From North Dallas Forty To Biogenesis

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Major League Baseball’s ham-handed investigation into the Biogenesis Clinic and the players who might have been involved in PEDs after being named as clinic clients is an attempt to appear as if they’re on top of the situation done in a way similar to how the National Football League would’ve done it. Except the way in which MLB is handling it is the way the NFL would’ve handled it in 1970, not 2013.

The tour-de-force account of how the NFL operated back then was the 1979 film North Dallas Forty as the protagonist, Phil Elliot is struggling through injuries and the refusal to “play the game” and the “game” isn’t football—it’s going along to get along, taking shots of painkillers, playing injured (different from playing hurt), being used and willing to be used to fill the masochistic need to play the actual on-field sport.

In the movie, the North Dallas Bulls with their megalomaniacal and exceedingly wealthy owner, iconic and cold-blooded coach, and hard-partying teammates (*wink wink* at the “similarities” to the Dallas Cowboys) prepare for the next week’s game. Early in the film, Elliot experiences a break-in at his home and catches the perpetrator in the act who threatens Elliot with a gun and flees. In the penultimate scene, the break-in was revealed to have actually executed by a private eye who had been hired by the club to get dirt on Elliot with the complicity of the league to catch disposable, independent-minded players like him smoking pot and using an excess of painkillers in order to exploit the violation of league rules not to pay their salaries when they’re dumped as Elliot eventually was. Left out of the equation was that Elliott was smoking pot with the team’s star quarterback, but the club couldn’t very well function without the star quarterback and cutting Elliott filled the dual function of sending a message to the rest of the team that they’d better behave or suffer the same fate of not only being cut, but also having their reputation sullied throughout the league and face a suspension for drug use if they didn’t do as they’re told.

Elliott’s quote regarding his marijuana use, “If you nailed every guy in the league who smoked grass, you wouldn’t have enough players left to field the punt return team,” still resonates today in every sport and with every drug—performance enhancing and otherwise.

MLB is trying the same type of thing sans the illegalities (that we know of) with the Biogenesis case in their over-the-top show of trying to extract information from the head of the clinic Anthony Bosch to the degree that they’re paying him and, according to other potential witnesses, “bullying” with threats and empty promises of help in a legal case if they cooperate. The problem for MLB is this when thinking about the tactics similar to those used in North Dallas Forty: the movie was from 34 years ago and it was adapted from a book published 40 years ago about the way the game was run in the 1960s.

And that’s what MLB is doing. They’re using methods from the 1960s to garner information in 2013.

The problems with the way in which MLB is reportedly running this investigation is manifold and goes far beyond the Cold War-era strategies. Let’s just say, hypothetically, that this Biogenesis clinic was used by players in today’s NFL and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who was at the top of the hill in this new scandal instead of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. Would the entire structure be handled differently? Better? More competently?

Selig is essentially seen as a doddering figurehead whose main job descriptions is that of a functionary. It’s not far from the truth. His performance as commissioner has been a byproduct of what is good for the owners’ pockets rather than what is promoted as good for the game. While the PEDs were rampant throughout baseball and were used with the tacit approval of everyone in an effort to draw fans, restore the game’s popularity following the 1994 strike, and accrue money for the owners and players alike, there was Selig with a faraway gaze either clueless as to the reality or willfully ignoring it. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

Selig’s performance in front of Congress along with the players who showed up that fateful day was humiliating in a myriad of ways. From Rafael Palmeiro’s finger-wagging lies; to Sammy Sosa’s “me no speaka the Inglés”; to Mark McGwire not being there to talk about the past; to Curt Schilling clamming up after his yapping for days before and after the fact, baseball has never acquitted itself well when self-preservation came to the forefront at the expense of stating the facts.

Has baseball improved since then? Has Selig gotten the message? Let’s just compare Selig with his NFL counterpart Goodell. Only people inside baseball’s front office know how alert Selig is to the Biogenesis investigation or anything else. Perhaps it’s a matter of, “Don’t tell me what I don’t want to know so I don’t have to lie about it later.” But this is an indicator that MLB should’ve tossed someone overboard when the entire PED scandal initially broke to send the message that a new sheriff was in town and things weren’t going to be done the old way. And I use old in every conceivable context of the word when discussing Selig. That would’ve meant that Selig had to go a decade ago, and he probably should’ve.

Would Goodell be so disengaged to not know every aspect of what’s going on with an investigation of this magnitude? Would he not take steps to control the message and how it’s framed as politicians—like Goodell and Goodell’s father Charles, a former United States Senator from New York—do and did? This is the fundamental difference between MLB and the NFL. Goodell is smooth, smart, and cagey. He’s available yet insulated; touchable but unknowable; protected and in command. Selig on the other hand is cadaverous and scripted, but unable to follow the script; he’s anything but smooth and the disheveled clothes, $10 haircut and bewildered countenance that was once somewhat charming lost its luster as he had to get to work to restore the game’s validity. What makes it worse when having a figurehead as commissioner is that baseball doesn’t appear to have taken steps to place competent people behind the scenes to pull the levers to keep the machine greased and running well. It’s people charging headlong into each other and having the bruises to prove it.

If Goodell makes the implication that the witnesses will be assisted in a criminal investigation as was alluded to in the ESPN piece linked above, you can bet that the NFL and Goodell himself will have the connections to follow through on the promise.

MLB? What are they going to do about it? Are they even capable of helping anyone? Would they know who to call and would that person even take the call as he would if he heard, “Roger Goodell is on the phone,” instead of “Bud Selig is on the phone,”?

