We have three summertime traditions around these parts: Sitting in traffic on the way to the Cape; sitting in traffic on the way back from the Cape; and asking why the Red Sox aren’t being embraced like they used to.
The answer is always the same: It’s not the Red Sox. It’s baseball.
Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe poses the question in his latest column, and presents several compelling possibilities. Maybe fans are appalled at their sloppy defense, or maybe their bad record against good teams is preventing people from buying in. Shaughnessy says the team’s low vaccination rate is the primary reason for his apathy. The Red Sox are one of six MLB teams that haven’t reached MLB’s 85% vaccination threshold.
They’ve had 14 players go on the COVID-related injury list over the last three weeks, including Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Matt Barnes and Kike Hernandez. Their absences forced the Red Sox to field a Four-A lineup during the most crucial stretch of their season.
As vaccinations become increasingly politicized, it’s possible more people will side with Shaughnessy. But that didn’t appear to be the case through the first half of the season. Red Sox ratings were up 84% over their dismal 2020 numbers, and NESN’s numbers among viewers 18-34 were the highest they’ve been since 2011.
Anecdotally, the crowd at Fenway appears to be younger and rowdier. I was there three weeks ago, and the atmosphere was more Loretta’s Last Call than baseball game. That has been the case all season long.
It’s impossible to compare 2021 attendance to other years, given social restrictions and the ongoing spread of COVID. But the Red Sox are in the upper-half of the league, averaging 20,104 fans per night (12th). They’re right behind the Yankees (9th) and Mets (11th).
Now, that’s not usually a good number for the Red Sox. But regional attitudes towards COVID could play a role in attendance figures, too. For example, the Texas Rangers are terrible, but fourth in attendance.
You do the math.
But what about the math on the Red Sox? Well, first you have to grade on a curve. Baseball’s popularity has been declining for decades. The game isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be, and Boston isn’t averse to national trends. The Red Sox don’t even sniff Patriots preseason games in the ratings. That’s the case across the country.
The Red Sox will likely never be embraced like they were before 2004. We can blame it on chicken and beer, Bobby Valentine, letting Jon Lester leave, boring players and losing seasons, but those changing variables cloud the big picture: baseball isn’t what it once was.
There is a new reality. It’s clear this is the most embraced Red Sox team since 2018, and right now, that’s probably the best case scenario.