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3Qs: Circling over the Sox epic demise

Before the season, many sports experts pegged the Boston Red Sox as the best team in baseball. So a late-season epic collapse that kept the team out of the playoffs was all the more shocking. Fans and journalists demanded answers, and an explosive Boston Globe story outlined details of a supposedly out-of-control clubhouse and distracted manager. We asked journalism professor Charles Fountain, who has written about sports for many years, to examine the team’s September swoon and the ensuing media coverage.

The Red Sox were World Series favorites leading into the season but ended the year in a tailspin — followed by the departure of the manager and apparently the general manager. What was your reaction to this collapse, and the ensuing media coverage?

There was a lack of urgency on this team all season long. The players acted like they’d read all of the pre-season stories about them being a shoo-in for the World Series and behaved as though they could turn it on and off whenever they wanted. When they started losing, and found that they couldn’t turn it on as they wished, they started pressing and getting in their own way, playing with the looks of a team expecting disaster to befall them. It was the perfect storm of bad karma and bad baseball. And just like the big weather storm brings out the journalists en masse, with their rain slickers and their apocalyptic analysis, so too did the Red Sox September make the reporters gathered around them look and behave like the buzzards circling the dying carcass.

A Boston Globe story reported that team sources indicated former manager Terry Francona struggled with marital problems and the use of pain medication during the season. How much of the players’ and team officials’ personal lives is fit for public consumption through the media; and has this issue changed for sports journalists in recent years?

The Bob Hohler piece you’re referencing was a terrific and important piece of journalism. And, like many important pieces of journalism, it made a lot of people uneasy. It’s important to remember that Hohler got Francona to go on record about his marital difficulties and use of pain medication and be the confirming source of this information. Had Francona refused to talk to him, its place in the story might be a little more problematic. It made me uncomfortable having to read that, but my understanding of why Francona elected to leave the Red Sox, and why the team didn’t fight harder to keep him, is much clearer than it could ever possibly be without those facts.

It is perhaps a regrettable fact that in the age of blogs and Twitter and cell phone cameras, there is very little about the private lives of public figures that will remain private forever. Journalists, and their readers/listeners/viewers/followers would do well to ask themselves, when confronted with this type of information: Is this essential to the understanding of the larger issue here, or is it here simply because it is intriguing and salacious and will get the story talked about?

Over the last decade, the Sox have hit all-time highs (two World Series titles) and epic lows (the 2003 ALCS loss to the Yankees, this season’s September collapse). What is so compelling about covering sports during these periods?

First of all, let’s not equate the two lows. The 2003 season was Greek tragedy, the noble central figure — Pedro Martinez — felled by the fatal flaw beyond his control: weariness, and the erosion of once-great gifts that comes with the passing of time. We wept in 2003 because we felt empathy and sadness. No empathy from the bystanders this time around. This year’s collapse was the inevitable manifestation of a dysfunctional community. So we are angry and disgusted.

But collectively they add to the Red Sox legend. Far from being cursed, this is a franchise and a fandom that’s blessed not only by its soaring highs and but also by its withering lows. It’s a generational passion play that is unlike anything else in all of sport. As frustrated as we sometimes grow, and as much as we love to wail and wring our hands, if we did not have it just the way it is — all of the ups and all of the downs — we would somehow feel bereft.

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