'You're not in Kansas anymore': The pressure -- from inside and out -- that could define the 2018 Red Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Upon deciding last month to finally accept a nine-figure contract to hit in the middle of the Boston Red Sox batting order, J.D. Martinez called his sister in California. Although Mayra Bazavilvazo oozed with pride and gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up, she also had a few words of warning for her baby bro.

"Basically, I told him, 'You're not in Kansas anymore,'" Bazavilvazo recalled by phone. "Because it's a whole other ballgame there, no pun intended."

That's the reputation, at least. And if a periodontist from Newport Beach, California, believes Boston is a tough place to play, based on her observations from having gone to dental school in the city's South End, imagine what the athletes must think -- particularly lately.

The serial success of Boston's pro teams over the past two decades has only ratcheted up the passion of fans -- the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins have combined to win 10 championships in the past 16 years. And Bostonians are particularly passionate about baseball. As former Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester once put it, a year of baseball in Boston is "162 single-game seasons" in which "every game is [treated like] Game 7 of the World Series."

The result: Boston can seem like a fishbowl to athletes who, like it or not, are treated as celebrities around town. In turn, they are expected not only to compete for titles every season, but also to win them. And that explains why it isn't enough that the Red Sox have won 93 games and the American League East crown in back-to-back seasons. All anyone seems to care about is their 1-6 record in the playoffs and consecutive division series knockouts by the Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros, the past two pennant winners.

Boston isn't for the faint of heart -- which is all Bazavilvazo was saying when she cautioned her brother about his new place of employment after his stints in Houston, Detroit and, most recently, Arizona.

Martinez said he understands. In his introductory news conference last month, he described the Boston baseball experience by making an analogy to another sport.

"It's almost like football has Monday night. They say at Fenway that every night is like Monday Night Football," Martinez said. "I love this game, I love to play. To play in front of fans that are just as passionate and love it just as much is exciting."

But as those who have played in Boston will attest, it's impossible to really know what it's like until you've lived through it.

And the 2018 Red Sox -- including Martinez and rookie manager Alex Cora -- are about to do just that.

Mookie Betts didn't have much fun last season. Not as much as he should have, anyway.

The Red Sox went 93-69 and won the AL East by two games over the rival New York Yankees. And Betts was Boston's best all-around player. Although he didn't match his MVP-caliber production from 2016, he still hit 24 home runs, stole 26 bases, drove in 102 runs and won a Gold Glove in right field.

But there was a sense of restlessness and even dissatisfaction among fans, likely the residue of the three-game sweep by the Indians in 2016 -- and the players allowed the outside noise to penetrate the walls of the clubhouse.

"[There was] just tension in the locker room as far as if things were down," Betts said. "There were times where we lost a couple games in a row and we were kind of pressing to try and get back to the winning side instead of just letting it happen, letting the game play out."

In past years, the Red Sox had veterans with big personalities to help lighten the mood. In 2013, for instance, they never lost more than three straight games all season en route to a World Series championship, in large part because David Ortiz, David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster and Jake Peavy inoculated younger players from negativity that might have existed outside Fenway Park.

But Ortiz's retirement after the 2016 playoffs left a leadership void that neither Betts nor fellow young stars Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi were ready to fill. De facto captain Dustin Pedroia has never been comfortable as a team spokesman, and he retreated even further from the spotlight in late April after getting criticized for seemingly taking sides against his teammates during a beanball dustup with the Baltimore Orioles.

Co-ace David Price was regarded as a leader with other teams earlier in his career. But after a 2016 season in which he didn't pitch up to his standards, the $217 million lefty injured his elbow in spring training and sparred with the media upon his return. In July, he berated Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, an analyst on some Red Sox telecasts on New England Sports Network, on the team plane. Price tried to rally his younger teammates by fostering an us-against the-world mentality, but it served only to make the Sox less likable to the public.

Even manager John Farrell got wrapped up in the negativity. In perpetually trying to defend his moves, his weekly interview on the team's flagship radio station sometimes turned into a tension-filled 15 minutes.

Add it all up and the season felt like a joyless slog.

"I just think, for whatever reason, our overall outlook was really result-oriented. That can wear on you as an everyday player, because baseball is so hard," Pedroia said. "You fail seven times out of 10, you're really good. And I think if you're really result-oriented that day, the day you can go home and get a good night's rest is if your team wins by 10 [runs] and you go 4-for-4 with four home runs. And that's not realistic.

"Baseball, it's a process. You're going to have your 0-for-10s, your 0-for-15s, your 0-for-20s. But if you prepare the right way and stick to the plan, I think that gives your mind ease. There's less stress and less, technically, panic. I think we kind of went away from that."

Ownership noticed. After another first-round playoff stinker, Farrell was let go. His coaching staff, save for long-tenured Dana LeVangie, was shown the door, too.

Yet it was the despised Yankees, after riding their wild-card berth all the way to Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, who made the biggest offseason splash. They traded for National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton, whose 59 home runs would have fit perfectly in the middle of a Red Sox lineup that went deep less often than any team in the AL last season.

