Boston Red Sox: Problems Started Long Ago, Blame Should Be Shared
Most people have (finally) come to the realization that the Boston Red Sox organization has lost its way, but the truth is that the ownership and front office lost its way long ago, and it is only now that people are recognizing it. It has only been in the last few months (September and April) that the players have become equally as incompetent.
On my personal website (sox1fan.com), I had been writing of the cancer that has been afflicting the Red Sox beginning in 2010. There are myriad and deep-seeded infirmities afflicting this ownership group, the front office and associated staff.
Truth is that the organizational problems had been obvious long before then, and I had withheld my criticism, but in the latter stages of the '10 season I determined I could no longer keep my opinions to myself any longer.
Soon thereafter, the organization cut off my access to minor league prospects, players I'd been granted access to for several years, and almost immediately thereafter advised me I would no longer be granted access to minor leagues clubhouses and dugouts—privileges that had been extended to me for years.
Ahhh, the price of honesty!
So I curtailed my blogging last summer and shut down my website in the fall, determined to spend my time with family and limit my writing to special circumstances. Well, I cannot sit idly by and watch the implosion occurring on Yawkey Way without sharing prior observations and offering new opinions on the cancer that is consuming the club.
The carpetbaggers who own the club will depart someday—hopefully sooner rather than later—but Red Sox Nation will always be here.
It Starts at the Top
The problems within the organization start with the ownership, and primary responsibility must be assigned to managing partner John W. Henry.
Call it what you want: Arrogance. Greed. Hubris. Whatever term you use for it, Red Sox Nation (and the rest of the world) are finally starting to realize ownership has lost its way. The Boston Red Sox have, in essence, become the New York Yankees of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Successful investment manager John Henry was involved in the ownership of several franchises at a variety of levels across professional sports (minor league baseball, the NBA and MLB). Henry and his group purchased the club in 2002, the hand-picked ownership of Commissioner Bud Selig.
At the time, it was expected that they would support the Selig agenda—operating within the financial framework of the small- to mid-market ownership groups across the league. Ownership said all of the right things at the time, espousing the value of re-building the farm system and using the free agent market sparingly to augment its home-grown talent.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the ballpark: the Sox won a world championship... and then, soon thereafter, they won another. With success came a flood of money from attendance, advertising, memorabilia sales, etc. As a result, ownership developed an unquenchable desire to extend its on-field success so that the organization could continue printing money.
The 2004 roster was substantially comprised of players the team had developed (Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon), acquired via trade (Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling) or some combination thereof (Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe). Most of the free agents on the ballclub were low-cost, high-upside players such as David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, etc.
The high-priced free agents on the team were inherited, having been signed by GM Dan Duquette while The Yawkey Trust owned the ballclub (notably, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez)... the exception was closer Keith Foulke, who had been signed with the blessing of current ownership in the fall of 2003.
The '05 Red Sox were swept in the ALDS by the Chicago White Sox and, soon thereafter, John Henry allowed team president Larry Lucchino to chase GM Theo Epstein from Fenway Park—on Halloween—in a gorilla costume. While Epstein would later returned to the ballclub, the groundwork was laid for an internecine power struggle that would undermine Epstein's sense of security at the top of the baseball operations department.
It had become evident to some of us that ownership had given itself too much credit for the club's success in 2004 and had started meddling where it didn't belong.
The 2006 team missed the postseason all together and, starting in the winter of 2006-07, ownership lost sight of what gave rise to the club's earlier success. The Red Sox became one of the biggest of the big-market teams; they became what we, as Red Sox fans, used to hate about the NY Yankees.
They became part of the problem.
The 2007 roster contained several home-grown players (Ellsbury, Lester, Papelbon, Pedroia, Youkilis) and several of the other key pieces the team had been added via trade (Beckett, Crisp, Lowell), but it had become obvious the migration toward filling needs in The Yankee Way had (sadly) begun: witness the posting fee and contract awarded to Daisuke Matsuzaka and the laughable contracts signed by JD Drew and Julio Lugo that winter.
The '07 club won the World Series, and the '08 team made it all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS, but it appears that success suggested to the owners they had discovered a recipe for success when, in fact, they had stumbled upon a prescription for failure.
