The last time Bruce Springsteen played Fenway Park was 2003. He opened with an homage to Boston music by playing the Remains' version of "Diddy Wah Diddy," and the highlight was his exorcism of the mythical curse at the wall during an unforgettable version of "Mary's Place." And, of course, a year later, the curse was broken, Boston won two World Series in four years, and all was right and good in Red Sox Nation.
Bruce returns to Fenway on Tuesday, with loyalists begging that his tribute to The Olde Towne Team be "The Rising." There have been no pennants since 2007, no postseason series won since the American League Division Series in '08, and the Red Sox haven't even made the playoffs since '09.
The indignant, historic collapse of last September resulted in the exile of Terry Francona and Theo Epstein, and it has been followed by a season wallowing in the mire. Unlike Bruce, whose "I got Mary pregnant" in "The River" shouted out his sense of responsibility, the chaos around this year's team has led most everyone -- except Dustin Pedroia and Ben Cherington, who always beats himself up for trades -- to deflect blame like a pitcher who sees a ground ball go through the middle, then stares at his shortstop.
Bruce returns in what is a crucial week for the Red Sox, who are in the meat of a 10-game road trip that could see 2012 turn into a darkness in the heart of town that could lead to several more exiles as they try to figure out where they are going before the 2013 season.
Back in June, with issues smoldering, David Ortiz, concerned for his team, said, "I worry that no one wants to play here."
It never resonated, and by this weekend, when another key veteran player raised the same issue, those issues seemingly were riding shotgun down the avalanche.
The contempt between players and the Boston media is suffocating. Hey, it is a very tough, often misanthropic city -- angry -- and players react when John Lackey having a beer with the postgame spread in the Cleveland visiting clubhouse is a Twitter trend (when it is not only allowed, but the team hotel is a block's walk from the park). But there have been actions that have made several players as popular as Whitey Bulger in their home city.
Some have blamed Bobby Valentine for an inability to relate to the players. Many have blamed "whiny players" for going to ownership about the manager (which is vastly exaggerated, since ownership does not get readily involved with players). Some in the media have blamed Cherington, physical therapists and clubhouse personnel for not allowing "Bobby to be Bobby" -- not that anyone has ever given one example to support that theory. Others have blamed Larry Lucchino for forcing the hiring of Valentine, when Lucchino was trying to simply take power.
Has Valentine misspoken on a couple of occasions? Yes. What he said about Kevin Youkilis looked far worse in print than it was when stated, but Youkilis was hurt and unforgiving. Saying that pitching coach Bob McClure was "on vacation" when in fact McClure was home tending to a medical crisis for his 5-month-old was, again in fact, corrected in the next breath when Valentine said, "I apologize." When speculation began last week that Valentine might be in trouble, owner John Henry dismissed it with a carefully worded e-mail to all media, which avoided a press scrum that probably would have left one dangling participle and fed another day's news cycle.
If the Red Sox go home next week to play the Angels having lost their upcoming series in Yankee Stadium, and the perception is that this team is in ruins, it could get ugly before the Oct. 3 season's end, in, naturally, Yankee Stadium. The booing will be spread beyond Josh Beckett.
Yet we may not ever learn if the issues are personality or personnel, culture or simple talent. The team that was envisioned in February has been ravaged by injuries; when Will Middlebrooks, whose development has been one of the Red Sox's brightest story lines, had his wrist broken by an errant pitch Friday in Cleveland and went on the disabled list, it meant that 25 players had been disabled a total of 29 times. Never have the Sox had who they thought would be the top five in the order (Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Pedroia, Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez) in the lineup together. Where once they were a team that grinded out every at-bat, they have become a team that is 12th in on-base percentage and 24th in walks. Saturday night, the last five spots in the order went 0-for-15 with no walks, and the starting lineup had six players with OBPs under .330. Not good enough.
Then there is the reality of the pitching staff. Now that he is healthy, Clay Buchholz has pitched like an ace. But Franklin Morales is the only starter with an ERA under 4.00, and his 3.29 is based on seven starts and 28 relief appearances. Boston starting pitchers went into a vital Jon Lester start Sunday with a 40-44 record. They were 11th in starters' ERA (4.83), 10th in quality starts, eighth in innings pitched ... second-division numbers. Lester, who can be an elite pitcher, went into Sunday with a 5.36 ERA, knowing far too well that when he and Beckett started, the team was 15-27.
And when one goes back to the beginning of the collapse last Sept. 1, the team is 64-79, the starters 45-57 with a 5.16 ERA. Cherington tried replacing Jonathan Papelbon with trades for Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, who do not have a save between them, as Bailey has been hurt and Melancon has a 7.39 ERA.
Perhaps this week will be the overture to a Rising. Perhaps Ellsbury, Crawford, Pedroia and Ortiz will all put their injuries behind them. Perhaps Lester and Beckett will have glorious finishes. Perhaps they can begin to inject some young players into the lineup and bring the energy that Middlebrooks gave them.
Most of all, the Red Sox have to figure out who and what they are, admit it and restore what was building the last time Bruce played Fenway. The parts are still greater than the whole, the persons far greater than their perception.
Many of us hear stories about the Red Sox from virtually every opposing team -- some even in the National League -- and appreciate when Ortiz and some others who legitimately care privately express concern that the perception within the industry is that the Fenway Park home clubhouse is a place few want to be stationed.
So even if this week remains off the tracks, and the Red Sox cannot restore the pitching or overcome their disabilities, the much-needed people process of restoring lost trust and understanding has to begin. This is a team desperately in need of taking care of its own, with a fan base that wants to see Jose Iglesias or Xander Bogaerts or someone who can light the fuse that Bruce lit for Jon Landau at the Harvard Square Theatre, where Bruce opened for Bonnie Raitt and Landau exuberantly wrote, "I have seen rock-and-roll future."
Because right now, the 2012 Red Sox are eerily reminiscent of the '01 Red Sox, also known as Joe Kerrigan, Carl Everett and the Izzy Alcantara Band.