David Price should look at Red Sox history and see why battling Boston's media won't work

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Friday July 14th, 2017

Once upon a time in Boston, there was a newspaper columnist named Dave Egan, whom they called the Colonel. A self-made man, one of 16 kids born to a Rhode Island milkman, the Colonel rose to graduate from Harvard and Harvard Law School, then wrote for a newspaper called The Daily Record, which was never confused with the works of Aristotle. Egan also was a monumental drunk; the bottle finally did him in, young, at 57, in 1958. He was on the pad of several local promoters and racetrack owners. Yet, almost alone at the time, Egan ridiculed the Red Sox for the racism that was baked into the franchise.

He was a complicated, difficult man who chose as his ultimate target an even more complicated and difficult man named Ted Williams. Paradoxically, as a number of Williams biographers have noted, Egan never went after Williams on the slugger’s personal life, in which there was a not inconsiderable amount of material. As Ben Bradlee Jr. notes in his biography, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, Williams already was throwing a nutty against the local press before Egan ever got started on him. And Egan already had a rep for the well-thrown dagger; when Casey Stengel, then managing the hopeless Boston Braves, got hit by a taxi, Egan nominated the cabdriver for Man of the Year.

But that was nothing compared to the riding Egan gave Williams. Again, Egan stayed away from Williams’s tangled family life or his draft status. (Having already served in World War II, Williams was virtually heckled by the newspapers back into combat in Korea, where he nearly died.) But Egan relentlessly flogged the image of Williams’s being a self-centered superstar who came apart when it mattered most—specifically, in the 1946 World Series against St. Louis, in the 1948 American League tiebreaker game, which the Red Sox lost to the Cleveland Indians, and in the last two games of the 1949 season, both of which Boston lost to the Yankees to miss the pennant by one game. In those 10 games, Egan never failed to note, Williams had hit .205. As Bradlee writes, this drove Williams around the bend, but it also pushed him to succeed, of only to shut up the Colonel.

Ted always read Egan carefully when the Red Sox were at home. When the team was on the road, Williams would have his pals in Boston call and read him what the Colonel had written. If it was bad, Ted’s anger would usually help him to go on a tear. Then he’d want to know if Egan had mentioned any of the good things he’d done. Invariably, there would be nothing, which would only fuel Ted’s theory that the Colonel was simply out to get him.

This is the long sweep of history that has brought us to the season of discontent being experienced by Red Sox pitcher David Price, who is paid $30 million a year to pitch in Boston, and who has spent most of 2017 trying to get healthy, trying to get his control in order and feuding with the local media in a manner of which Teddy Ballgame would approve. To be entirely fair, and to be as un-Colonelish as possible, Price went into the All Star break having pretty much righted himself. On Sunday, in Tampa, he gave up two earned runs in six innings, but his bullpen disincorporated on him. In the second year of a massive seven-year, $217 million deal, and now the No. 2 starter behind Chris Sale, Price hit the All-Star break at 4-2, having dragged his ERA below four and his WHIP down to 1.264, which isn’t great, but it’s trending in the right direction. The team’s in first place in the American League East and, with 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello underwater at the moment, Price’s contributions will be vital in the second half of the season.

All may not be right with David Price’s world, but enough of it seems to be to expect Price to be handling the rest with equanimity. Instead, in keeping with a longstanding Red Sox tradition, he has been feuding with the local media for reasons that nobody quite understands.

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In the first week in June, after being shelled in Yankee Stadium, Price tore into Evan Dreilich, a reporter for Comcast Sports New England. The exchange got so loud that Boston manager John Farrell had to close his office door to conduct his postgame press conference. Price then tossed some random obscenities at other reporters who tried to speak with him. Three weeks later, Price got into the face of Dennis Eckersley, one of Boston’s broadcast analysts and a Hall of Fame pitcher, on the team plane returning from a game in Toronto.

This latter is not a fight Price ever could win; not only are Eckersley’s credentials impeccable, but he’s a beloved local figure and has been ever since he pitched in Boston back in the late 1970’s. Since then, of course, everybody has crawled inside David Price’s head trying to figure out what brought all this on. He’s always had a temper, but these incidents seemed to have no proximate cause except for the fact that, at the time, Price was pitching badly. But the long-distance psychiatry really hit high tide. Maybe the pressure of pitching in Boston was too much for the lad. But maybe it’s as simple as the fact that David Price has lost the ability to enjoy his work, that he’s forgotten how to play baseball, which is something with which Dennis Eckersley never had a problem, God knows. I’ve seen that before, and in guys wearing the same uniform he does now.

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*****

The first baseball team I ever was around on anything close to a fulltime basis was the 1986 Boston Red Sox. They were a surprise winner of the AL East. They came back from near-death to eliminate the California Angels. They also staked Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley to a two-run lead in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets with Boston leading three games to two. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, the Yellowstone supervolcano didn’t erupt at that moment and so instead Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner stumbled into history together. I remember thinking at the time that this ending was an event that had been in the mind of that team all season. Even when they were winning, and even when Roger Clemens was shredding opposing lineups, you could feel something like barely confined doom in how fractious and suspicious the Boston clubhouse was.

It was a weird year. Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd was as volatile an element as the clubhouse ever saw; he was suspended for 21 games and he still went 16-10 and won the pennant-clinching game against the Angels. (To this day, I believe that, if they’d had the guts to pitch him in the seventh game of the World Series, the Red Sox would’ve won. It was the stage the Can was born for.) He was surrounded by a group of sour, sullen characters; manager John McNamara, who occasionally got caught dozing in the dugout, was very nearly paranoid by season’s end, and this was a team that had won a pennant. It took me a long while to realize that history had this bunch by the throat. The team had the gallows in its eyes ever since it moved into first place. It spent all season hearing the footsteps of a history it was trying to deny and then it became the single most indelible moment in all of that history itself.

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A lot of the strange, joyless atmosphere came from the fact that the relationship between the team and the media hadn’t changed much since the days when the Colonel was ripping Ted Williams, and Williams was spitting in the general direction of the Fenway Park press box. Much of the team—hell, much of the entire operation—looked on reporters as rats in the corncrib, just waiting for the ultimate failure in which to exult. This was the first time I ever saw a winning team have so little fun. Every celebration had an edge of unpleasant, haunted vengeance to it, a sense of sticking it to enemies real and imagined. When it all came apart in New York, it was less a surprise than it was a perfectly predictable denouement. The fanciful Curse of the Bambino was in great measure among those players the Curse of the Colonel.

It all changed, as so much did, in 2004 with a team that was so much the opposite of the 1986 bunch that it now seems like comparing the Grateful Dead to the crew of the Pequod. Joy began coming in like sunrays through the gloom with the arrival of Pedro Martinez in 1998 and, five years later, with David Ortiz. The next season those guys and 23 other players clowned all the history and ended it in the best way it could have been ended, all the ghosts dispersed with laughter and with the pleasure of playing the game. With that team, the Red Sox learned how to play baseball again.

This seems to me to be the lesson that David Price has to learn again. There is air in the history now if he can find it, light and clean and free. He should breathe it in deeply. It’s just another good baseball team now. He should wrap himself in that history and, in doing so, free himself.

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