John Tomase

Lamenting the lost luster of … Red Sox Truck Day?

The lack of buzz surrounding the annual February send-off is a sign of the times.

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Of all the contrived holidays we celebrate, mostly because Hallmark or Jeff Bezos commanded it, none is as uniquely Boston as Truck Day.

Started in 2003 to celebrate the departure of an 18-wheeler for Florida with the bats, balls, and accoutrements of spring training, Truck Day provided our version of Punxsutawney Phil, except in the grizzled form of Milford's Al Hartz, the walrus-mustached long hauler who has piloted the rig since the late 1990s.

Truck Day demanded full TV coverage, drew hundreds of fans, and served as our unofficial start of spring. Dr. Charles Steinberg, the PR maestro who conceived of the event to aid his goal of keeping the Red Sox on the front page 365 days a year, typically oversaw the festivities with some poetry about the Boys of Summer delivering six weeks of warmth during our starkest days in this joyous celebration of boundless faith and blah, blah, blah. It was good theater.

The cynics among us rolled our eyes from the start. Come on, they're just ... moving. But deep down, we recognized how the event spoke to the team's place in our regional consciousness. Twenty years ago, the departure of that truck signaled the start of a nine-month odyssey, and weren't we all just thrilled to come along for the ride?

Those of us lucky enough to be on the ground in 2003 and 2004 know nothing will ever top the fever pitch that started the moment Hartz eased off Van Ness and didn't end until October delivered salvation and Duck Boats along a confetti-strewn Boylston Street. Even three Super Bowls into the Tom Brady Era, the Red Sox still ruled.

If this sounds like the setup to yet another, "and now look at how useless they are" lament, I apologize for being predictable, but if hope springs eternal, despair just zombie-staggers towards oblivion.

In case you most definitely missed it, Truck Day is here. On Monday, the team's gear will begin the journey south, with a pit stop in Worcester, where Steinberg now orchestrates minor spectacles in Triple-A. The local stations will provide dutiful coverage during a slow news time, but no one's skipping work in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Papi's bats or Pedey's gloves. The truck will depart in appropriate anonymity.

But here's the thing: I would love for Truck Day to matter again, even if it's phonier than Black Friday or Father's Day. People caring about the truck means people caring about the Red Sox which means John still has a job. But what it really means is that the Red Sox are worth our investment of time, emotion, and money.

Right now, no one can credibly make that case. The Red Sox are hunkering down like survivalists, hoarding prospects and waiting for a day when the American League East is safe again, but it could be a while. It's never a good sign when the buzziest news the team has announced in years has nothing to do with the on-field product, but is instead the return of Theo Epstein as an owner/consultant.

Epstein built the teams that captivated the region two decades ago, and his full-circle journey offers a welcome glimmer of hope, but it's not like he's reclaiming his basement office in baseball operations. He'll make his impact felt eventually, because he's too competitive to watch the team languish, but it won't be right away.

In the meantime, if the rest of us are giving any thought to next week's start of spring training, it's to see if we can remember who's on the team beyond Rafael Devers, Triston Casas, and maybe Trevor Story.

Until the Red Sox fix that problem, we're not going to much care what's in the truck or when it leaves, even as the most too-cool-for-school among us would love nothing more than to mock the day's very existence while secretly appreciating that it matters.

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