Boston Red Sox Front Office Must Confront the John Lackey Dilemma

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Boston Red Sox Front Office Must Confront the John Lackey Dilemma
John Lackey and his wife, Krista, during less-troubling times

More than a dozen years ago, I struggled as my first marriage was disintegrating.

While I had always prided myself on being able to separate my personal life and my professional life, I suddenly found myself unable to do so.

I brought my household baggage to the town hall with me (I was a town manager at the time). My typically jovial demeanor became consistently melancholic and taciturn, and sometimes unnecessarily combative. I did not like what was going on, but I found myself unable to do anything about it. When people asked if there was anything wrong or whether there was anything they could do to help, I responded everything was fine.

In retrospect, I feel certain it was obvious that I was not being forthright with them.

Last night, while watching a bellicose and dour John Lackey address the media in the Sox clubhouse during his post-game remarks, I had a bit of a flash back to my experience in the late 1990s. He told the media he threw the ball better than he had in his previous outing (on May 5, when he was shellacked by L.A.), but it did not take a rocket scientist to decipher that he wasn’t himself—either during the game or while addressing the media.

Early in his remarks, Lackey told the media that he doesn’t know what to make of his struggles, but that really wasn’t the truth. We know that because, a short time later, he said, “Everything in my life sucks right now, to be honest with you.”

Elsa/Getty Images

Ah, there it was—the truth!

Lackey is a player who insists on keeping his personal life and professional life separate—he reiterated the point last night during his media session—but during spring training we learned that his wife, Krista, had been diagnosed with breast cancer last year and that he had spent the offseason in southern California, where she was being treated for the disease.

It was an uncharacteristically open and honest admission from the usually-guarded right-hander. His off-hand “sucks” remark last night was another such disclosure.

Obviously, Lackey isn’t going to share what is going on in his life with the media or the members of Red Sox Nation. Frankly, it is NONE of our business. He owes none of us any semblance of explanation regarding what he and his family may be experiencing. It is a purely private matter.

Reporters are sharks and are just looking for a story because their editors only care about selling papers. His wife is his only real priority. Life is life. Baseball is a game. Life takes priority over the game.

If anyone doesn’t understand that indisputable truth, they lack a basic sense of humanity.

I’m not so sure he even owes an explanation to his teammates. Most of them are co-workers, not friends. None of them would want to have to share the intimate details of their lives (or their spouse’s or children’s health) with the 24 other guys in their locker room, so there is no need for Lackey to have to share the nitty-gritty details of his wife’s cancer with his teammates.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

If he owes an explanation to anyone, it is to his manager and general manager—the two guys who are primarily in charge of the club and sign off on his paycheck.

What he DOES owe to his teammates is an h-o-n-e-s-t disclosure (to Tito and Theo) of how his family circumstances are affecting his mindset, and whether he feels he can be effective—in the short term—in consideration of everything he has to deal with off the field.

Francona and Epstein have to look him in the eye and make a determination as to whether THEY believe he will be able to perform up to expectations. 

If they determine he cannot, they have to face the resulting dilemma in a professional manner.

On the one hand, Lackey is in the second year of a multi-year, big-money contract—they don’t want to do anything that will exhibit a lack of faith in the big righty. One of their primary concerns is helping to sustain his confidence. But they also owe it to the rest of the team to place them in the best position to win every night.

If they determine Lackey is not in the correct frame of mind to give his teammates the best chance to win, they may need to replace him in the rotation.

From the outside, it seems obvious that whatever is going on in his life away from the field (whatever it is that makes his life ‘suck’ right now) is affecting him at the park and on the mound. It’s human nature. It doesn’t make him less of a man or less of a pro, it only makes him more human. Whether at the town hall or at Fenway Park, what transpires at home invariably has to insinuate itself into your life throughout the day.

Gail Oskin/Getty Images

We are not automatons or robots. We are real people with raw emotions and fragile feelings.

There are a couple of newspapers/websites that, in my opinion, have printed/posted foolish articles about Lackey’s plight—most notably, the Providence Journal. In today’s edition, Projo writer Brian McPherson suggested Lackey’s career arc has peaked and that he has commenced a slide that could likely render him useless throughout the remainder of his Red Sox deal.

He compared Lackey to the likes of Freddy Garcia, Jack McDowell, Kevin Millwood and Jason Schmidt. It was a hack article that relied on little in the way of useful data to make specious comparisons among the pitchers.

McPherson should be embarrassed by the hack job he published. Two minutes on fangraphs.com would have disclosed a HUGE and glaring difference among the comparison pool (except for McDowell, for whom the relevant data is not available on fangraphs).

In the years that Garcia, Millwood and Schmidt saw their "career arcs" take dramatic and irreversible downturns, it was largely due to the fact they experienced significant decreases in pitch speed as those years progressed (from 2.5-to-6.0 mph on their fastball and similar loss of speed on their other pitches).

While Lackey has lost one mph on his fastball from last year (from 91.5 mph to 90.5 mph), he still remains within his career range (average speeds of 90.4 mph to 91.6 mph during his 10 seasons).

Thus, I contend there is no great “wall” that has been hit by Lackey, as it was hit by the other pitchers mentioned in his article.

Assuming Krista’s health is a continuing issue, the problem with Lackey is emotional and mental, not physical. It almost certainly is a result of a lack of concentration on the mound. He is distracted by issues in his life that are FAR MORE important than the game of baseball.

He can not turn his concentration or focus on and off as if it is a light switch.

If that assumption is true, he and his family would likely be best served if he took a leave of absence for awhile as they address the health issues that are confronting her. Again, assuming his wife’s situation is weighing on him, he needs to be honest with himself—and with the Red Sox front office.

If he doesn’t wish to take a leave of absence, Tito and Theo then have the responsibility to protect both the player and team. While Lackey may not WANT to leave the team for awhile, he may come to understand that it would be the best thing for all parties.

It may also take a grand gesture by Theo Epstein and/or Terry Francona to make sure the Lackeys are able to battle life’s vicissitudes together for awhile.

The baseball diamond will always be there tomorrow.

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