While payroll has grown annually and the organization has exceeded the luxury tax threshold in each of the last three (soon to be four) seasons, the Sox have not won a postseason game since '08.
All the while, ownership has lost its focus and grown increasingly clueless... and Henry has grown more and more restless, allowing his focus to drift from the Red Sox. And as that has happened, problems on Yawkey Way have proliferated.
Henry has, at times, been part of the groups that have owned the Orlando Magic, Miami Heat and New Jersey Nets of the NBA. He once attempted to bring an NHL franchise to south Florida. He previously owned MLB's Florida Marlins, but traded up to buy the Red Sox.
Metaphorically speaking, Henry, along with Werner and Lucchino, are carpetbaggers, traveling from city to city on the sports landscape in search of an ownership opportunity.
Aside from his ties to south Florida, where his business has been located since the 1980s, the thing that serves as Henry's primarily motivation is the quest for a good investment and notoriety—and how better to achieve those ends in this day and age than through the ownership of a pro sports team?
At the height of the Red Sox success, he seemingly became bored with baseball... after all, he had broken The Curse of The Bambino. He sought adventure elsewhere, ultimately deciding to dabble in NASCAR with the purchase of a 50-percent stake in Rousch-Fenway Racing (in February '07).
When the Sox won their second World Series in four seasons later that year, his hubris knew no bounds. The second championship only inflamed his thirst for financial and sporting adventure. He began looking for new horizons, eventually finding one across the pond as he and Werner dipped their toes into the world of professional soccer, assuming control of Liverpool FC.
Meanwhile, back on Yawkey Way, the business of baseball had started to unravel.
The organization grasped for success, and as the effort has become more aggressive, it has simultaneously become a sad exercise in futility. Ownership has approved (instigated?) a succession of wasteful expenditures on players, from John Lackey (whose statistics at Fenway Park as a member of the LA Angels were frighteningly bad!) to Mike Cameron, Carl Crawford, Bobby Jenks and Marco Scutaro.
As a result, we all watched in horror as the club suffered the ugliest collapse in history last September; we looked on as ownership chased the GM and manager out of town; and we gasped in horror when Bobby V was introduced as the team's new manager at an embarrassing and farcical press conference.
And as Henry has grown more ambitious in other undertakings and less attentive to the baseball team, the Fenway Follies have become more embarrassing and laughable. Earth to John—time to wake up and smell the coffee!
Some Men Do Not Recognize Their Limitations
It is unquestionable that Larry Lucchino has proven himself to be a brilliant visionary in terms of building and re-building stadiums.
As President/CEO of the Baltimore Orioles he oversaw the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards; soon thereafter, as President/CEO of the San Diego Padres, he was tasked with overseeing the construction of Petco Park; and, most recently, as President/CEO of the Red Sox, he has overseen the renovation of "America's Most Beloved Ballpark."
What portion of these visions came from Lucchino and what may have came from Janet Marie Smith, the brilliant architect who accompanied him throughout his nomadic journey across professional baseball, may never be known.
What we do know is that his efforts in terms of building the on-field baseball product have not met with the same success as his efforts to build baseball stadiums.
The Baltimore Orioles were a pathetic club throughout the mid-1980s, bottoming out in 1988 when they started the season 0-21 en route to a last-place finish. On June 1 of that year, O's owner Edward Bennett Williams stepped down as team President/CEO and named Lucchino (then the club VP and general counsel) his successor.
As luck would have it, the O's enjoyed a strong campaign in '89, and there are many observers in Baltimore who believe Lucchino assumed undeserved credit for that club's success (at the expense of Roland Hemond).
Lucchino's responsibilities in '88-'89 were split between meddling with baseball operations and working with Maryland governor (and ex-Charm City mayor) William Donald Schaefer securing funding approval for a new single-purpose baseball stadium near Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
After funding was approved by the Maryland legislature in 1989, Lucchino shifted 100 percent of his focus to constructing Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Starting in 1990, the O's on-field product reverted to its prior futility, and it became evident 1989 had been nothing more than an aberration.
After Camden Yards opened in 1992, the restless Lucchino sought another challenge. He briefly led a group (called "Hometown Partners") seeking to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates. But he quickly abandoned the initiative in order to join a group headed by Houston businessman John Moores, in an effort to buy the San Diego franchise from Tom Werner, who was completing a highly embarrassing tenure as owner of the Padres.
