Dissension in the Ranks of the Red Sox
Issue   |   Fri, 10/21/2011 - 17:57

Amidst the recent media firestorm and with Theo Epstein all but out, the mess for the Red Sox has only just begun.

I’ve never been a particular fan of Red Sox owner John Henry. After what has gone on since the Red Sox epic 2011 collapse, however, my disdain has progressed to a slightly more pointed dislike. Sure, he’s saying and denying all the right things to the press now. But he has been at the center of plenty of controversy in the last three weeks, much of it having to do with two of the most prominent figures in Boston baseball history — both of whom are on their way out.

Yes, I endorsed the departure/firing (whatever it really was) of Terry Francona; the time has come for someone more capable of reigning in the unsavory behaviors associated with the 2011 team (more on this later). That said, despite his recent shortcomings, he has achieved unparalleled success and is, I would think, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Fame manager. What, then, induced Francona to allude to the fact that ownership “might not have had his back” during the final month of the season? And is it a coincidence that what has been widely described as a smear campaign followed?

Apparently, “a source” close to the team leaked information on Francona’s deteriorating marriage and use of painkillers, suggesting that they might have impaired his performance. Of course, this wasn’t news as recently as September, while the Red Sox still led the American Leauge (AL) East. Medical personnel argued that Francona, who has had more knee surgeries than most people have had colds, had been taking such medication for years, including during the 2004 and 2007 Championship seasons. As far as the marriage, ESPN Boston columnist Gordon Edes quips, “If job performance were measured by healthy marriages, this country would be in huge trouble.” Well said.

As the story goes, Henry was incensed on hearing this information broadcast, prompting him to drive to CBS Radio Boston and demand a spot on the talk show “Felger and Massarotti” to set the record straight. Still, I am not entirely convinced of his innocence, not least because this uncharacteristically confrontational gesture would be strange if Henry had nothing to hide. Edes, too, raises an intriguing point: Henry, as Francona’s employer, is one of the few people who had access to the manager’s medical information. He has motivation to discredit Francona, who hinted at a disconnect with ownership, and he seems to have the ability to throw his employees under the bus when convenient.

I say this because, in that very “Felger and Massarotti” segment, Henry managed to work in a jab at Theo Epstein’s signing of Carl Crawford. Actually trying to deny reports that the move had been PR-driven, Henry said, “It was definitely a baseball signing. In fact, anyone involved in the process, anyone involved in the upper management would tell you that I personally opposed that. They all know that.”

Although I did not exactly sing Crawford’s praises after his subpar 2011 campaign, this statement sounds suspiciously like a fallback to hindsight. Crawford had hit over .300 and stolen over 45 bases in each of his last three full seasons before 2011. Anyone who watched a Red Sox-Rays game during those years can tell you what he is capable of. The Red Sox had every reason to expect a big year from him, but, as sometimes happens in baseball, they didn’t receive one. The fact that Henry now poses the excuse that he considered the Red Sox lineup “too left-handed,” which may be true in theory but didn’t seem to affect Adrian Gonzalez (.338), Jacoby Ellsbury (.321) or David Ortiz (.309), looks very much like a parting shot at an imminently departing executive. Let me make clear that the timing of this statement, as well as that of the Francona reports, is a major reason for my distrust. Even if Henry had truly opposed the signing all along, this is certainly a less-than-appropriate occasion on which to bring his feelings to light.

Still, it is time to move on from Henry, a successful owner in his own right who at least felt the compulsion to address the situation directly. The general public will never know what really transpired and why, so further speculation to this end is essentially useless. With Theo Epstein ready to leave for Chicago, though, a downturn in media activity is unlikely. Whether the remarks about the Crawford signing came before or after Epstein had made his decision, they may float around until or even beyond his official departure. Also likely to reappear are accounts of just how bad player work ethic had become by the end of 2011 (Henry has also denied these).

In my last column, I referred to this problem as a major contributor to the collapse, and I am fascinated by the fact that it has not disappeared. The reports say that deviation from prescribed conditioning programs had become epidemic by September, particularly among the pitching staff.

Apparently, top-earning starters Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jon Lester were principal offenders: they could often be found eating fried chicken, drinking beer and playing video games in the clubhouse on their off days. Teammates such as David Ortiz have defended the practice, saying in-game conduct was similarly loose during the 2004 and 2007 seasons.

Longstanding or not, this atmosphere appears unfitting for a team in the thick of a pennant race, particularly a struggling team. At the very least, it is an embarrassingly low standard for a professional athlete to hold himself to — especially since this was going on during games. I will reiterate that, in a case such as this, mental conditioning is negatively affected just as much as physical conditioning. One wonders how, whatever the organizational model, this type of behavior can be considered part of winning baseball.

So, minus the best manager and, likely, general manager in their history, the Red Sox head into the offseason facing more questions than answers both on and off the field. There will undoubtedly be unwelcome distractions from the media and from everywhere else of proportions that Red Sox fans have not seen in the post-2004 era. The Red Sox have the potential to have a championship-caliber comeback year — or to sink further into disgrace. At least we already know that two of the major factors in the equation will not be the same as in 2011.