Not much thought was put into any of this going back to allowing of players to get away with PED use and then the about-face due to public outcry, the banning of substances and the potential fallout of doing so. They want to clean up the game, but keep it entertaining to the fans. Did it ever occur to them that the reason that so many man games are being lost due to injury stems from the tendons and ligaments becoming weakened from carrying the extra muscle built through chemical means? That players can’t play 150 games and toss 225 innings and maintain performance without chemicals? That they aren’t going to be able to beat out a dribbler on the infield in August by chugging cups of coffee and cans of Red Bull as they would from their trusted amphetamines (greenies)? That the risk/reward for players like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera and anyone else whose name was caught up in Biogenesis was such that there was no reason not to do it?

What’s 100 games in comparison to the half a billion dollars in contracts—just for playing baseball alone and not counting endorsements—A-Rod will have made once his career is over? What’s 100 games in exchange for Braun’s MVP and the minute risk (Braun’s just unlucky, arrogant and somewhat stupid) of getting caught? What’s 100 games in exchange for a slightly above-average talent like Cabrera being given a contract for $16 million almost immediately after his humiliating suspension and public lambasting?

Until MLB does something about the laughable penalties, players will keep trying to navigate their way around the tests and punishments because it’s worth it for them to do it given the likelihood that they’ll get away with it.

Attendance and TV ratings are down all around baseball. In large part it’s because the fans who jumped on the bandwagon at the excitement of the home runs have little interest in watching Joe Maddon outmaneuver Joe Girardi with tactical skill. They want homers and if they’re not getting them, they won’t bother to watch. This new “get tough” policy is falling flat not just because of the maladroit manner in which it’s being implemented, but because there’s no integrity behind it. The owners are interested in one thing: the bottom line. Many are as blind as Selig was to the PED use and only came around when the evidence was plunked on their desks with the widespread demand to “do something” about it to “save the game.”

Using the 1960s as a guideline for running the Biogenesis investigation in 2013 forgets that back then, there wasn’t the constant flow of available information with real time stories, opinions and criticisms appearing immediately and going viral. Back then, MLB would’ve been able to get in front of the story using friendly, like-minded reporters who were willing to do the Max Mercy thing from The Natural and “protect” the game. In other words, they would protect the people who owned the game against the ephemeral presence of the players who come and go and who were using drugs to undeservedly place themselves in the stratosphere of legends that was once rightfully limited to Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Bob Feller. Now there are bloggers, reporters and networks gathering information as it comes in. It can’t be controlled.

For MLB to put forth the pretense of being all-in for the Biogenesis investigation is the epitome of wasteful hypocrisy. They can pound on doors, stand on rooftops and proclaim their commitment to stopping PED use. They can threaten, cajole, demand and make empty promises, but that’s not going to alter the reality that the changes to the game have to be foundational and not a self-serving attempt to clean up a game that has been infested from the top to the bottom due in large part to the inaction of MLB itself.

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Umpiring Won’t Change For A Generation

Games, History, Management, Media, MiLB, NFL, Players, Politics, Prospects, Stats, Umpires

The two-game suspension of umpire Fielden Culbreth for his inexplicable mistake in the Angels-Astros game is fine. While it’s not much of a deterrent for an umpire to make a gaffe since Culbreth didn’t do it intentionally, it’s a symbol to the fans and the media that MLB is “doing something.”

That umpiring error along with Angel Hernandez’s failure to overrule a missed home run call off the bat of Adam Rosales of the A’s after he saw the replay has again dragged umpiring into the spotlight. Amid the demands for a command central to handle home runs as they do with goals in the NHL and more strict overseeing of the jobs the umps are doing, the fact is that the umpiring culture will not change to a by-the-book methodology for another generation.

Umpiring is ingrained and comes from the ground up. They’re taught by former umps; there’s a brotherhood, a clique, and a learned strategy for “handling” players; and they aren’t entreated to follow the rulebook to the letter, therefore they don’t. Until that changes and an MLB-crafted guideline is created to train and recruit the umpires, there won’t be a monolithic difference in the way the games are called.

We’ve come a long way from Doug Harvey being the only umpire to enforce niggling rules like only one batter being allowed to hover in the on-deck circle at a time; from Harry Wendelstedt enforcing a rarely-if-ever referenced rule that Dick Dietz being hit by a Don Drysdale pitch that would’ve ended Drysdale’s scoreless inning streak was nullified because Dietz didn’t try to get out of the way; from Ed Runge testing young batters with a gigantic strike zone, staring at them to see how they reacted, and telling stars like Mickey Mantle that he’d better straighten out mouthy rookies who dared question him. Now all the games are on television, the umpires are known by face and name, commentary abounds on what “must” be done and how to “fix” the umpiring without some blogger realizing: A) how fast the game is; and B) that the umpires, for the most part, do a very good job, treat the players and the game with respect and are respected in turn.

The problem is that the blown calls are prominently featured as news stories and the demand that umpiring be improved trumps the fact that the majority of games move along without a hitch. When the Hernandez and Culbreth mistakes—as separate and different as they were—happen as rat-a-tat as they did, it exponentially raises the scrutiny on the umps and, by proxy, on MLB’s VP of Baseball Operations Joe Torre and MLB itself.

Because players are so much more lucratively paid than the umpires it almost takes the tone of a cop stopping a guy in a Porsche for running a stop sign and being subjected to a browbeating as to how much higher the driver’s net worth is than the police officer’s. There’s no justification for the increasing incidences of umpire abuse or for the likes of Curt Schilling to have smashed the QuestTec device because it was altering “his” strike zone. But this is the culture that was built and it’s going to take a long time for it to change.

It starts from the training schools and minor leagues with the conscious decision to shun the oft-heard umpire lament of “my” strike zone; and “my” way of calling a game; and “my” style. You don’t see officials in the NFL making up their own version of the rules as the game goes along because the NFL is harder on their officials and the rules are the rules—there’s no self-aggrandizing interpretation. As the veteran umpires retire and are replaced by younger ones, the structure will change if the younger umps are trained correctly and taught that they have to enforce the rulebook as is and not put their own artistic flair into something that is supposed to be sacrosanct. It won’t be until 20 or 30 years from now that the seeds planted now will have sprouted. Until then this will continue and not much, if anything, can be done about it.