That group reached agreement to buy the Padres in December of 1994 and was approved by MLB in 1995. Lucchino was subsequently named President/CEO of the club. Soon after assuming control of the Padres, ostensibly in an effort to assume substantive control over baseball ops, he said goodbye to established GM Randy Smith and replaced him with a novice GM, Kevin Towers.
Over the next few years, the organization overspent in free agency—buying two years of competitive baseball before suffering a free fall that should have been instructive when he landed in Boston (but apparently leaving no indelible impression on him).
After 1998, the on-field product again floundered; but Towers was left to deal with the fallout as the boss found another distraction to amuse himself. He busied himself championing and then building the team's new single-use stadium, Petco Park, which was scheduled to open in 2002.
As in the past, once the majority of the work had been done to secure the political approval, put all of the financing in place and design the stadium, the nomad in Lucchino got restless. While the plans to move ahead with Petco Park were delayed, for reasons beyond his control, he joined the Henry group in purchasing the Red Sox.
Red Sox Nation knows the ownership history from there. While we don't know the behind-the-scenes deliberations or motivations that led to certain organizational decisions, we are in position to make an educated guess based on his history.
We know that Sox ownership fired an established general manager within the first year of purchasing the club (Dan Duquette) and replaced him with a novice GM (Theo Epstein)...a guy who had worked for Lucchino previously and was someone he (Lucchino) likely assumed he would be able to control.
We know Lucchino turned on his protegee when Epstein turned out to be the smartest baseball mind in the room and (presumably) declined to let Lucchino make baseball decisions. We know the friction between the men led to Epstein's brief departure from the team in 2005... and we deduce the tension remained subsequent to his return in the spring of 2006, as the two men battled for influence with the owner (Henry).
We know Epstein often said he preferred not to sign big-money free agents (because it meant forfeiting highly-coveted draft picks) and that he preferred not to make trades that would gut the club's farm system in order to acquire high-priced veterans (because he wanted to be able to manage payroll).
Yet those are the exact policies the organization pursued over the last two-plus years. Why?
We may never know for certain, but we do know Epstein bolted as soon as he was allowed, and that ownership (Lucchino?) was so eager to be rid of Epstein that they embarrassingly allowed him to assume his role with the Chicago Cubs before resolving the compensation issue.
Further, we know Lucchino championed the hiring of the inexperienced Ben Cherington as the team's new general manager and the clownish Bobby Valentine as the team's current manager. And we can deduce that, based on the way the managerial decision unfolded, Cherington had no interest in hiring Valentine as his skipper (Dale Sveum appeared to be his man) and that he acquiesced in the face of pressure from Lucchino.
Mission accomplished, Larry!
Lastly, there are the stories that the myriad unflattering leaks about Epstein (in 2005) and manager Terry Francona (at the end of last year) came from Lucchino himself.
The Red Sox organization is in free fall...and it appears every aspect of the organizational unraveling has Lucchino's fingerprints on it.
The Boy Genius Bails
As I stated previously, Red Sox Nation will likely never know what happened behind closed doors as the organization deliberated assorted signings, hirings and trades, but we do know that, in each and every one of those instances, the face of the franchise was GM Theo Epstein.
He accepted the plaudits when the organization signed Daisuke Matsuzaka. He allowed shortstops Orlando Cabrera and Alex Gonzalez to leave town while proving himself incapable of finding an adequate replacement for the club (Renteria, Lugo, et al).
He traded Justin Masterson to Cleveland for Victor Martinez and then watched as V-Mart left for Detroit (on a below-market deal). He introduced JD Drew and John Lackey and Carl Crawford, among others, to Boston.
I don't know that Theo was in favor of bringing Dice-K to Boston, nor do I know whether he was the one who initiated the pursuit of Drew, Lackey, Crawford, et al... but what I do know is that he was the head honcho as these transactions unfolded, so he is at least culpable, if not responsible.
Look, I was a big supporter of Epstein while he was the club's GM. I often disagreed with decisions that we made, and frequently speculated that he was being a good soldier—either doing what he was told or simply presenting a united front to the media and The Nation.
For the most part, that is what a good general manager does! Ownership makes the policy decisions. They are the bosses...they sign the checks...so, a good GM owes them his loyalty.