For as much as the Red Sox craved a slugger (in February, they finally signed Martinez to a five-year, $110 million deal), what they really needed was an air freshener. And by hiring 42-year-old Cora, a first-year skipper coming off his lone season of experience as a major league coach, with the Astros, ownership believes it gave the clubhouse a shot of air freshener.

In spring training, Cora kept things relaxed. He insisted the players call him "Alex" or "A.C." Taking a page from Astros manager A.J. Hinch, he made a point of walking through the clubhouse and talking to players at their lockers rather than holing up in his office. He instituted rules, including a dress code for travel days, but not before meeting with a few veteran players and asking for their input. And when Christian Vazquez took out his phone during one of Cora's initial meetings with the team, Cora "punished" the catcher by arranging for him to take a few teammates to dinner and pay the bill, the first penalty assessed in a kangaroo court that has been formed.

Cora also has followed through on his pledge to get close to his players. Most of his chats with Price involve comparing notes about parenting an infant (Cora has 8-month-old twins, and Price has a 10-month-old son). When closer Craig Kimbrel took a three-week leave from the team to be at his infant daughter's bedside after she had heart surgery, Cora made a point of calling Kimbrel and talking "for five minutes as his manager and 25 minutes as his friend." Cora, who played at the University of Miami, asked lefties Brian Johnson and Bobby Poyner to make a presentation about their time at the University of Florida.

To break up the monotony of spring training drills, Cora came up with creative games. He indulged first baseman Hanley Ramirez's fondness for his former position by letting him take grounders at shortstop. Cora amplified the intensity of the drills but shortened the duration. In Camp Cora, there wasn't much wasted time.

"I think he's extremely positive," chairman Tom Werner said. "I think you feel a sense of, he wants to encourage the team to have fun, not get too down over a couple of losses. It's a cliché, but he talked about how we are a family. I know the response from the players has been it's a joy to play for Alex, and it's a joy to see the pleasure in the interaction between Alex and the players already."

Said Betts: "He just says little things, 'Did you do this? Did you do that? I want you to be yourself. Go play the game, have fun.' Pretty much just all positive things. When you get something like that, it makes you feel good about yourself that your manager, kind of your leader of the team, believes in you."

Make no mistake, the Red Sox's time is now.

Consider this: The payroll, roughly $230 million as calculated for luxury-tax purposes, will be a franchise record and the highest in baseball on Opening Day. At season's end, Kimbrel and lefty Drew Pomeranz are eligible for free agency and Price can opt out of his contract. After next season, ace Chris Sale, Bogaerts and right-hander Rick Porcello can become free agents and Martinez will be able to exercise the first of three opt-out clauses in his front-loaded deal. And almost every trade orchestrated by team president Dave Dombrowski over the past three years has contributed to stripping a once-loaded farm system of its brightest prospects.

In other words, the Red Sox's window might be more wide open now than at any other time in the next few years.

But they also must contend with elite teams in both the division and the league. The Yankees were known as the Baby Bombers even before they acquired Stanton. Adding him to a lineup that features Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius and Greg Bird only makes them more powerful. And the Astros are getting Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and the rest of their World Series-winning band back together.

And here we thought there couldn't possibly be any more pressure on Boston's baseball team.

"I try to think every year is my time to win. With that mindset, I think you're going out there to play your best," center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said. "Obviously, we know who's got what, how many years [left on a contract], this and that. But I don't like to see it as a window. There's a lot of different variables. It's too many to even think about a so-called window."

Besides, it would only add to the external pressure that the Red Sox would do well to shut out. If anything, Cora is trying to get his players to use the madness of Boston to their advantage by turning it into a motivational tool.

"I don't see it as an obstacle as most people see it. I see it as something challenging but fun," Cora said. "It's fun to be part of this environment. I know people don't like to accept it, but over 162 games, there are going to be certain days you need something to push you, and that's what pushes you a little more. That helps you out to perform."

Not everyone is wired that way, of course.

As a struggling young player in 2015, Bradley capped a four-hit game in Detroit by arranging to have his photo taken with Eckersley before boarding the team plane, then tweeting it out above this caption:

Three years later, Bradley says he has grown up. He's married now, with a daughter who is nearly 2 years old, and he believes he handles criticism more maturely.

Bazavilvazo did her residency with former Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell's brother, Victor. She recalled that he would sometimes show up for work upset because a sports-talk radio host or a caller to the program he was listening to in his car was "talking crap about Mike again."

Her advice: Turn off the radio.

"That's unfortunately part of it," Bazavilvazo said. "The plusses are all very good. There's no fans in baseball like it. But there is that other side of it, too, as well. J.D. can handle it. My mom, she's the one that's going to have a heart attack. I'm going to have to turn off all the alerts on her phone."

For some players, that's the best way to survive Boston. But it won't be any easier if the World Series-or-bust Red Sox don't win.