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Schilling’s Financial Mess Has Plenty Of Blame To Go Around

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In today’s Sunday Business section of the New York Times, Matt Bai writes a great article about Curt Schilling and his failed video game company. What is made clear in the piece is how blinded those who were involved in this failed entrepreneurship/business partnership were to the obvious realities behind it.

The issues that surrounded Schilling throughout his career have extended to his post-career endeavors. The main difference is, back then, it didn’t really affect anyone other than himself and it didn’t harm his teams all that much. He was a great pitcher and if he pitched, the other stuff was shrugged away.

Schilling played for five teams in his career and took a long time to establish himself. In every stop, there was eye-rolling at head-shaking at Schilling the person and his overt theatrics even as he accumulated respect for his abilities, post-season success and willingness to pitch through pain. When he played with the Diamondbacks, there was an uncomfortableness bordering on hate between Schilling and his fellow ace and Cy Young Award contender Randy Johnson. With most teams, it would be construed as jealousy, but with Schilling it wasn’t a unique phenomenon. It was obvious why Schilling would clash with Johnson when Johnson never hid who he really was: a curmudgeonly star who would be happiest if the media never came near him. Schilling, on the other hand, was almost chameleon-like in his personality.

This was a hallmark for his career.

The teammates who considered themselves “real people” like Mitch Williams, thought Schilling was a phony and relentless self-promoter doing things to garner attention. There was a “Will this be cool?” aspect to Schilling that’s indicative of a lack of definition in who he was and what he believed. Like a teenager whose brain hasn’t fully grown and is fighting through puberty, Schilling’s personality was flexible and he never appeared to have evolved into a complete person on its own merit. There’s a constant concern about perception and eventually the line becomes blurred with the cause of something a person is doing and the effect.

“Oh, not many people are willing to be open, hard-core conservatives? I’ll stump for Republican candidates and make clear my political affiliation.”

“What? Nobody pitches complete games anymore? Watch me pitch complete games.”

“Ballplayers are unable to make the transition from athlete to business without losing all their money? I’ll become Bill Gates-rich.”

Most of the quotes are designed to encapsulate my view of Schilling’s thinking except for the words, “Bill Gates-rich.” He actually said that.

It’s a window into his mind that he really believed that his video game company could achieve that level of inexplicable wealth when, for 99.9% of the world’s population, the money Schilling had accumulated as a player as well as the extras ballplayers get for endorsements, broadcasting, autograph shows and whatever would have been more than enough to support them and several generations after them. It’s an egotistical need that was being fed and, in turn, wound up devouring him, his money, and his reputation.

Was there an intentional decision on Schilling’s part to take the loans from Rhode Island and blow it all with nothing to show for it but lawsuits, contretemps and humiliation? Doubtful. But it’s disturbing and telling that he felt the state should have given him more money to prop up the business.

In a similar vein, I don’t think there was any intention on the part of former governor of Rhode Island Donald Carcieri to waste that money by giving it to Schilling. Schilling has accused the current governor, Lincoln Chafee, of intentionally sabotaging his video game business. I don’t think it was any of that. I think that each party was using what benefited himself and his vision for what would further his own interests. Schilling had absurdly ambitious plans and the belief that he’d bull his way through to achieve them without the experience and ability to do so; Carcieri wanted to create jobs to help the flagging economy in his state; Chafee jammed the spigot into the money flow before the investment grew more red than it already was.

What led to this were the mistakes made due to political calculations, desperate agendas, and a starstruck reaction to Schilling’s enthusiasm and name-recognition.

Schilling’s intentions were legitimate, but who would think it’s a good idea to hand him $75 million based on a vague business plan and grandiose statements backed up by his status as a borderline Hall of Fame baseball player? If Jimmy O’Brien from Boston showed up and tried to extract that money from the governor of Rhode Island, he wouldn’t even receive a reply. That’s how ridiculous it was. Since it was Schilling, he got the money.

Had Schilling chosen to lure a series of professionals—CEOs, CFOs, gaming executives—to assist him in allocating that money and creating a viable company, it could have worked with Schilling lending that same star power he used to get the money to selling it rather than running it. But Schilling decided to play big businessman and lost everything he had as well as a massive chunk of Rhode Island’s dwindling cash.

Because his intentions weren’t nefarious doesn’t make it much better than if he just walked in, scammed them, took the money and left because it’s the exact same result.

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Captainship in Baseball

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The Yankees name Derek Jeter captain and it’s part of their “rich tapestry of history.” The Mets do it with David Wright and it’s foundation for ridicule. Neither is accurate. What has to be asked about baseball and captaincies is whether there’s any value in it on the field or if it’s shtick.

The three current captains in baseball are Wright, Jeter and Paul Konerko of the White Sox. In the past, teams have had captains but the most prominent in recent memory have been Jason Varitek of the Red Sox and Jeter. The Mets named John Franco the captain of the team in May of 2001 and he had a “C” stitched to his jersey like he was leading the New York Rangers on the ice for a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Varitek was named captain of the Red Sox after his somewhat contentious free agency foray following the Red Sox World Series win in 2004. The Red Sox couldn’t let Varitek leave a week after losing Pedro Martinez to the Mets, but they didn’t want to give him the no-trade clause that Varitek had said was a deal-breaker. Varitek’s pride was at stake and the unsaid compromise they made was to give Varitek the captaincy and no no-trade clause. Whether or not Varitek was savvy enough to catch onto the trick is unknown. It reminded me of an old episode of Cheers when—ironically—the fictional former Red Sox reliever Sam Malone and two other workers walked into the boss’s office seeking a raise and were met with a surprising agreeability and open checkbook as long as they didn’t ask for a title. They got the titles and not the raises.

