In Boston, we love our athletes. We watch their every move and if they ‘pass our test’ then we have a tendency to give them a free ride for as long as they are here.

Prior to the “cheating” scandal Bill Belichick had secured the title of best football coach in the world\smartest human being alive and as a result coined the phrase ‘Bill Belichick status.’ Every gamble he took paid off and any media member who dared question him immediately lost credibility. (I can only imagine how much money Belichick must have made in lottery tickets alone.)

After the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series Jonathan Papelbon reached “Bill Belichick status!” Now that he has hit the first bump in the road in his career (5.79 ERA in first half of July) no one is willing to risk losing credibility by attacking a guy fans love! (Not that the Boston media picks favorites or anything.)

As of late Pap appears to have lost confidence in his once unhittable splitter leaving his fastball as his only weapon. He has thrown a considerably higher percentage of fastballs in the first half of July than he has in the past. (See Figure 1) He still gets the job done most of the time, but when it comes to Papelbon MOST of the time is not what Red Sox fans expect. The guy routinely enters games to chants of “it’s all over!” [FYI: Prior to 2004 Red Sox fans were more afraid of bad karma than earth quakes, hurricanes, car accidents, the boogie man and Psychotic ex-girlfriends combined!] 

Pap split chart1

I noticed that Pap had abandoned his splitter about a month and a half ago when he entered a game and began throwing only heat. First pitch: 97 mph on the outside corner (FILTHY) strike one. Second pitch: 96 mph up and away, swing and miss strike 2. (At this point I’m thinking; SIT DOWN BITCH, game over!!!) Third pitch: fast ball away, fouled off. Fourth pitch: fastball away, weak ground ball to second base, one out. The heaters kept coming for the duration of the outing and left me a little curious, where was the split? Recently, at a game verse the Twins, I told my buddy about my “no splitter theory” and he [predictably] told me I was crazy. Three outs, no hits and 20 fastballs later we were both left to wonder. My buddy wondered if my concerns were valid, while I wondered why Sox fans refused to admit that Pap has not been his usual dominating self.  

After much internal debate the following two questions helped me to come to an answer.

Question 1 : Who are the five most care-free players on the Red Sox?

My Answer: David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, J.D. Drew, Jonathan Papelbon and Dice-K (who made the list due to Manny’s unfortunate disdain for Red Sox management and adulthood)

I distinctly remember sox stars David Ortiz, Pedro and Mo Vaughn as fierce competitors on the field AND fun loving guys off it. In Boston it is a well known fact that David Ortiz is a fantastic chef. His barbeques are legendary. (I am trying as hard as I can to avoid making a Jose Conseco joke here.) Pedro Martinez was once duct taped to a dugout pole. (Fortunately a foul ball did not find its way towards him.) And not to be outdone, Mo Vaughn once flipped his car drunk driving home from a strip club in the middle of the night. (In hindsight that was probably more fun for me to read about then for him to be a part of.)

Never the less, these are real people Red Sox Nation can relate too. I would love to get a beer with any of these guys and I am not alone.

Jonathan Papelbon takes the ‘relaxed image’ to the extreme. How easy is it to imagine him towel whipping guys in the showers, giving Okajima atomic wedgies, switching Lugo’s glove with a butterfly net and a note that says “hope this helps you hang onto grounders”, and trying to get Manny Delcarmen to make a punk rock music video called “blame it on the rain” with him? (oh wait that actually happened!) He reminds everyone of a guy we knew in college and as a result fans can not help but to love the guy.

Question 2 : Who are the five most intense (throw back) players on the Red Sox?

My Answer: Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jason Veritek, Jonathan Papelbon and Josh Beckett.

When I think of “old school” I think of my grandfather. I picture a hard-working, unselfish man who did everything possible to support his family. I know he must have pounding beers  with his buddies from time to time, but I just can not imagine it. My father never described that side of him to me and I was too young to see it. Similarly no matter how hard I try I can not picture Yaz grilling up some burgers on his Webber. I’m at least 85% sure that Ted Williams has never been duct taped to anything, and not only has Fisk does not ‘made it rain’ at a strip club at 3 am, but there is a pretty good chance that he would fight anyone who does. These guys were hardworking, dedicated, no-nonsense people who took their jobs seriously and respected the game. (Not exactly the type of guys you shoot the shit with.)

