The State of the Sox
by ColchesterJim (a Sox fan for over 60 years)
Sox management is in a state of denial. On the defensive and unwilling to acknowledge their mistakes, the team’s principal owner, president, and GM seek to defend decisions that are indefensible, distort reality and in the process treat the team’s loyal fans as if they were children.
From the outset of his reign as principal Sox owner, John Henry has presented himself as a dedicated, thoughtful (even studious) baseball aficionado who had amassed a fortune and was willing to spend a chunk of it on the Sox– exactly what the typical sports fan wants from the team’s owner. In the present maelstrom, however, Henry has revealed a less savory side of his character, choosing to adopt the role of “spin doctor.” He would have the fans believe that Sox players came hat in hand to ownership to plead a collective mea culpa for the team’s poor performance, while in the process largely exonerating their manager of blame (although that seemed to be the point of the request for the meeting in the first place) But does anybody who gives it a moment’s thought really believe that employees would request a meeting with their bosses to confess their own incompetence, lack of commitment and poor performance? Does anybody really believe that the Sox players think that Valentine’s role in this fiasco is of minor significance?
In support of his rewriting of history, Henry cites the fact that no Sox player asked that Valentine be fired. While Henry may choose to insult the intelligence of Sox fans by expecting them to swallow his inane codswallop, the players are not so dumb. They know on which side their bread is buttered, they doubtless quickly discerned whose side the owners were on, and they understandably were not prepared to put their careers on the line by demanding that Valentine be dismissed.
And what about Larry Lucchino, the team president and public face of ownership? He too seems bent on taking responsibility for the Sox present predicament, even though it is clear – and Lucchino does not deny this -- that he was the one who urged that Valentine’s be hired in the first place. Of course Henry and Werner went along, as Lucchino lamely asserts in his effort to spread the blame, but what owners would not defer to the recommendation of their hand-picked chief executive? In any event who was responsible Valentine’s being hired is beside the point. It is no crime for one in charge of personnel decisions to make an error in judgment in selecting, say, a foreman. The fault lies in continuing to defend an ill-advised choice long after it has become apparent that that it was a mistake.
Lucchino, however, refuses to acknowledge any fault on his part. Rather, he blames everyone else– the player(s) who leaked the story to the media; the reporters who published the story, the record number of injuries experienced by the Sox; the players and of course the media. It is all so predictable. The kneejerk reaction of the politician who has been caught with his hands in the cookie jar is to ignore the charges and focus on the snake-in-the-grass exposed his misconduct out. That scoundrel needs to be uncovered, tarred and feathered. By this stratagem Lucchino hopes to deflect attention from his own mistakes and specifically his choice and continued defense of Valentine to be manager.
Lucchino’s second line of defense, again entirely predictable, is to point to inaccuracies in the Yahoo account of the meeting with ownership, hoping that any minor errors will discredit not only the writer and the leaker, but the story itself. Thus Lucchino tells us in all seriousness that there were not 17 players at the meeting -- as if a head-count really mattered! The fact is – and again this is not denied by Lucchino -- that a clear majority of the team’s front-line players sought a face-to-face meeting with ownership to air their concerns about Valentine. But Lucchino prefers to focus on the irrelevant --the exact number of players present, the source of the leaks, whether any players were willing to stick their neck on the chopping block by demanding Valentine’s dismissal -- rather than addressing the substance of the players’ grievances.
Like so many Globe beat writers (Peter Abraham in particular), Lucchino also points to the record number of team injuries, most of which have been either to non-starters or for relatively short periods. Compare the Sox injury picture with that of the Yankees
, to whom the Sox lost two of three last weekend. With respect to the pitching staff, the Yankees were without Mariano Rivera
, Andy Pettite (both likely lost for the season), and CC Sabathia
(on the DL for the second time) – the Sox had their full complement of pitchers save for Doubront (nursing a phantom injury) and Padilla. Among their starting nine the Yankees were missing A-Rod, Texeira and Brett Gardner
, while the only Sox starter not in the lineup was Big Papi. It is true that Ells, Pedroia, and Crawford had been on the DL earlier in the season but all had returned by the Yankee series without any discernible improvement in the Sox performance (on both their previous homestand and last road trip the Sox had identical 4-6 records).
And, pro forma, Lucchino blames the media. For somebody whose comments clearly implies that he closely follows what the press is writing, did Lucchino fail to read Abraham’s apologia for Valentine or Cafardo’s sycophantian defense of ownership? Lucchino now has assured the Nation that he will fix whatever is wrong with the Sox but one of the man things that is wrong with the Sox is Lucchino and his never ending campaign to be both CFO (a role at which he appears to excel) and GM (a role at which he has failed dismally).
And then there is Ben Cherington, who largely has been given a free pass by the Boston media because of his inoffensiveness and accessibility to reporters. Not being privy to this up-close exposure to his winning personality, I lost confidence in Cherington last off-season when he declined to make any major move to improve the Sox (evoking from Nick Cafardo the retort that it was too soon to judge him. Is now the time Nick?).
Lest we forget, it was Cherington who refused to upgrade the starting rotation either through a trade (Gio Gonzales?) or a free agent acquisition (Kuroda?) when other teams did not hesitate to acquirew the talent available. It was Cherington who assured both the Nation and a skeptical manager not to worry as Bard would slot into a SP role; and who insisted in persevering with the great Bard experiment long after it was obvious to the cows in the field that it had failed. Indeed, Cherington’s refusal to admit that his decision to convert Bard to a starter was a calamitous error of judgment that has led to the loss of Bard’s self-confidence and rendered him useless to the team either as a starter or reliever. And it was also Cherington who sold us a bill of goods that Bailey, with his documented history of injuries (and who would wind up being on the DL for 2/3 of the season), could replace Pap and that Melancon, he of the 7+ ERA, could replace Bard. [And note, all you Cherington defenders, that even if the Bard experiment had been a success, would not Bard, like Doubront, have broken down by now as a result of having pitched so many more innings than in previous years? Did Cherington have a Plan B for when that happened?]