Is the captaincy worth the attention? Will Wright do anything differently now that he’s officially the captain of the Mets—something that had been apparent for years? Probably not.

The Mets have had three prior captains. Keith Hernandez was named captain, similarly to Jeter, while he was the acknowledged leader and the team was in the midst of a slump in 1987 with management trying to fire up the troops and fans. An insulted Gary Carter was named co-captain in 1988 as a placating gesture. Then there was Franco. If the captain had any legitimate on-field value than for its novelty and “coolness” (Turk Wendell wanted the “C” in Franco’s jersey for that reason), a closer couldn’t be an effective captain and then-Mets manager Bobby Valentine certainly would not have named Franco his captain considering the difficult relationship between the two. Valentine’s reaction was probably an eye-roll and, “Yeah, whatever. Make him captain. As if it means anything.” Franco never got over Valentine taking the closer job away and giving it to Armando Benitez while Franco was hurt in 1999 and he got his revenge when, due to his close relationship with the Wilpons, he helped cement the decision to fire Valentine after the 2002 season. Franco could be divisive, selfish and vindictive when he wanted to be.

While the Yankees exhibit a smug superiority as to the “value” of their captains, there’s a perception—probably due to silent implication that the truth doesn’t feed the narrative of Yankees “specialness”—that the three “real” captains of the Yankees in their history have been Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson and Jeter. But did you know that Graig Nettles was a Yankees captain and thought so little of the “honor” that he angered George Steinbrenner by saying, in his typical caustic realism:

“Really, all I do as captain is take the lineups up to home plate before the game.” (Balls by Graig Nettles and Peter Golenbock, page 20, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984)

Of course Steinbrenner had a fit:

“The captain is supposed to show some leadership out there. That’s why he’s captain. To show leadership.” (Balls, page 21)

Nettles, the “captain” and so important to team success because of his leadership was traded to the Padres in the spring of 1984 after signing a contract to remain with the Yankees as a free agent after the 1983 season in large part because of that book.

Before Gehrig, the Yankees captain had been Hal Chase. Chase was a notorious gambler and repeatedly accused of throwing games. The Yankees would prefer Chase’s name not be affiliated with them in their current incarnation. Chase wasn’t a “Yankee,” he was a “Highlander.” Two different things I suppose.

After Nettles, the Yankees named Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph co-captains and then Don Mattingly as captain. The team didn’t win in those years and the captaincy didn’t help or hurt them toward that end. The teams weren’t very good, so they didn’t win.

The Yankees made a big show of the captaincy because Steinbrenner liked it. He thought it was important in a similar fashion to his rah-rah football speeches and constant haranguing of his field personnel with firings and entreaties to “do something” even when there was little that could be done.

Depending on who is named captain, it can matter in a negative sense if the individual walks around trying to lead and gets on the nerves of others. For example, if Curt Schilling was named a captain, he’d walk around with a beatific look on his face, altered body language and manner and make sure to do some “captaining,” whatever that is. But with Wright, nothing will change, and like Jeter and Konerko, it won’t matter much. It’s not going to affect the teams one way or the other whether the captain is in a Yankees uniform and has become part of their “storied history,” of if it’s the Mets and the world-at-large is waiting for the inevitable cheesiness that is a Mets trademark. It’s an honor and it’s nice for the fans, but that’s pretty much it.

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The Bourn Signing From All The Angles

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For Michael Bourn

A 4-year, $48 million contract with an option for 2017 making it possibly worth $60 million over five years isn’t what Bourn and agent Scott Boras had in mind when the asking price was around $15 million annually. Considering the market, the late date and that Bourn was costing a draft pick and the loss of money to spend in the draft, it’s a good contract for him.

The Indians are a relatively low-pressure atmosphere in spite of the spending and Terry Francona is an easy manager to play for. Bourn shows up to work every day and does his job. He’s durable, will steal 50 bases and play excellent defense in center field.

For the Indians

The concerns about Bourn’s age (30) and that he’s a “speed” player are overblown. For the life of the contract, he’ll be able to play his game and can hit independent of his speed. The Indians are being aggressive in a way they haven’t in years. Their rebuild had stagnated with the players they acquired in the CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades contributing very little. With Nick Swisher, Bourn and Mark Reynolds added to the lineup, they’ll score more runs and be better defensively. Their starting pitching is the key. Unless Ubaldo Jimenez reverts to what he was in 2010 with the Rockies, Trevor Bauer develops quickly and they squeeze whatever remains in Scott Kazmir and/or Daisuke Matsuzaka, they’re around a .500 team. Francona’s not a miracle worker and short of the Indians turning around and hiring Dave Duncan, they can’t manufacture pitchers out of nothing.

For Scott Boras

It’s naïve to think that Boras, when asking for the $75 million for Bourn, hadn’t calculated the factor of draft pick compensation and that the number of teams willing to spend that kind of money on Bourn was limited. Compared to what he publicly suggested as Bourn’s asking price to what he got, it’s a loss. But Boras is smart enough to know and to have conveyed to his client that the numbers might have to come down to get a long-term deal done and he’d have to sign with an unexpected entrant into the sweepstakes like the Indians.

For the Mets

If they’d gotten him, Bourn represented an upgrade in center field and signaled that the Mets weren’t sitting on the sidelines and yessing their fans to death with no intention of sealing the deal. I wrote about the positives and negatives for the Mets with Bourn and risking the 11th pick in the upcoming draft to sign him. If Sandy Alderson and the Mets were telling Bourn to hold off on signing a contract to see if they could get the compensation pick waived, they’re at best arrogant and at worst delusional. Had Bourn stalled the Indians, they might’ve told him to take a hike knowing that he was waiting out the Mets. Bourn took the deal in hand and was wise to do so.

