Becoming the Yankees

William Rhoden:

The door is open for the Red Sox, with a rich baseball tradition and a high payroll, to replace the Yankees as the team the nation loves to hate ... The possibility is there for the spending: no more just missing the brass ring, but rather grabbing that ring season after season. But does Red Sox Nation really want to do this?

Vince Lombardi’s exhortation that winning is the only thing, in retrospect, has caused unimaginable heartache and blues. It sounds good but is probably antithetical to inner peace.

Look around. The pursuit of winning has tempted some of us to break rules, tear moral fiber, take performance-enhancing drugs and jettison a manager who failed to lead his team past the first playoff round for three consecutive years.

I would ask Boston fans whether they really want to see their team do this. Do they want a franchise whose ethos is that winning titles is the only thing?

Here's the problem: I understand where Rhoden's coming from, and there's no question that I look at the Yankees and their fans and feel more than a little pity for them, trapped as they are in a cycle where the ordinary joys of having a winning baseball team are overshadowed by a grim win-at-all-costs mentality. But I'm not sure what the Red Sox organization is supposed to do to avoid this fate: Yes, they should avoid signing unlikeable mercenaries who can't perform in the clutch (ahem, Kevin Brown), but overall I think they have an obligation, having grown financially fat off the dollars generated by a passionate fan base, to plow that money back into the team on the field. (This was always something you had to respect about Steinbrenner: He was crazy and horrible and tyrannical and all the rest, but you always knew that he was in it to win baseball games, not to get rich.) And if you do plow the money from a passionate fan base back into the team, and do so intelligently, you're going to have the chance to grab the brass ring season after season - which in turn creates the sort of unreasonable expectations that the Yankees currently labor under.

Rhoden raises the spectre of the Sox signing Alex Rodriguez this winter as an example of what turning into the Yankees might mean, and I take his point - but look, if the Red Sox ownership has the chance to sign Rodriguez for an amount that makes sense given the team's resources, what should they do? Not sign him, out of some sense that it's bad form to want to win as much as the Steinbrenners of the world? Surely not. Yes, they should consider the character of the team as well as its rotisserie value; yes, they should spend more money on the farm system than on free agents (more Pedroias, please, and fewer Julio Lugos); yes, they shouldn't adopt Steinbrenner's star-chasing obsessions when the stars in question are passing their primes. But if you're the custodian of a franchise like the Red Sox, the trap of high expectations is one that you have to be willing to step into, even knowing what it's made of baseball in the Bronx.