THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Sox are for real

. . . but nothing in sports is certain

Teammates congratulated prized Red Sox acquisition Adrian Gonzalez following a preseason home run on Tuesday. Teammates congratulated prized Red Sox acquisition Adrian Gonzalez following a preseason home run on Tuesday. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 1, 2011

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ARLINGTON, Texas — They are on more magazine covers than Gisele Bundchen. Sports Illustrated picks them to win 100 games and beat the Giants in the World Series just like 99 years ago at Fenway Park. On these pages last Sunday, six of six Globe writers picked the Red Sox to finish first in the American League East and make it to the 2011 World Series (you’d think we owned the team or something). In Wednesday’s New York Post, seven of seven baseball experts picked the Sox over the Yankees.

There has never been anything like it.

Sure, we had high hopes for the Sox in 2004 after they acquired Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, and in 2005 after they won the World Series. You old-timers might remember the frenzy in the spring of 1978 when the Sox were coming off a 97-win season and added a 20-game winner named Dennis Eckersley.

Boston baseball’s season of great expectations starts this afternoon at Rangers Ballpark (a.k.a. The House That George W. Bush Built) when Jacoby Ellsbury steps into the batter’s box to face Rangers lefthander C.J. Wilson.

New England hasn’t felt this good about a local team’s chances since the Bruins went ahead of the Flyers, 3-0, at home in the seventh game of their second-round playoff series last spring. Or perhaps since the perfect Patriots teed it up against the pushover Giants in the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., in February 2008.

OK, I just summoned the ghosts of the 1978 Red Sox, the Almost-Perfect Patriots, and the Spoked-B Choke from a year ago. That can’t possibly happen to these Red Sox, right? They are going to win the World Series. Right?

“Our goal every year is to win the World Series,’’ veteran Kevin Youkilis said back in January.

But this is not any old year.

Red Sox muscles are flexing everywhere you look. Josh Beckett openly talked about this team winning 100 games. Yo Adrian Gonzalez is on the cover of the Improper Bostonian. Jon Lester is on the cover of Boston Magazine. Sixty percent of the Opening Day roster is made up of players who have been All-Stars. That’s 15 All-Stars and 10 other guys.

Clay Buchholz told the Globe’s Peter Abraham, “We’ve got a World Series kind of team when you look at the 25 guys. There really aren’t any weak spots.’’

There is no more Yankee angst in Boston because we hardly think about the Bronx Bombers anymore. This is probably because we have become the arrogant New Yorkers and the Red Sox have become the Yankees.

Red Sox owner John Henry has morphed into a low-talking Steinbrenner. He grumbles about revenue sharing, buys other teams’ players, and just for the fun of it picked up a soccer team for $476 million during the winter. Merry Christmas, Linda Pizzuti.

Red Sox Universe is ever-expanding. It is an article of fact that Sox fans gather at every park where the Franconamen play (the Nation will overrun Cleveland’s ballpark next week), thumping their chests, chanting, “Let’s go, Red Sox,’’ and high-fiving one another as if it’s some kind of novelty.

Guess what, people. It is not a novelty anymore. When you road-trip to the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum in two weeks, do not be shocked to find hundreds of other Red Sox fans sitting around you. This is the norm, not the exception. And it’s been this way for a while.

“That was no fun,’’ Carl Crawford remembered this spring as he talked about fans at Tampa’s Tropicana Field cheering when Rays hurlers surrendered home runs to David Ortiz. “I’m glad to be on the other side of it now.’’

Hopefully, Crawford will still be glad he’s in Boston six years from now. Crawford has been in the American League East for eight full seasons, but he has never played in the fishbowl of Boston, and woe is the $142 million free agent who is slow out of the gate.

A guy like Edgar Renteria was great everywhere except Boston. Theo Epstein is banking on Crawford and bookend megastar Gonzalez mixing seamlessly in the Boston baseball blender. Sports Illustrated agrees and predicts Crawford will be the American League MVP.

There is seamhead logic behind this rampant optimism. The 2010 Sox won 89 games in a season in which Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon pitched terribly and half the lineup was on the shelf with injuries. The Sox finished second in the league in scoring in a season in which they got zero from Ellsbury and lost Dustin Pedroia and Youkilis in midseason.

Those guys are all back, plus Crawford and Gonzalez, the two best position players available last winter. Any wonder why the Sox are favored?

“This team has speed, power, good defense, and pitching,’’ outfielder J.D. Drew said. “That’s hard to knock. We have a lot of work to do, but I can see why people are talking about going back to the World Series. On paper, we have that kind of team.’’

But it never plays out the way it does on paper, does it? We need to remind ourselves that Boston will play half its games against the monsters of the American League East and that the last Sox team to win 100 games was the 1946 edition when Ted Williams and friends came back from World War II.

Finishing first is another Kilimanjaro for the Red Sox. Even with all their success in this century under the “new’’ owners, the Red Sox have finished in sole possession of first place only once (2007) since 1995, only twice in the last 20 years. The once-mocked wild card has been their friend. Thank you, Mr. Harrington.

Folks at the Herald once greeted a Sox Opening Day loss with the headline “Wait Till Next Year.’’

We promise to hold off on that one if the Sox lose today. If they should start 0-2 . . . well, that’s another story.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessey@globe.com.

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