The Mets weren’t pulling any sleight of hand to trick their fans and the media to think they were serious when they really weren’t, but it’s easy to see how some can view it that way. In the end, it’s Michael Bourn. He’s a useful player who would’ve helped the Mets, but not someone to get into a frenzy over either way.

For Francona and other managers

Imagine what Manny Acta is thinking right as he watches this. In his first managerial job, he was saddled with the woeful Nationals, had the difficult personalities Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Scott Olsen in his clubhouse, and got fired from a team that wouldn’t have won with Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, Casey Stengel or any other managerial luminary overseeing it. In 2013, they’ve got the talent to win 100 games and have the veteran Davey Johnson at the helm.

Then Acta went to the Indians, overachieved in 2011 with limited talent and was fired when the team played up to their potential with 90+ losses in two of his three seasons.

Acta has no power to dictate terms. The above-mentioned names did. Francona does. None of those name managers would take that kind of job once they’ve established themselves as “winners” who can be sold as such to the fanbase. This has happened before. Lou Piniella was hired by the Devil Rays and promised that they were going to spend money. They didn’t and all he did was lose. He left and was absolved of blame for what happened in Tampa due to his reputation and previous work with the Mariners, Reds and Yankees. Hired by the Cubs, they spent big on free agents and were in the playoffs in his first season.

That’s how it works before the fact. Sometimes spending on a name manager and expensive players fails in practice as we saw with the 2012 Marlins and Ozzie Guillen. Guillen, a manager with a championship and successful run with the White Sox, will have trouble getting another job after that one disastrous year with the Marlins.

This is life for managers when they’re trying to gain footing or replenish a reputation. Fleeting and subjective, a manager is judged on perception and results. Acta is a good tactical manager and the players like him, but he’s been stuck with bad teams. Whether he gets another shot remains to be seen. He probably will and, as is customary, success hinges on the players the front office gives him.

Francona wasn’t immune to it either. He too had to fend off the somewhat accurate belief that he got the Red Sox job because of Curt Schilling, and that he’d work cheap while taking orders from the front office. It’s partially true. Francona won two World Series titles and he’s able to dictate that he’ll be paid handsomely and his team will spend money on “name” players. Francona did his time in the minors and managing a horrible Phillies team, now he’s reaping the benefits of his work with the Red Sox as the Indians are giving him players that Acta never had. He, unlike Acta, will be expected to win. If he doesn’t, he’ll suffer the same fate as Acta, only it will be pricier in terms of money and the future with the bartered draft picks, not to mention Francona’s reputation.

The Indians have put forth the image of “trying.” Now, they have to “do.”

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Francona: The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy—Book Review

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It’s a fine line between revenge and clarification. In his new book detailing the eight years he spent as manager of the Boston Red Sox, Terry Francona straddles the territory between the two. In Francona: The Red Sox Years written with Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, Francona does so with a mostly objective point of view and occasional digs at those who sought to undermine him and diminish his substantial accomplishments during his time at the helm.

The book functions as a biography, telling the story of Terry Francona’s father Tito Francona’s Major League career; the younger Francona’s life of frequent address changes as his father switched teams; the experience of hanging around the clubhouses with his dad; his own playing career as a college star and first round draft pick; the injuries that sabotaged him and relegated him to journeyman whose lifelong dream ended at age 31. When he became a manager in the White Sox system, he was making the same innocent climb that players make first running a single A club in Indiana, then spending three years in Double A. The second year was notable because it provided Francona a crash course in a media circus managing basketball star Michael Jordan during his yearlong break from the NBA and foray into baseball.

By the time he was 38, he was named manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997. The Phillies were a bad team and Francona, by his own account, didn’t do a very good job running the club. Fired after four seasons, he seemed more relieved than unhappy. Following the firing after the 2000 season, he burnished his resume by working in the Indians’ front office in 2001, as the bench coach for Buck Showalter with the Rangers in 2002, and Ken Macha with the Athletics in 2003.

While with the Athletics, Francona received a first hand look at his future in two different ways, neither of which he likely saw when he was traveling with his dad, playing or working his way up as a field boss: the general manager of the new millennium was openly interfering with the way in which a manager ran the games. All through 2003, Macha was constantly fending off the regular “suggestions” (more like interrogations) that the A’s manager was forced to endure from the newly minted star of Moneyball, Billy Beane. Also in 2003, Francona was on the opposite bench when the Red Sox, then managed by Grady Little and in year one of their remaking with Theo Epstein as their GM, came from 2 games to 0 behind to defeat the Athletics in a dramatic 5 games series. It was a glimpse into the future for Francona with the tentacles of chance gripping him, Little, Epstein and the Red Sox, sometimes around their throats.

In the very next series, Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in to pitch game 7 of the ALCS against the Yankees cost him the job and opened it for Francona. Francona, ironically, was friends with Little for years and they even lived together when Francona served as Little’s bench coach in the Arizona Fall League in 1992. Also ironically, Francona—jokingly or not—told the Red Sox during the arduous interview process that he would have taken Pedro out of game 7 of the ALCS as Little was supposed to do. The interview process included written tests and games of the computer simulated baseball game “Diamond Mind” against Epstein’s assistants to see how Francona would react to game circumstances. Did Francona tell the Red Sox people what he knew they wanted to hear in terms of Little or would he have acquiesced to the demands of the numbers and ignored that the Red Sox bullpen didn’t have that one big arm in the bullpen that the manager could unequivocally trust in lieu of his ace?

Only Francona knows, but given the old-school sensibilities he exhibited, it’s not as cut-and-dried as implied that he wouldn’t have done the exact same thing Little did—the thing that got him fired.

