The Red Sox Come Apart

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How long ago it seems that Eric Ortiz of NESN wrote that ridiculous piece suggesting that the 2011 Red Sox were going to challenge the 1927 Yankees for the title of greatest team in history.

Not only was it was tempting fate at the time, but it’s absurd in retrospect.

Even with that, no one—even the most fervent and obnoxious Yankees fan with a mandate to knock their rivals down a peg—could have suggested that the Red Sox would stage the greatest collapse in the history of baseball and blow a playoff spot; that in rapid succession both their manager and general manager would be gone; and the team would be in utter turmoil during the playoffs and making headlines off the field instead of on.

But it happened.

The Red Sox blew that playoff spot with a humiliating fall that was stark in its creativity; they couldn’t pitch; couldn’t hit; and were fighting amongst themselves.

Manager Terry Francona—he of the two World Series wins and the skipper of the club for eight seasons—left before the team could make the decision not to exercise his contract options.

And the GM, Theo Epstein, has agreed to a 5-year contract to take over the Chicago Cubs.

At the very least, Eric Ortiz’s column was possible.

If what actually happened were presented by anyone as a prediction as to the outcome of the 2011 season for the Red Sox, they’d be treated as a deranged pariah with an intense and delusional loathing of the Red Sox.

But it’s real.

It happened.

The Red Sox have to endure the firestorm of angry fans; circling vultures in the media while finding a new GM and a new manager; they have to clear out the clubhouse of those that were divisive, destructive, disinterested in team harmony and simply cannot play anymore.

The Red Sox became a mirror image of what they was supposed to be.

The dysfunction was horrific. The backbiting and self-preservation began during the collapse and multiplied when the season ended; it’s gotten worse as Francona’s reputation is being besmirched publicly by those who chose to take the lowest of the low road by accusing him of overusing pain medication and that his divorce influenced what was seen to be an absence of focus that permeated the club.

This is nothing new. When a manager leaves of his own accord or there’s a mutual and “friendly” split, the underlying acrimony bubbles to the surface as the participants seek to have their own version of events as the prevailing history whether it’s true or not.

Joe Torre had to endure the vindictive and petty savagery of Michael Kay as the unsaid mouthpiece of the Yankees organization.

Dusty Baker had his financial laundry aired by the Giants after the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement after a season in which the Giants won their first pennant in 13 years.

Lou Piniella, Tony LaRussa, Jim Leyland—all had breakups that were supposed to be clean but wound up as referendums on them as human beings and not as baseball men.

The off-field Francona stories are his business and no one else’s; for some angry person to be relating them as fact to the media is, at best, inappropriate; at worst, it’s despicable.

With Epstein, before judging him for leaving, put yourself in his position.

He’s 37-years-old; is working in his hometown for the team he rooted for as a kid and brought them something they hadn’t achieved—a World Series win—since 1918.

This was his life. And that was the problem.

It must’ve been claustrophobic to have his dream job and be entrenched and expected to remain there forever (and ever…and ever…and ever) like some tortured ghost at the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. Neither he nor Francona appeared to be having fun anymore. When there’s no joy in winning and criticism, second guessing plus misery in losing, what’s the point of staying?

In the intervening years since the last Red Sox championship in 2007, the returns on Epstein’s work had become narrower and narrower. No longer was it good enough to make the playoffs; no longer was an ALCS appearance considered a successful season. Now, he had to: A) beat the Yankees; B) make the playoffs; C) win the World Series; D) acquire players to make the team the favorites to win the World Series next year.

For both Francona and Epstein, it had become a case of diminishing returns. They’re not blameless here; it’s entirely fair for ownership to look at the manager/GM and say perhaps it’s time for some new voices and fresh eyes to make the necessary alterations to try and fix this mess. There’s a lot to clean up. But the ancillary issues were factors not only in the departures of both men, but in the team fracturing in the first place.

It was circular. They won; they were expected to win again; they didn’t have the luxury of acceptable and necessary valleys to reach the peaks; they spent more and more on players who were available and might not have been perfect fits for the clubhouse or the town; they didn’t mesh; panic set in during times of trouble; and their world came apart under adversity.

As much as the Yankees are despised in Boston; as George Steinbrenner was reviled for his win at all costs attitude, the Red Sox have morphed into that which they hated most.

