go to war with your brothers, get dirty, sacrifice everything to try to help your team win, and at the end of the day, win or lose, you do it with pride, energy and joy. The Rays do that. They scare me. Thank goodness there arenít any more games against them, which might be the only saving grace for the Sox down the stretch. But they need to find their identity and a passion for the game quick, or the season will be over, and there will be a long wait until spring training.

---

You can follow Chris Covey on Twitter at @BostonC_Covey


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