This clash of civilizations is a key contention in this book and the books written by other managers such as Joe Torre with the Yankees who were unceremoniously relieved of their duties after immeasurable success that had not been enjoyed by their respective clubs for decades prior to their arrivals. The new landscape in baseball makes it necessary for managers to agree to listen to information that may or may not have real world validity in an exercise of going along to get along. Some managers like Joe Maddon embrace it; others, like Torre and Little, rebel against it with a head shake and bemused smirk; still others like Francona and Joe Girardi listen to the advice and try to incorporate it where applicable.

The fundamental civil war makes being a big league manager in today’s game an exercise in tightrope walking by maintaining respect with the players and not appear as a puppet while accessing and sifting through the reams of information burying them like corn in a silo. Torre, in fact, had his own issues magnified due to the presence of the big market rival using stats to build a club that was cheaper and better than his Yankees were. The Red Sox were Patient X in this experiment and where the entire virus got its start.

Little unabashedly ignored the advice. Francona was nuanced as he ignored some of it too, rebelling when he couldn’t tolerate it and telling Epstein to have his people back off a bit.

If anyone has the breadth of experience to be a manager and do his job without the overbearing interference of a staff of numbers crunchers and find methods to meld the highly paid egos, deal with the media, and make the players perform on the field, it’s Francona. The numbers crunchers that managers are forced to endure today may never have picked up a baseball and would be swallowed alive after two days of inhabiting the same space as Manny Ramirez, yet they see fit to question, criticize and send suggestions that eventually take the tone of orders.

For a pure baseball lifer, it’s a conundrum and necessary concession. Any manager who doesn’t adapt to the way baseball is run today is not going to get a job.

The battles he fought as manager were mostly with a front office that in the ownership suite didn’t appreciate the job he was doing. Francona was lowballed in his contract when he was initially hired and was saddled with the onus that he was taking orders from his bosses in every single aspect of on-field decisionmaking (this was right after the publication of Moneyball), and that he was selected because he was one of the few managers for whom Curt Schilling wanted to play. The Red Sox were closing in on acquiring Schilling simultaneously to hiring Francona. The Red Sox and Francona deny this, but the denial is formulated on a shaky premise. They didn’t decide out of the blue to get Schilling and it would certainly help to grease the negotiations if he knew he was getting a manager he wanted to play for instead of, say, Bobby Valentine.

The book doesn’t discuss significant conflict between Francona and Epstein in spite of Epstein making Francona’s life difficult with the overbearing and constant presence of the GM and his youthful assistants, or with acquisitions of the likes of David Wells, but there’s an unexplored and unmentioned tension that Francona may not admit or realize existed between him and Epstein.

Epstein, in fact, comes off as profoundly immature when the Red Sox fell behind the Yankees 3 games to 0 in the 2004 ALCS and his assistants decided that he couldn’t be left alone. Did they think he was suicidal? He couldn’t be left alone? It was a baseball game that they lost badly in a series they were about to lose, not life or death.

Rather than jump off the Green Monster, Epstein got drunk on a friend’s couch and passed out. As the GM was drowning his sorrows, the manager who was supposed to be manipulated by the “geniuses” in the front office was calmly saying that his team would show up to play and the series wasn’t over. While Epstein has continually denied the story of breaking furniture in Nicaragua when the Red Sox lost the bidding for free agent Cuban Jose Contreras to the Yankees, this type of story makes me believe that maybe he really did break the furniture in a tantrum that a 20-something is known to throw when he doesn’t get his way.

Reading between the lines, Epstein comes off looking immature, arrogant and self-centered.

The owners John Henry and Tom Werner, along with CEO Larry Lucchino are presented as the nemeses of Francona with Epstein serving as a buffer between the manager and the out-of-touch front office, but the book—again in an unsaid manner—presents Lucchino as the hatchet man carrying out the edicts of the two owners. More a devil’s advocate and overseer, Lucchino didn’t harass Epstein and Francona as much as he dared to question them and want an answer other than a spiraling stack of sludge that would placate a less-informed front office person or owner.

Francona’s health problems were much more serious than has ever been publicly revealed and his life was in jeopardy due to blood clots. He still endures terrible pain because of his wounds from a long playing career and the well-known issues with deep vein thrombosis. His use of pain medication was a point of contention and weaponized by someone with the Red Sox to impugn Francona’s reputation and justify his firing as if he was an addict whose use of the medicines, combined with the separation from his wife, led to a lack of focus allowing the players to run roughshod over all sense of propriety and culminating in the beer and chicken “scandal” that engulfed Francona and his team during their collapse in September 2011. The book explains Francona’s use of the medication in an evenhanded manner.

The players took advantage of Francona’s old-school demeanor in letting the players run their clubhouse. It’s an excuse to say that the beer and chicken had little to do with the collapse. If the players—especially pitchers Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey—had been in better shape, perhaps they wouldn’t have pitched as poorly as they did down the stretch and the team wouldn’t have missed the playoffs in the first place.

What Francona getting and losing the job hinged on was chance and the slippery slope of “if-thens.”  Would he have gotten the nod had Bernie Williams’s looping single in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS fallen into the glove of Nomar Garciaparra and the Red Sox held on to win the game and advanced to the World Series? Would he have retained the job if Dave Roberts hadn’t been safe by a hair on his stolen base in the ninth inning of game 4 in 2004, sparking the inconceivable four game comeback? Would he have lost the job if the Red Sox had been able to win two more games in September of 2011?

The final portion of the book centers around Francona’s estrangement from the Red Sox and his continued and understandably obsessive questioning of everyone as to who leaked to the media that he had a problem with prescription medications. Lucchino is alleged to have said he was going to find out who it was, but never did. Henry, the detached Dracula whose presence was rare and awkward, contributed his beloved stats and was notably out-of-touch in his attempts to get a grip on his crumbling would-be dynasty, had no reply for Francona. Werner was too busy trying to bolster his own bona fides and overemphasize his influence.

