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