When does brand massaging take too much precedence over team management? In the case of the current ownership group of Boston’s beloved Red Sox, I’d say sometime last summer.
Welcome back worry. It’s been a while. But with the current state of Red Sox organization 2012, worry springs eternal once again. Sort of makes me long for the good ol’ days of Grady Little.
To be fair, John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group ownership team has done much more good than ill. They “saved” Fenway Park. They cultivated the important place the Sox hold in the hub of the sports universe. They ended “the curse.” And, of course, they brought home the only two World Series championships the Sox have seen in the past 90+ years. (I’m still not sure what is more enjoyable, either World Series win, or coming back down 3-0 against the Yankees.)
But something happened on the way to 100 wins last summer. It started to feel like Sox ownership were overstepping their way, losing their welcome, and overstepping their welcome way too much. First, they became business partners with LeBron James. Which would be sort of like Bob Kraft going into business with Alex Rodriguez. Or the Celtics partnering with the Canadiens. Both of which would never happen. This, after all, is the same LeBron James who knocked the cross-town Celtics out of last year’s playoffs. The same LeBron James who was booed every time he touched the ball last weekend at the Garden. Did team John Henry-Larry Lucchino-Tom Werner really think this was a good idea? Or did they just not care how it plays in Boston. And which one is worse?
Then, following the epic Sox collapse of last September, they hardly took any responsibility (John Henry apparently too busy on his yacht to indulge Sox fans with a press conference), and practically rode Tito Francona and Theo Epstein out of town. (Or were the manager and the GM both only too happy to leave, realizing the efforts to increase brand visibility were surpassing efforts to build and maintain a team that could win on the field?)
But last winter the owners stooped to levels that are truly disturbing. They smeared the Red Sox brand all over the Neil Diamond segment of the Kennedy Center Honors. (For the uninitiated, said Honors are a sort of lifetime achievement award for five specially-selected artists, from various fields, which are awarded each December in a taped performance from Washington, D.C.)
As Smokey Robinson made it to the chorus of his performance of (Brooklyn Dodgers fan) Neil Diamond’s adopted Red Sox anthem “Sweet Caroline,” he was joined onstage by a baseball stand chorus of actual Red Sox fans (and Wally the Green Monster, of course), all dressed excessively in Sox garb, singing along with him (and others, including song namesake Caroline Kennedy), much to the delight of the A-list audience. All of which seems a bit nauseating. (See video below, if you dare.)
(To paraphrase Padme Amidala: So this is how organizational integrity ends - with thunderous applause.)
“Apparently, it was Claire Durant in Tom Werner’s office who coordinated the Sox surprise during the ceremony,” The Boston Globe reported. “She bussed about 80 fans to Washington D.C. on Saturday and kept them busy until they performed on Sunday.”
Red Sox ownership's usurpation of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" is evidence that there can be too much of a good thing. At first, singing the song was just goofy fun. It made no sense, and was an all-the-more-enjoyable routine because of that incongruity.
But now it's gone beyond routine, to regiment, if not forced tradition. The "sweetness" of singing "Sweet Caroline" has long ago turned rancid. Even if it is a profitable exercise in brand management for Sox ownership.
“It wasn’t until 2002, when John Henry’s group bought the Red Sox, that Sweet Caroline become an official Fenway tradition," explains Boston's Pastime. "That’s when the new ownership requested that [Fenway Park musical director Amy] Tobey play the song during the eighth inning of every game."
With the assembly of the 2003-2004 Red Sox (aka The Cowboy Up Idiots), Sox ownership put together a team worthy of Boston's crazed fan adulation, and the burdensome weight of team history. And during this time, "Sweet Caroline" "found a place as part of Red Sox Nation lore," continues Boston's Pastime, "and by mixing Sweet Caroline with the Fenway faithful good times ... never seemed so good.”
But "so good" isn't really that great when it only "seems" that way, even if the term “seemed” appears to capture perfectly the illusion attempted with brand marketing, compared with the reality of the imploded Sox last September.
Let's hope Sox ownership returns to the great work they did with the team on the field, and worries a little less about micromanaging Sox fans' feelings toward their team. Boston has always been obsessed with the Sox. And will be long after current ownership sells the team, and moves on to a new portfolio.