Roughly 20 years ago, a group led by John Henry and Tom Werner bought the Boston Red Sox, a move that is probably the most accurate marker as the beginning of the current era of Red Sox baseball, one that has seen more success than any perhaps in franchise history, and at least in since the 1920s. The first move made by that ownership was to move on from their general manager, with Dan Duquette being let go on this day in 2002. Duquette’s legacy in Boston is a complicated one, but as we are now two decades out from its end, I thought it was worth taking a little bit of a closer look at it and how he helped lay down the foundation for what Theo Epstein and those who have followed him have built into one of the great franchises in the sport.
Let’s start by going back to where the Red Sox were before Duquette, with Lou Gorman at the helm from 1984 through the 1993 season. That was an era for the franchise that did include one truly great season in 1986 when the team was painfully close to a championship, but otherwise was an era of good but not great teams. They seemed unable to get over the hump, winning at least 90 games just that one time in ‘86. The 1994 season was also their third consecutive year in which they finished under .500.
Meanwhile, Duquette, a Massachusetts native, was just starting to make a name for himself in the industry. His career as a high-level executive began in Montreal under future Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who he’d eventually succeed as the GM for the Expos. In Montreal, Duquette had helped build a winning team that famously was on its way to a potential championship in 1994 before the strike cancelled that postseason. He showed an ability to add real talent to that Expos roster, and the Red Sox brass were ready for him to help take the Red Sox to that next level.
Duquette was brought in for the 1995 season, and he found immediate success with Boston. That ‘95 team is an underrated one in Boston history, and while he still didn’t have a ton of fingerprints on that roster they did get back over .500, winning 86 games and making their first postseason since 1990. They’d have another solid year in ‘96 before falling off a bit in 1997. From there, Duquette would really start to build that aforementioned foundation, the specifics of which we’ll get into in a second, and grabbing four more winning seasons before being let go, and making the postseason in two of them, including their run to the 1999 ALCS.
As someone who was just coming of age as a baseball fan when Duquette was let go and was weirdly into sports radio as an 11-year-old, I heard largely about the negatives associated with Duquette’s time in Boston. That’s not all that surprising, of course, since one of the marks against the executive was a less-than-friendly relationship with the media. It turns out, you tend to be covered in a more negative light when you’re disliked. And in fairness, it was not totally unearned, as Duquette also had some issues with his managers as well as fans at times.
And, of course, he also made mistakes with his team building, the most notable of which was letting go of Roger Clemens and infamously referring to where he was in his career as the “twilight.” Clemens would be revitalized and have a strong second half to his career outside of Boston, though obviously steroid controversy clouds that in some ways as well.
But for all of the criticism, some valid and some not, Duquette did a whole lot of good, particularly in his building of the team in the late 90s and early 2000s. Those foundations I mentioned above became huge parts of the team that eventually broke the curse and brought us into this current era of Red Sox baseball. He drafted Nomar Garciaparra. He traded for Pedro Martinez, who he had also traded for while running the Expos front office. He signed Manny Ramirez, which was a huge deal as at that time Boston was not really a place marquee free agents were lining up to sign. He made one of the best trades in franchise history as well, acquiring Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heath Slocumb. Nomar aside, all of those players were cornerstones of the 2004 team.
None of this is to say the Red Sox made a mistake in letting go of Duquette. Much like when he was first brought aboard, it was clear the Red Sox needed something else to bring them to the next level. Duquette would be immediately replaced by Mike Port, but that was just a one-year interim gig before Theo Epstein came and really kickstarted the organization. It’s fair to say, I think, that Duquette would not have had the same success as Epstein, which is not a bar many could clear. For Duquette’s part, he’d be out of baseball for nearly a decade before taking over Baltimore’s front office in 2011, where he’d lead them to a period of strong regular season success.
For most organizations who do see change over in their front office as often as the Red Sox have under this ownership group, you’re always going to see multiple fingerprints all over any roster. Even now there are still some players in the organization who date back to the Ben Cherington days, and even the Epstein ones. Similarly, there were a whole lot of Duquette fingerprints all over that 2004 roster, and looking at his legacy in this league for his whole career, he’s won everywhere he’s gone. Henry and company didn’t make a mistake by moving on from Duquette as their first move, as a change in direction was needed. But that doesn’t mean Duquette wasn’t a successful executive and that he didn’t have a huge part in not only building that 2004 roster, but really getting the Red Sox into their current era of winning.