Epstein's responsibility was to share his opinions behind closed doors and, when necessary, to fight for his beliefs with every fiber of his being. His responsibility also included accepting ownership's decisions when they did not go his way, and presenting a united front to the media and the public—even when he disagreed with the final decision.
The assumption here is that a lot of the decisions made by management over the last two to three years were decisions made by Lucchino, with the blessing of Henry, and imposed upon Epstein. It's entirely possible that presumption is incorrect and that most (or all) of these decisions were made by Epstein himself.
In the former case, Epstein would be culpable for allowing Lucchino to impose his will: he should have resigned rather than allow Lucchino to make the baseball decisions. In the latter case, Epstein was the guy making the decisions and, therefore, owns them—as well as the fallout for when they don't work out.
Either way, Epstein owns a degree of the responsibility for what has transpired in the Red Sox front offices over the last few years...and so he is on my list.
This Lord Jeff Caved at One of the Key Moments in Team History
New Hampshire native Ben Cherington was tasked with picking up the pieces when Theo Epstein fled for The Windy City. His first and chief responsibility was selecting a new manager for the on-field team.
He reportedly had hoped the Blue Jays would allow him to interview former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell for the job, but (understandably) the Jays declined. Thereafter, he conducted a series of interviews and had (reportedly) narrowed his search down to former BoSox third base coach Dale Sveum and former ChiSox manager Gene Lamont. Enter Larry Lucchino.
Lucchino had previously spent a day on a World Baseball Council panel with former MLB (and Japanese league) manager Bobby Valentine, discussing international baseball. But it was no accident they ended up together.
Reportedly, Bobby V had set his sights on the Red Sox job and had maneuvered his way into spending the day on the panel with the Sox' President and CEO, hoping to regale his would-be new boss with entertaining tales of life in Japan.
It worked. Reports indicate that Lucchino was smitten with Valentine and began lobbying for him soon thereafter.
Valentine was a bad fit for the job, and many clear-thinking people not employed on Yawkey Way were quick to warn against hiring him, myself included. He has a reputation for opening his mouth before engaging his brain, for being outspoken and throwing players under the bus, and for being a my-way-or-the-highway type of manager.
That style doesn't work in today's game, generally. It doesn't work with veteran ballplayers, generally. And it wasn't about to work with this edition of the Red Sox, a team comprised of veteran ballplayers, many of whom he was highly critical of during his tenure as an ESPN analyst. (LF Carl Crawford did not even return his phone call for weeks after he was hired!)
Reportedly, Cherington understood this, but Lucchino wanted someone in the clubhouse (and dugout) who would lay down the law with a group of players who had become known as much for drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse as they were for their historic September collapse. Lucchino imposed his will on Cherington, who should have walked away, right then and there.
Instead, Cherington tried to convince the world that Valentine had been his choice for the position. He staked his credibility and his reputation on the class clown, who put on an obsequious performance at his introductory press conference, challenged his young boss on personnel decision during the spring (ie, on Bard and Iglesias) and called out veteran 3B Kevin Youkilis ten days into the season.
Oh, yeah, and Bobby V gave Red Sox Nation a virtual middle finger with his tip-of-the-cap while being booed on Saturday. We didn't need a Japanese interpreter for that one!
I know the current big league roster isn't his doing, and I understand that his hands have been tied by an ownership that is in "bridge year" mode, because they want to re-set the luxury tax penalty for the club moving forward.
And, admittedly, he (Cherington) did a nice job turning some spare parts (Lowrie, Reddick) into the basis of a reasonable big league bullpen (Melancon, Bailey) during the off-season.
But Cherington needed to stick to his guns on his manager or tell Sox ownership to take the job and shove it. He needed to have the courage of his convictions and he didn't...and so 2012 is going to be lost because Bobby V is not going to work out.
The Wrong Man at the Wrong Time for the Right Job
There isn't a heckuva lot more to add here to what I have said previously. I objected when his name was raised as a candidate. I expressed a sense of foreboding when rumors started to spread that he would become the club's next manager. I warned that his tenure would be an abject failure after watching the performance at his introductory press conference.
He was goofy and solicitous. Sure, he was entertaining for the media, who largely enjoyed his antics, but can you imagine being a player watching their new manager? How many sets of eyes do you think rolled to the back of their heads?