To maintain control, there have to be changes—painful changes that aren’t easy to explain through stats, spin-doctoring or self-indulgent justifications. Epstein was there for 9 years; Francona for 8. Most of the same players have been in the clubhouse for chunks of that time.

Bill James can formulate all the numbers he wants as a credit-taking exercise or self-absolving “reason” why they did one thing and didn’t do another, but that’s not going to placate the masses who want to know why.

Why did this team collapse?

Why is Francona gone and now treated as if he was lucky to have been employed in the first place?

Why did Epstein jump ship rather than repair it?

Maybe it was time for fresh blood, but it didn’t have to be drained so brutally from the prior regime at feeding hour.

Nearly a decade is too long for any group to stay together in a boss-employee relationship and repeat success. They became complacent, lazy and entitled. In order to freshen up the circumstances, drastic maneuvers have to be made. Either the core of the players has to be adjusted or the people running the show do. Static is untenable; it fails time and time again and is something the Red Sox missed when they continually brought back Jason Varitek when he could no longer play; when his reputation as the “leader” with that “C” on his jersey trumped what was one of the smart, ruthless baseball decisions they made when they traded Nomar Garciaparra and let Pedro Martinez leave. Why was Tim Wakefield still on the roster? How much clubhouse lawyering were they going to take from Kevin Youkilis?

They needed to tell some of these players to move on, but didn’t.

Is it any surprise that individuals were behaving as if they could do whatever they wanted to do in the clubhouse and in the dugout?

What were the consequences?

Francona, a players manager, couldn’t start disciplining the veterans out of the blue; nor could he rely on the likes of Varitek to police the clubhouse any longer.

It wasn’t working.

The payrolls increased; the need for star players at every position led to the trade for Adrian Gonzalez and signing of Carl Crawford; they spent on a player from Texas who’d spent his career in California and wasn’t ready for the Boston fishbowl in John Lackey; the lavish amounts of cash spent to fill the prominent holes in the bullpen created an atmosphere of unfamiliarity and sabotaged the team dynamic so they didn’t like each other, didn’t care about one another and behaved as if their statistics would carry them through.

Even the 2007 team, which had mercenaries of its own in J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo; self-interested loudmouths like Curt Schilling; bullies like Josh Beckett had others who kept the peace. A still relevant Varitek, David Ortiz and Mike Lowell didn’t take any nonsense from the diverse egos. The clubhouse still housed people who would go through a wall to win a game and protect their teammates; they wore the BOS-TON emblazoned across the front of their road jerseys with a pride that made them part of the fabric of the city and not just a player who worked there because they offered him the most money.

Where was the galvanizing force with the 2011 Red Sox?

There wasn’t one.

It was glossed over while the team was playing brilliantly throughout the summer and had they been able to win 2 more games at some point, none of this might have happened.

But it did.

Factional disputes and rampant disinterest grew more prevalent as things went poorly and Francona, despite his best efforts, couldn’t pull it together. On and off-field camaraderie with this Red Sox club wasn’t there. Independent of personalities, the team—on paper—should’ve been nearly as good as Eric Ortiz suggested. In practice, it was an arrogant and unlikable crew who thought they could throw their gloves on the field and saunter into the playoffs as a matter of divine right.

For all their reliance on numbers, the Red Sox had been a team of cohesion with a series of people that fit together. They succeeded on paper and in practice. If this season were played on a computer, these Red Sox were a sure bet for the World Series.

But it’s not played on a computer.

Good teams who have the group interests in mind close ranks when challenged. This club folded completely and started looking for people to blame so they wouldn’t have to take responsibility themselves.

Francona left before he could be dumped.

Rather than deal with a fallout that’s going to be worse before it gets better and be the man responsible for the decisions that will have to be made, Epstein took off for the exit as well.

There’s a big mess to clean up for whomever takes over as GM; for the manager who has to walk into that clubhouse and end the madness that was a large part of their undoing in 2011.

It was supposed to be a memorable year for the Red Sox.

And it was.

But it’s not memorable for a parade celebrating a championship.

It’s memorable because the tandem that led them to those glories left within two weeks of one another.

There’s a lot to repair. Odds are it’s going to get much, much worse before it gets better.

The wheels have come off. And there’s no going back now.

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