Red Sox no longer easy to root for

When the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 — and for a few seasons before that — they were one of the easiest teams in baseball to like.

Eight years hence, they lead the league in petulance, entitlement and unaccountability.

Whoever said Josh Beckett wasn’t a contender for the Triple Crown?

The Red Sox maintained a gritty identity through much of the last decade, even as they spent almost on par with the archrival New York Yankees. There was a sense of purpose about them. The roster always included a few superstars, but the grinders — Bill Mueller, Gabe Kapler, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek — formed the team’s fabric.

Slowly, that character has melted away. Dustin Pedroia still has it. David Ortiz does, too. But the percentage of players in the clubhouse who truly get it has fallen considerably in recent years. And there’s only so much the likes of Pedroia and Ortiz can do for their peers who have lapsed on their obligation to the paying customers at Fenway Park.

To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Brian Daubach isn’t walking through that door.

The problem didn’t start with Beckett’s golf outing last week when he was supposedly too injured to pitch. But that is the latest evidence of a moral compass gone haywire, during a season in which the Red Sox remain stuck in last place with a 12-19 record and the American League’s third-worst winning percentage.

Red Sox fans have been looking for reasons to put September 2011 behind them — the chicken, the beer, the Orioles. Instead, Beckett’s recent behavior suggests that he learned nothing from the ordeal.

According to a report by WBZ-FM in Boston, Beckett went golfing last week after the Red Sox announced that stiffness in his right lat muscle would keep him from making his next start. Beckett returned to the mound Thursday, and the results were ugly in an 8-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians: 2 1/3 innings, seven earned runs, and boos at Fenway.

Red Sox fans weren’t just upset that Beckett had a poor outing. This was far worse: He had betrayed their trust. Beckett didn’t help himself afterward, refusing to apologize for the distraction he caused. Asked if he understood the negative perception of his golf outing considering the team’s poor play, Beckett said, “We get 18 off days a year. I think we deserve a little bit of time to ourselves.”

Really?

Beckett decided that golf (a trunk-rotation sport) was a perfectly legitimate off-day activity, at a time when he wasn’t healthy enough to pitch for the fans who pay his salary (and the team that desperately needs an ace).

Could you imagine Roy Halladay pulling a stunt like that?

Or Curt Schilling, for that matter?

Prior to Oct. 27, 2004, the Red Sox had one of the most tortured fan bases in professional sports. It was easy to empathize with Red Sox Nation. But the World Series championship changed them, and the ’07 title continued the transformation.

The self-importance of New England baseball fans went up. So, too, did their expectations. Maybe that is why ownership and management felt such pressure to continue acquiring stars. It’s not enough to make the playoffs just about every year and win two World Series titles. We need to entertain the people with something new and exciting.

So, they spent big. Since the end of the 2010 season, the Red Sox have extended Beckett (four years, $68 million), handed John Lackey the largest pitching contract in franchise history (five years, $82.5 million), and signed Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to contracts totaling $296 million.

That’s nearly $450 million in player contracts, all signed during the tenure of former general manager Theo Epstein. Three of them — Beckett, Lackey and Crawford — have turned into utter fiascos. The Gonzalez deal is more palatable, but his production has dipped noticeably since last year; he has two home runs this season, despite playing his home games in a hitter’s haven.

Teams rarely function well when that many big investments turn bad. It is as if the Red Sox clubhouse is a neighborhood with several homes in foreclosure. No matter how hard a few individuals may work, the street is going to look shabby.

Embattled manager Bobby Valentine didn’t create this controversy. Beckett will turn 32 later this month and the decision to behave irresponsibly was his. Beckett is supposed to be the pitcher who stops losing streaks, who imbues his team with confidence, who eases the concerns of Boston’s most ardent fans. Instead, he’s perpetuating the belief that the Red Sox aren’t a very good baseball team — one with dwindling hopes of salvaging the season.