The book is not a vengeful and vicious, “I’m gonna get back at the guys who screwed me,” as Torre’s, at times, was. It tells Francona’s side in a context to put him in the best possible light, to be sure; he’s more calculating than an “Aw shucks,” baseball man who’s happiest at the ballpark and with the players. Clearly he’s hurt by the way his tenure ended especially considering he accomplished something in winning a World Series that hadn’t happened for 86 years prior to his arrival, then he turned around and won another title three years later. The concerns about his perception might have been the catalyst to jump back in the ring in a situation that isn’t ready-made to win immediately with the Indians. He took a job while the jobs were still being offered.

Francona gets his story out there, highlights how difficult the job of Red Sox manager truly is, and that it’s a borderline miracle that he: A) lasted as long as he did; and B) had the success he had while maintaining some semblance of sanity.

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The Red Sox Hire Pedro Martinez To…Um….Do Stuff(?)

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If a baseball organization is viewed as a small society, then the resident sociopath of Red Sox Nation from 2000 through 2008 was Manny Ramirez. Manny continually received passes for his baseball-related crimes of propriety and decorum because, when he wanted to be, he was an unstoppable force at the plate. On a lesser scale, the moderate troublemaker—i.e. the person who bent the rules and was allowed to bend the rules because the nation couldn’t function without him—was Pedro Martinez.

In terms of on-field contributions to the club, Pedro was more valuable than Manny was because he was all but impossible to replace when he was in his heyday. Pedro was unhittable for the majority of a six year period from 1998-2003 and almost singlehandedly carried mostly pedestrian teams to the playoffs in 1998, 1999 and even 2003. When he began to fade, he was still very good but not worth the money he was demanding as a free agent after the 2004 season—ironically the first year in his tenure when he was a background performer and they won the World Series.

The Red Sox didn’t sign him to an extension and let him leave as a free agent to the Mets. As it turned out, this was wise. In some respects, there was relief that he was gone. The relief wasn’t on a level of “finally” as it was when the club had had enough of Manny and traded him away at mid-season 2008, but it made the franchise’s life easier not to have to endure the behind-the-scenes, passive aggressive tantrums Pedro threw on a regular basis by showing up to spring training late; saying stupid things publicly about how the organization disrespected him; contract complaints; media dustups; and simultaneously proud, arrogant and insecure reactions to the concept that Curt Schilling was replacing him as the team ace. It certainly benefited them not having to pay for three years of diminishing effectiveness and stints on the disabled list while clinging to sway for what he was.

Manny made the Red Sox work environment uncomfortable, but because he was so productive the team let him get away with petulance, laziness, fake injuries, and disrespect to authority figures. It was only when he turned to violence with the traveling secretary that enough was enough and he was moved.

It’s not out of the realm to wonder whether the hiring of Pedro would be similar to hiring Manny. Both were difficult to deal with and left on bad terms. Neither ever put forth the image of a person who had any interest in working in a front office. Manny’s transgressions were far worse, but they were in the same context. This week, Pedro was named the special assistant to general manager Ben Cherington. What that undefined job entails is anyone’s guess. Do they want him to actually do anything? Is Pedro going to guide young players? Or is this to garner some positive press with a link to the club’s glory days as a reaction to the skeletons and scars being dragged out and sliced open in public with Terry Francona’s new book, The Red Sox Years by the former manager and Dan Shaughnessy?

My review of the book will be coming this week. Without giving too much away, from top-to-bottom the organization comes out appearing, to be kind, dysfunctional. As much as Pedro and Manny contributed to the good they accomplished, both were difficult to handle. So why would the front office want to bring Pedro onboard for any reason other than improved coverage and to hypnotize fans by subliminally reminding them of the glory days as if the heroes of the past will beget a repeat in the future?

This smacks of a PR maneuver with Tom Werner’s lust for “star” power; John Henry’s detached, ham-handed view of what will pander to his constituents; and Larry Lucchino left to be the bad guy and implement the scheme. Cherington, much like last year, is a workaday functionary to whom they’re handing tools and telling him to build something and not providing a blueprint or mandate other than warning him that it had better come out good.

What created the Red Sox from 2003 to most of 2011 wasn’t a desperate grasping at the past—a past that resulted in 86 years of futility in the quest for a championship. It was a decided departure from what the team did previously by using cutting edge techniques statistically, a business plan, and a ruthlessness in dispatching of people who no longer fit into the template. That included Pedro.

After a disastrous year with Bobby Valentine, they brought back John Farrell because he was respected and liked by everyone and was part of the successful regime. It’s being ignored that he’s not a good manager, which is what they need more than someone they like and who brings back warm, fuzzy feelings of what was.

They’re putting forth the “back to the way we did it” dynamic with Cherington presented as “in charge.” They’re signing character people and returning to the developmental methods that yielded Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury. But like the decision to hire Pedro, there’s a phoniness about it; a tone of “this is what the public wants” instead of “this is what will work.”

A fanbase such as that of the Red Sox, as loyal as they are to those who have performed for them, is undoubtedly happy that Pedro’s back in the fold. The joy will last for a while, then the fans will forget while Cherington has to find activities for his new assistant. The fans aren’t privy nor particularly interested in that. He’s supposedly going to do a lot of “things” and Cherington compared his presence to that of Jason Varitek. The difference is that Varitek wasn’t a pain and Pedro was. Varitek has an eye on a career as a manager or front office person and Pedro doesn’t. Varitek was hired because they wanted him in the organization. Pedro looks like he was hired as a placating gesture to the fans who are sitting on Metro Boston reading Francona’s book and taking the side of their beloved Tito because that’s what they want to do. He’s gone and the people who remain presided over a 2012 travesty that the fans aren’t sure is over. In fact, it’s just beginning. That realization might be clear to the front office and they’re trying everything they can to cloud the horrifying reality.

