Red Sox

Sparse crowds, slow ticket sales, no buzz -- Red Sox facing an enthusiasm deficit

Sparse crowds, slow ticket sales, no buzz -- Red Sox facing an enthusiasm deficit

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- What happens if they hold spring training and no one comes? Does it still exist?

When they weren't pondering the existence of God or the nature of love, philosophers have wrestled with that thorny question since the dawn of Dodgertown. But they've never been able to test the hypothesis, because fans have always descended on even the remotest Grapefruit League outposts in droves.

Based on the first couple of days of workouts at JetBlue Park, however, the Red Sox may finally provide the answer.

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The scene on Thursday was jaw-dropping. Even accepting that school vacation doesn't start until next week, and even acknowledging that full-squad workouts don't start until Monday, the lack of fans on the back fields while pitchers and catchers began plying their craft in advance of a 2020 season that's still going to be played despite Mookie Betts wearing Dodger Blue was noticeable.

"There's no (expletive) people here," observed one of the many retirees who provide a genial form of security.

Attendance was sparse enough that more than one observer wondered if the workout was closed to the public. The Red Sox estimated that about 500 total fans have attended the first two days of workouts, which is not dramatically lower than years past, per a team official. But it certainly felt different. On one field, new Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke oversaw a hitting drill under the watchful eyes of three fans. On another, new baseball boss Chaim Bloom moved about in near total anonymity, a far cry from the 2003 rock star days of Theo Epstein.

It was the first tangible evidence that the team's demoralizing offseason, which consisted mainly of trading Mookie Betts in order to facilitate a salary dump of David Price, has left a mark. These are the Red Sox, so it's not like fans will abandon them for good, but the organization shouldn't take their devotion for granted.

The fans that did attend ultimately crowded a field where some of the club's more recognizable hitters were taking BP. But the concession stands were dead, the walkways clear, the secondary fields empty. Presumably the crowds return next week when families make the journey south, but whereas once you could guarantee a packed complex before the games even started, now we'll be genuinely curious to see who arrives and in what kind of numbers.

Coupled with CEO Sam Kennedy's recent admission that tickets sales are down (after ticket prices went up) -- not to mention the Betts trade, a cheating scandal, and questions about ownership's willingness to spend -- and the Red Sox could be entering a phase of brand crisis.

They're the organization that seems to suffer the most from Not Being the Patriots, which is strange, given their four titles and all-around Curse smashing since 2004. But they have a habit of alternating incredible highs with embarrassing lows -- gorilla suits, chicken and beer, Bobby V., sign stealing scandals -- and it finally feels like fans are keeping them at arm's length.

Winning them back won't be as easy as rolling the ball out for opening day and relying on a bunch of Fenway sellouts to obscure any enthusiasm gaps. It's possible the Red Sox underestimated the popularity of Betts, a homegrown superstar who simply wanted to be paid his value, but was instead shipped out on the verge of spring training.

(I've argued it was the right long-term move, even if it hurts, and I still feel that way. But I also understand why fans see it differently, since the Red Sox have the resources to afford anyone they want, and they chose not to pay the former MVP.)

Maybe this ends up being a giant bag of nothing, and the fans swarm JetBlue next week and pack Fenway and give NESN record ratings while the Red Sox overachieve and win us over. But just two years removed from a 108-win season and World Series title, the organization has some real work to do to rehabilitate its image with a fanbase that seems more willing than ever to stay home.

Alex Verdugo had the best reaction to meeting David Ortiz at Red Sox camp

Alex Verdugo had the best reaction to meeting David Ortiz at Red Sox camp

Alex Verdugo wasn't lying.

Shortly after joining the Red Sox in Boston's blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the young outfielder said he'd give David Ortiz "the biggest hug" when he first met him.

Guess who showed up to Red Sox spring training Thursday in Fort Myers?

And guess how Verdugo greeted him?

The 23-year-old literally jumped out of his chair and ran over to embrace Ortiz, who's on Boston's payroll as a special assistant after retiring as a player in 2016.

Verdugo grew up in Arizona but rooted for the Red Sox thanks in large part to Ortiz, whom Verdugo idolized as a kid. (Verdugo was eight years old when Big Papi helped Boston win the World Series in 2004.)

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"David Ortiz was just the man, dude," Verdugo said earlier this week, via Mass Live's Christopher Smith. " ... That was like my main guy. I’m telling you, I’m so excited to meet him."

That excitement was on full display Thursday in Fort Myers, where the Red Sox are hoping Verdugo can take a few pointers from his childhood hero.

Why never meeting Kobe Bryant will 'haunt' Red Sox's Kevin Pillar

Why never meeting Kobe Bryant will 'haunt' Red Sox's Kevin Pillar

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Kevin Pillar grew up in Los Angeles in a family of five: his mother, father, brother, and Kobe Bryant.

Such was the bond Angelenos felt with the NBA superstar. Pillar's family ate dinner to Laker games. They sat on the couch together to watch Laker games. They watched Bryant grow up over 20 years in L.A.

"It's a crazy thing to be so connected to a professional athlete," the Red Sox outfielder said. "I felt like he was the older brother of me and my brother. He felt like part of the family. It's hard to understand if you didn't grow up with him on your television screen, and it's weird to say, but that's just how we felt about him."

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When Pillar and his wife Amanda were expecting their first child, a daughter, in 2017, they wanted to give her a K name so she'd have the same nickname — KP — as her dad.

They eventually narrowed their choices to two: Kennedy and Kobie. They went with the latter, in honor of Bryant.

"We want to be the best at whatever we do, whether it's being a professional athlete, a reporter, a journalist, the way I attack being a dad, the Mamba mentality is with me," Pillar said. "The name just seemed fitting. In some small way it was a tribute to Kobe Bryant, more so it was a K name that we just thought was cool. We kind of always thought that the boy name or unisex name was cool for a daughter. I would love nothing more as my daughter grows up to have the same passion for sports that I did."

The name feels tragically poignant now, thanks to the helicopter crash that killed Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, last month. Pillar got the news while at a park with his wife and daughter and hoped against hope it wasn't true.

"I'll have that memory as long as I live," he said.

Pillar never met Bryant, but he had hoped they would cross paths during Bryant's epic second act, which included an Academy Award for the animated short film "Dear Basketball," opening the Mamba Academy, and becoming a fierce champion of women's sports.

"It's been a slow process, the healing process," Pillar said. "Even more so now with him gone, a lot of his greatness has surfaced. I probably watched three or four hours of Kobe Bryant games on NBA TV last night, and I still end up in tears, because I feel for him, I feel so much for his family, just how much he gave to that sport, and he was entering that second chapter of his life and being a full-time father and loving every second of it, and his passion for women's sports is something that I guess immaturely, I never really thought about a whole lot until I had a daughter of my own.

"You have a girl and you want to be able to give her the world and you want to be able to see gender equality in sports, but more importantly in life."

Pillar always viewed Bryant as a fully formed person, not just an icon. The 2003 sexual assault charges that complicated his legacy are a part of his story.

"What I started to realize as I got older is he's flawed and he's a human being and he owned up to his mistakes, and it's how you rebound from them," Pillar said. "In the second act of his career, he had that Mamba mentality and the desire to be the best at whatever he does, and that's something that transcends sports. People apply the Mamba mentality to anything they're doing. In some ways, if you're not applying that to your profession, your life, you're cutting yourself short."

Bryant co-authored a number of children's books after his playing days, and Pillar had wanted to pitch him on a series about baseball, but now he'll never get the chance.

"That conversation's never going to happen," he said. "That's going to haunt me for the rest of my life."