Every one of them. Guaranteed!
Valentine is known for the highly publicized battles with his front offices in both New York and in Japan, and for his penchant for openly calling out his players while with the NY Mets. Those behaviors, all by themselves, suggested to me that he and the Red Sox would not be a good marriage.
In my mind, his press conference confirmed it.
I didn't have a problem with the changes Valentine made to the Spring Training routine in Fort Myers. Sometimes it is good to minimize a player's comfort zone and ask him to do something new.
While it became clear some players did not enjoy the extensive attention focused on some of the drills, other players confessed that it had been years since they had been asked to do some of the drills. The admissions indicated that the player's practice routine needed some degree of change.
After all, the Red Sox have not always been the most fundamentally sound team in baseball, even though they're among the most talented.
But in the latter days of Spring Training, Bobby had the public disagreement with Cherington over roles for Bard and Iglesias...and last weekend he threw the purpose pitch under Youkilis' chin...and then on Saturday he provided his not-so-subtle response to Red Sox fans.
Is it just me, or do you have to be a dullard not to understand that Bobby V doesn't get it? I know he has a shorter term agenda because he wants to win now, whereas the front office has a longer term perspective.
But this guy has plenty of ego to go around. He thinks he should be the center of attention, and he doesn't seem to realize fans don't pay to see him manage.
All of this should have been evident before. If it wasn't, it should be by now!
The Players Either Earn Their Paychecks or They Don't
Josh Beckett is the poster boy for all that is wrong with the players on the Red Sox roster, many of whom are viewed as arrogant, over-paid and lacking focus.
The fact that we have learned of player's transgressions in the clubhouse during the game—the revelations that chicken and beer were being consumed by some players while their teammates did battle with the enemy on the field—were bad enough.
But the fact that other players acknowledged their part in the unflattering conduct (Buchholz and Lester) while Beckett refused to do so only painted him in an even-more-unflattering light. He was booed by more people than cheered him on Opening Day at Fenway Park.
But Beckett wasn't the only player to fail last September, and chicken wasn't the only reason they came up short. The starting rotation was awful and the bullpen was brutal. Hitters didn't hit. Fielders botched a succession of routine plays, allowing unearned runs to score and forcing pitchers to throw extra pitches.
Each and every player failed in September and, in doing so, each one of them contributed to the team's collapse to some degree or other.
But those shortcomings have carried over into 2012, and they are not limited to shortcomings on the field. RHP Matt Albers looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy. RHP Daniel Bard continues to (selfishly) press for a spot in the starting rotation—this in spite of the fact the team has other candidates for the rotation (Aaron Cook) but no viable option at closer (thanks to the injury suffered by Andrew Bailey).
Beckett and Buchholz have been awful, and the bullpen has been brutal. Most of the hitters have yet to get untracked. It is so bad that, in the midst of Saturday's debacle against the Yankees, my wife asked me if it is possible that the players are intentionally losing because they want Valentine to be fired.
Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia are dependable, as is Jon Lester (for the most part). Otherwise, the Sox roster is largely full of question marks.
LF Carl Crawford is injured and it is unclear whether the Boston stage is "too big" for him. CF Jacoby Ellsbury is quickly developing a reputation for being unable to stay on the field. The right fielders, Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney, are unproven here.
3B Kevin Youkilis has had trouble staying healthy, and injuries have sapped his production when he is on the field. C Jarrod Saltalamacchia cannot hit. Mike Aviles was a role player pressed into a starting role when the front office dealt starting shortstop Marco Scutaro to save money.
Felix Doubront is a rookie. Alfredo Aceves is a reliever pressed into the starting rotation. Scott Atchison, Matt Albers, Vicente Padilla and Brad Thomas are all Bantha fodder and belong in the minor leagues (if not out of baseball... see Albers).
Ownership and the front office put the team together, and while the players may be aging and the roster is largely mismatched, the players are being paid to produce...and, other than a handful of them, they aren't.
It's going to be a long season on Yawkey Way, and I am of the opinion the front office should be looking to blow this thing up right now.
As for me, I'd rather suffer while watching Jose Iglesias and Ryan Lavarnaway and Will Middlebrooks than Aviles and Salty and Youk (as much as I like and respect him).