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Bobby's V.'s unlikely legacy in Boston
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Just a couple years ago, when fried chicken and beer were merely two things you could order at Cask ‘n Flagon, John Lackey wasn’t Public Enemy No. 1 and Bobby Valentine’s brand of dark comedy hadn’t enveloped the organization, the Boston Red Sox and their fans sat in loving embrace. A savvy front office had built a likable team centered around blue-collar stars Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz. Boston, at least in the eyes of Red Sox faithful, had become baseball’s chosen team, and the Green Monster its Wailing Wall.

Success bred unchecked pride, concealing the cracks that began to sprout beneath the team. After Boston’s World Series title in 2007, the club morphed into something far different than its original, self-sustaining prototype. Standard three-year deals became five-year contracts, which soon turned into seven-and eight-year blood oaths. The monster, grown bloated, needed to be fed.

Then that September came, and seemingly never ended. From September 2011 the Red Sox fell from their place on top the AL East to a last-place finish in 2012. As Bobby Valentine’s farcical reign devolved into the saddest possible season of Three’s Company, the Red Sox scrambled to dump the remnants of their beached whale of a roster – in the form of nearly a quarter billion dollars in bad contracts – off to the Los Angeles Dodgers last August.

Nevertheless, the ultimate irony is that the Valentine era, with all its misery, may have kick-started the franchise back towards redemption. After a tiresome and disorderly season, in which the organization suffered from the unruly consequences of choosing a manager neither the players nor their general manager wanted, the club now recognizes how vital such a figurehead is. In new manager John Farrell, the Red Sox have the on-field leader that both the team’s players and front office members actually desire. Moreover, the immediate outcome of the club’s last-place finish in 2012 – the No. 7 overall pick in this June’s MLB Draft – should only benefit Boston in its attempt at a fresh makeover.

***

It’s not as though 2012 was without bright spots. The arrival of third baseman Will Middlebrooks signals a regeneration for the organization. There is little doubt the 24-year-old provides a calming influence to the team’s fans, representing, as he does, the origins of a Red Sox rebirth this spring. At 6’3” and 220 pounds, Middlebrooks’ figure is imposing and familiar all at once. Broad-shouldered, strong-armed, and seemingly always possessing some recently sprouted stubble, he exudes the typical toughness of a major-league third baseman.

Although he was highly touted out of high school, questions regarding Middlebrooks’ signability (he had a full scholarship to Texas A&M for both baseball and football) led him to fall to Boston in the fifth round in 2007. After rapidly working his way through the minor leagues, he now holds the familiar promise of a storied Boston past, complete with the same vibrant essence that has led Fenway Park to stand and cheer since before The Babe.

Given his talent and position, Middlebrooks -- firmly atop a lengthy list of exciting young players -- offers a tangible starting point from which general manager Ben Cherington’s “next great Red Sox team” can begin. He embodies what the Red Sox -- and any major-league team -- should do best. Rather than spending big money on free agents in the hope of achieving immortality, Middlebrooks represents the far more effective route of developing one’s own talent and then using the club’s considerable financial advantages to retain them. Which is why everyone surrounding the organization, from the fans to his teammates all the way up to the owners’ suite, has embraced the third baseman with the type of blessings and job security often reserved for veterans.

However, Middlebrooks is just the first in a series of fresh faces on the fast track to Fenway. With a renewed commitment to youth, the organization’s top minor-league talent has turned heads so far in spring training. In fact, the fan-base’s eagerness to welcome a new generation of stars has begun to push past All-Stars already on the roster to the margins. Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. -- called the Sox’s Derek Jeter by Buster Olney -- should soon render Jacoby Ellsbury yesterday’s news.

Add in 20-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts -- who, according to the man who drafted Mike Trout, is the closest the Sox have to a Trout-level prospect -- and the upcoming arrival of spring isn’t the only sign of renewal in New England.

But for now, Middlebrooks remains the torchbearer for Boston’s rejuvenation. To his credit, the 24-year-old has taken everything in stride despite the integral position he has been placed in since his call-up to the majors. After the past two seasons, Middlebrooks’ conduct, both on and off the field, has offered an innocence that stands in stark contrast to the recent disillusionment surrounding the ball club.

From frequently interacting with fans on his Twitter account to trading playful barbs with Pedroia, he radiates a positive attitude through his favorite early-morning phrase, “Wake and Rake,” Middlebrooks, unconsciously or not, has distanced himself from the team’s recent past. This past October, the young Greenville, Texas, native even organized an ultimate Frisbee game on the Boston Commons with fellow teammate Ryan Kalish, for anyone who wanted to show up. To the Fenway Faithful, actions like these demonstrate something refreshingly honest about their young third baseman, which enables them to dream of a future untainted by the bitter disappointment of the past two years.

***

Regardless of how much Red Sox fans would love to forget 2011 and 2012, though, and how much Middlebrooks allows them to be hopeful about the future, the influence these two gloomy seasons on the organization cannot be ignored. Without that September, without Valentine, without the bloated growth of Boston’s roster (and an eager suitor in Los Angeles), the Red Sox would not be in their present position.

In fact, you can thank Valentine’s repeated hijinks for the fact that Boston is primed for a far more fruitful future. At the time, the his very public spat with Youkilis last summer (rightfully) drew the ire of Red Sox fans, but without such controversy, Middlebrooks would not be poised for a central role with the team in 2013 and beyond. Although Youk in pinstripes may be difficult to get used to, Valentine, from the beginning, knew the time was right for the 10-year veteran to make way for his ultimate successor at third base—even if he handled the situation like it was a scene from Mr. Bean.

That clumsiness renewed purity within the franchise, as the front office was forced to finally get things right after watching so many things go so wrong in back-to-back seasons. What Valentine made Boston realize, above anything else, is what the Red Sox didn’t want to be any longer. In the team’s lowest moment then, a newfound wisdom and humility was born. Without this understanding, Farrell, whose sternness stands in contrast to Valentine’s irreverence, would likely still be managing a division rival north of the border.

All of these spring changes in Boston demonstrate, at the very least, how oddly valuable the team’s plunge has been. Much was forgotten during the ball club’s ascent into baseball royalty, but still more has been learned through the pain and turmoil of recent seasons. That the Red Sox have grown through adversity should come as no surprise; that the team’s muddy trek through the dark ages -- with Valentine in the lead -- has brought them here is somehow strangely fitting for a franchise that so recently sought to shape its own imperial destiny.

Though a return to the top of the AL East is unlikely this year, the Red Sox have gained something worthwhile from all the recent turmoil surrounding the club. Without any debilitating contracts or the weighty remains of an empire falling, the team now has the freedom to build upwards once again.


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