Older Red Sox fans especially love rooting for guys who “play the game the right way;” the way the old timers played it. Perhaps this is why Nomar was one of the most popular Sox in recent memory. He was machine-like in his mannerisms, repeating his routine in the batters box, on deck circle, and before the game everyday. He played the game the way coaches teach little leagues to play it. He always gave of the impression that he cared about the fans and as a result we cared about him, much like the fans of Ted Williams care about him to this day!  

Nomar was not the ONLY modern Red Sox play to hustle; he was a fan favorite because he was the most talented modern Red Sox player to do it all the time. If Darrin Lewis did not bust his balls in every inning that he played but instead played the game the way Manny did for example, he would have been coaching High school girls softball in his home town in no time.

Some will argue that anybody who dances around in his underwear, leotard and swimming goggles does not belong on the ‘intense list,’ while others will argue that anybody who has ever seen Papelbon’s “give me your lunch money before I shake you by your ankles” stare would have a hard time classifying him as “easy-going.” Either way, his military-like focus on the field, frat boy attitude off the field and superior talent to back it all up are quickly earning him a place among the most popular Red Sox ever.

A few points to consider about Papelbon:

1. Anyone who tries to explain to the New York media that he is a better closer then Mariano Rivera is not only confident but fearless. (Being fearless is a must for a great closer.)

2. The difference between a Jonathan Papelbon and a Manny Delcarmen has less to do with talent and more to do with attitude. Papelbon is the kind of guy who at age 19 could walk into a liquor store and confidently purchase 3 bottles of Vodka and a 6 pack of Mikes hard Lemonade (obviously for an attractive lady friend) and not get asked for his identification. Delcarmen is the kind of guy who could try to buy booze at age 19 but would probably get arrested (unless he had McLovin’s ID). Papelbon is a winner and winners do what they want!     

3. One of the reasons we remember guys like Ted Williams the way that we do is because the media scrutiny was not as intense when he played as it is today. If Charles Barkley had been born 30 years earlier we never would have learned of his gambling problems. Same goes for Michael Jordan and his adultery and Larry Bird and his daughter. (I hope they let me keep my Celtics season tickets after that last example.) Papelbon has used the extra attention to his advantage and as a result Red Sox nation feels like we know him.

Not every athlete knows how to handle the media. When young stars struggle in Boston the media has a tendency to vilify them after which they are never the same. Prime Example: Antoine Walker. (I was one of approximately seven Antoine supporters in Boston when he was being criticized for being too fat, or shooting too many three’s daily and it was ugly. )

My reactions to Papelbon’s struggle have followed a similar pattern to my reactions to Beli-gate. (Denial followed by anger and eventually “well everyone is doing it.”) When I first noticed that he was giving up more runs then normal I convinced myself that I was imagining things. After a few more subpar outings I resorted to throwing a cup across the room (not my proudest moment). These days, as with the Belichick situation, I am at the “well everyone goes through bad stretches” stage, and they do!    

In short, no one talks about Papelbon’s recent decline because we know that he will return to form. He clearly has the talent, we know he won’t lose confidence, he has the necessary attitude and he will not let the media drag him down!

This has not received any media scrutiny because so many other things have been going on with the Red Sox. Manny threw his usual mid-summer “John Henry stole my tricycle and I want it back” tantrum and this time managed to get himself traded. The middle relievers have proven to be better musicians then pitchers. Joba Chamberlain apparently has a dart board with Youk’s picture on it because he throws at his head ever chance he gets. And Tampa Bay has apparently hit puberty because their annual win totals have gone through a growth spurt.

With everything else going on perhaps it’s best to ignore Boston’s new golden child’s troubles, after all they might just go away.

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