Kevin Youkilis made a triumphant return to Fenway Park Monday night, going 3-for-4 in his first game against the Boston Red Sox since being traded to the Chicago White Sox in late June (though the Red Sox did win the game, 5-1).
Youkilis' return also revived the feelings of resentment between him and Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. Earlier in the season, Valentine poisoned the relationship between the two irrevocably by questioning whether Youkilis was "as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past."
If Valentine's intention was to motivate Youkilis, the tactic backfired on him. Publicly calling out a beloved veteran didn't win Valentine any allies among his players (nor with the front office, as general manager Ben Cherington asked Valentine to apologize to Youkilis).
Yet rather than let the feud simmer down, Valentine threw another match on the fire when asked about the tension between him and Youkilis prior to Monday's game. Rather than avoid the subject and move on, Valentine told reporters that Youkilis "never wanted to get over" the manager's remarks.
Furthermore, Valentine referred to the belief among some Red Sox players that Youkilis had blown the whistle on the drinking that occurred in the clubhouse last season.
So much for taking the high road. But that's never really been Valentine's style, either.
One of the things that makes Valentine so intriguing to follow is that he'll say anything when a microphone is put in front of him. He shares what's on his mind and doesn't sugarcoat his remarks to spare anyone's feelings.
Other managers would have avoided this whole soap opera. But not Bobby V.
However, it's certainly worth asking whether this drama will come back to hurt Valentine and the Red Sox. Players want to feel that their manager will protect them against the media. No one wants dirty laundry aired out in public.
Will prospective free agents end up leaving the Red Sox to get away from Valentine and the drama he creates? Might free agents from other teams see how Valentine handled the Youkilis situation and wonder if they want to play for him?
Just how many Red Sox players has Valentine really lost? We know Dustin Pedroia isn't a fan of his. He spoke out against Valentine after the Youkilis remarks, saying that's not how things were done in the Red Sox clubhouse. ESPN Boston's Gordon Edes has noted that Pedroia won't join meetings on the mound when Valentine comes out to discuss strategy.
If Pedroia is unhappy, however, he'll have quite a while before he can decide to leave Boston. He's under contract through 2014 with a club option for 2015. Unless he were to demand a trade, Pedroia isn't going anywhere.
David Ortiz is unhappy, but his beef is with the front office and the contracts that have been offered to him. Ortiz resents having to play for a contract almost every year and seems to feel he could be treated better elsewhere. That has nothing to do with Valentine. As ESPN Boston's Joe McDonald reported, Ortiz has even supported Valentine among his teammates.
As far as other free agents go, we know all too well by now players will follow the money. If the Red Sox are offering top dollar, they will get the player they want. Does the manager really matter?
Look at Jayson Werth. He signed with the Washington Nationals with Jim Riggleman—who practically had an "interim" sign hanging from his neck—as manager. Werth's $126 million contract took precedence over who was in the Nats dugout.
Ozzie Guillen called out players for years when he was the White Sox manager. A poll of major league players said he was the least respected manager in baseball.
That didn't stop Jose Reyes from agreeing to play for him with the Miami Marlins. Mark Buehrle was willing to reunite with him in Miami. Generous contracts from owner Jeffrey Loria were more important than the perception of Guillen.
Players also want to win, and they know there's a good chance of that happening in Boston. The Red Sox are always in playoff contention and will do whatever it takes to maintain that place in the American League standings. That matters more than who the manager is.
Though Valentine hasn't helped himself with his outspokenness or his willingness to communicate with players and coaches, the current problems with the Red Sox can be traced back to ownership.
Upper management stabbed Terry Francona in the back in that infamous Boston Globe hit piece that ran after last season. Team president and CEO Larry Lucchino insisted on hiring Valentine as manager when it was apparent that Cherington preferred Dale Sveum, who took a job with the Chicago Cubs instead.
Even when Valentine was hired, he was forced to retain pitching coach Bob McClure, bullpen coach Gary Tuck and bench coach Tim Bogar. No wonder there's been miscommunication among the coaching staff. How many managers aren't allowed to bring their guys in, coaches they're familiar with, when taking over the top seat in the dugout?
Perhaps worst of all, ownership left the clubhouse mess for Valentine to clean up, rather than directly address the behaviors that had developed among the players.
If teammates believed Youkilis was the source behind stories of clubhouse drinking, maybe management needed to trade him before the season.
Maybe they also should have dealt away Josh Beckett, Jon Lester or any others who participated in the fried-chicken-and-beer escapades. Instead, those issues carried over into this season and have lingered ever since.
Winning cures all, of course. The Red Sox may be 9.5 games out of first place in the AL East, but they're only one game from a wild card playoff spot. If this team can make it to the postseason despite everything that's happened, all the tensions that supposedly exist, then how bad can it really be?
Valentine might even be emboldened by such a result. His way will have worked.
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