Cherington proceeded to compound his off-season inertia by choosing to stand pat at the non-waiver trade deadline-- despite being “empowered” by Lucchino to be bold. The problem is that it is not in Cherington’s nature to be bold. He seems physically, psychologically or congenitally incapable of being bold. While he certainly talks a good game (he is always monitoring the situation, always engaged in due diligence, always weighing all options and always being actively involved in pursuing possible deals), at the end of the day he does nothing. He is all talk and no action. Yet a team that stands still is destined to go backwards. Ever since his elevation to GM, Cherington’s mantra (or is it Lucchino’s mantra that is simply being echoed by Cherington?) has been that there is nothing wrong with the Sox that a little fine tuning would not fix and, to his discredit, Cherington has stuck by his guns, acquiring sometimes marginally superior but more often marginally inferior spare parts while never pulling the trigger on a trade that might have been a season changer (although, to be fair, the Sox are probably better off with Cherington doing nothing given the fact that he has gotten the worse of virtually every trade he has made).
Cherington lacks the guts to stand up to Lucchino, who probably cannot contain his delight. He has managed to rid himself of his “rival” Theo and replaced him with the perfect toady who, unlike Theo, is not willing to assert the right of a GM to make player personnel decisions. While Cherington is to be faulted both for lacking the courage to stand up to Lucchino and for his inactivity on the trade front, he has also made two disastrous decisions. The first, already discussed, was to convert Bard to a starter, and then sticking with this failed experiment after it had clearly run its course. The second was to elevate to serve as the Sox pitching coach McClure, a failure as a pitching coach at KC who had been hired to be a minor league instructor/scout.. Yikes! As has now been recognized, albeit four months late, McClure was another disaster in the making. He lacked the insight to diagnose the reasons why his pitchers were under-performing as well as the communication skills to convey to them or to Valentine how they might address their problems. Thank goodness McClure has now been fired but who will fire Cherington? Why can’t Sox executives own up to their mistakes and do something about them?
And that brings us to the beleaguered Bobby V. His role in the Sox collapse is more difficult to assess as his hands to a large extent have been tied by Lucchino and Cherington. Valentine was saddled with a coaching staff not of his choosing, denied his choice of closer by Cherington’s insistence that Bard start, lumbered with a pitching coach he neither liked nor trusted by Cherington, handicapped by an inept set-up man thanks again to Cherington, dispossessed of his best middle inning reliever (Aceves) who had to be pressed into a closer role that he neither sought nor was particularly suited for (as reflected in his combined losses and blown saves), etc., etc.
On the other hand, Valentine has caused far too much internal strife to be let off lightly. He either is unable or unwilling to communicate with his players. He speaks without thinking to the media, making public that which should be kept private, most notably in the cases of Youk and Middlebrooks but there were probably others about which we have yet to learn.
As a field general, Valentine has too frequently stuck with starters for too long (leaving Lester in until he had surrendered 11 runs, Beckett until he had yielded 8, and Bard until he had imploded, having clearly lost his control, against Baltimore). In his defense, Valentine cites a tired bullpen, failing to appreciate the effect of his practice of warming up two relievers in one inning without bringing either into the game and then a different two in the following inning. Tito learned and acknowledged that constantly having relievers warm up can wear out a bullpen every bit as much as bringing them in to pitch to a few batters. Valentine misuses and overtaxes his relief corps, the effects of which are only now beginning to show.
Nevertheless, despite his mishandling of the pitching staff, despite his tendency for discussing in public player issues which should be addressed with the player involved in private, despite lineups seemingly made out with the help of a Ouija board, these would be but minor distractions if the Sox were doing well. The yardstick against which any manager must ultimately be measured (as BV has himself acknowledged) is the team’s won-loss record, although if the manager lacks the horses (not the case with the Sox), the test is whether he is able to bring out the best in the hand he was dealt. By either benchmark Valentine’s tenure as Sox manager must be judged a colossal failure. Valentine claims that he would not be the object of criticism if the Sox were ten games better off in the won-loss column but that is precisely the point – the Sox are not 10 games better off and Valentine -- and Cherington -- are the principal reasons why they are not.
And finally, what of the players? After all, they are ones who pitch, hit, run and field as Cafardo points out in his column today. Are the players to be burdened or absolved of blame? Doubtless they are demoralized and depressed by the team’s woeful performance (who wouldn’t be?) but, as well-paid professionals, should they not be able to rise above the chaos? The brunt of the media and management criticism has been directed to Lester and Beckett but in a column for ESPN Gordon Edes made a good case that neither pitcher has under-performed to the extent that the team’s beat writers are inclined to charge. As already noted, Valentine has frequently kept both pitchers in the game until they passed the point of self-destruction, thereby driving up their ERAs, while at the same time the overused and overtired bullpen has meant that the starters pitchers have been deprived of possible victories and saddled with losses that might have been avoided had Valentine done a better job in managing his bullpen. And can we discount McClure’s inability to help his struggling pitchers right their ship; or Cherington’s adamant unwilllingness to seek reinforcements which might have eased the SP staff burden? In the final years of the Tito dynasty, there existed a bridge from the starter to Aceves to Bard to Pap. Thanks to Cherington, this bridge has been dismantled.
From top to bottom, the Sox are a dysfunctional lot. Given the talent on the team, they are an embarrassment to the rich tradition of the Red Sox
and the faith of their loyal fans. Management has decided to add to this embarrassment by making feeble excuses for their own misguided decisions and actions. Who, pray tell, do they think they are fooling?