As great at Pedro was, he undermined manager Jimy Williams and chafed at Williams’s disciplinary procedures when Pedro was clearly wrong. He embarrassed interim manager and former pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. He was initially supportive of Grady Little, then backtracked on that support when Little was dumped. He was a handful for Francona in the two years they spent together.

Is Pedro going to suddenly become an organizational mouthpiece and preach to players the value of being a company man when he wouldn’t do it himself while the team was paying him $15 million a year?

This is a hiring for show. There’s no harm in it and while it won’t matter because Pedro isn’t going to be doing much of anything, it’s indicative that the organization is clawing at the the wrong past. They’re hiring and acquiring based on public perception and not on what’s going to help the team. It’s micro-meaningless and macro-meaningful at the same time and it’s a bad sign for where they’re headed. It’s a pretentious signal that something has changed when it hasn’t changed at all.

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Matheny’s Financial Woes Could Cause Problems for the Cardinals

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Mike Matheny and his current financial troubles are an example in wondering what athletes are thinking when they choose to invest money or buy “stuff” in an effort to “diversify” or “make their money work for them.”

The Cardinals manager’s issues came to light over the past few days as a court ruling went against him, potentially wiping out his entire net worth. According to this piece on StLToday.com, Matheny’s goal of making a post-career living in real estate fell flat to the tune of owing $4.4 million and not having the cash or assets to pay it off. We saw Curt Schilling go through a larger-scale nightmare last year and it’s still ongoing as he’s selling his bloody sock among other memorabilia.

The reasoning behind people making unwise financial decisions that could compromise them for years if not for the rest of their lives is presented as preparing for the future. They can happen to anyone and are not a reason to ridicule. Matheny gave a viable explanation with the following (from the above-linked post):

Matheny’s interest in real estate started before he joined the Cardinals in 2000 to be their catcher.

He had been released by Milwaukee and, then, quickly thereafter, Toronto. He was 29.

“I stunk, and saw a bad trend happening in my career,” he said.

Matheny, however, nursed a long interest in real estate, and he started taking correspondence courses while playing ball. “Guys used to give me grief. I was doing homework while we were on the flights.

“I had four kids at the time, and I knew I hadn’t really done enough in the game to just sit back and do nothing,” he said.

Fair enough. He was finding other avenues to earn a living. But the same logic that stated that he needed to take real estate courses and find a post-baseball career should have said to him that the house he built with the amenities listed in the piece were unnecessary. The house had:

  • 17 rooms
  • Indoor batting cage
  • Home theater
  • Pool with a water slide and a private lake with a floating golf green in the middle

Most of the money he made in baseball was earned in the last five years of his career. With the Cardinals, he surpassed $1 million in salary for the first time in 2002 when he made $2.5 million. Over the next two seasons—his final years with the Cardinals—he made $7.25 million.

Matheny signed a 3-year, $10 million contract with the Giants after the 2004 season. He retired after the second of the three years due to post-concussion syndrome and his 2007 salary isn’t listed on his Baseball-Reference page, but because his career ended due to injury and he retired, presumably he got paid for the final year. His career earnings are probably higher than the listed amount of $18.729 million to the tune of another $4.65 million.

That would make over $23 million.

Also, a Major League player has ancillary income from their road per diem—AKA meal money. Clubs aren’t checking to see what players spend it on; they could go to McDonald’s for breakfast and lunch and pocket the leftover cash; plus they’re fed from an elaborate post-game spread after each game, leaving dinner a luxury and not a necessity.

They receive post-season shares, which Matheny got in 2001, 2004 and 2005; there are rights fees for images and other lesser-known streams of money coming in. Usually, the amount of money is negligible in comparison to their salaries, but for younger players or journeymen as Matheny was before he got to the Cardinals, it’s not.

In short, if a player wants to be frugal and save what will eventually come to a lot of money, he can do it.

And here’s a little known fact about MLB pensions clipped from BusinessInsider.com:

MLB players must play 43 days in the majors to earn a minimum $34,000 annual pension plan.  Just one day in the majors gets them lifetime healthcare coverage.  After 10 years in the big leagues, benefits grow to $100,000 annually.

Matheny spent 13 years in the big leagues.

So here’s the question I have to ask of Matheny and Schilling and any other player who blew a massive amount of money on business schemes: How much is enough? Could he not live on the amount of money he made in his career and the $100,000 per year he receives as a pension with free healthcare and the cachet that comes from living in St. Louis and having been a former Cardinals’ player? From the juice that the words, “I played in the big leagues,” have everywhere?

This isn’t simply a personal issue for Matheny. The Cardinals knew about this when they hired him as a surprise choice to replace Tony LaRussa. The players’ comments regarding this coming out were supportive, but that’s not guaranteed to last if the team starts playing poorly.

Matheny had on-field success in 2012, reaching game 7 of the NLCS before being eliminated. By standard assessment, he did a good job because the team won. But in reality, Matheny was functioning with LaRussa’s players; with the freedom of diminished expectations after the departure of the future Hall of Fame manager LaRussa; the best pitching coach of this generation, Dave Duncan; and the best hitter in baseball, Albert Pujols. His rookie strategic gaffes were expected and understandable for a first time manager at any level and could easily be glossed over by the bottom line fact that the team won and came within a game from a second straight pennant.

But how long is the player support going to last? How long will the mistakes be taken as learning on the job when Matheny has to actually do something other than stand in the corner of the dugout, look managerial and let the players play?

If the team is struggling, will his financial missteps be referenced as sapping his concentration and commitment to the team? Knowing how players are, if a pitcher is unhappy with being pulled from a game, will he turn around and whisper to his teammates, “Maybe if I pay off his debts, he’ll leave me in.” Will there be resentment from Matheny himself at the lofty salaries the players, who are essentially his underlings, are making? Will he roll his eyes and think about a hitter batting .220 and being paid $5 million? It’s a human reaction that can set the charges to blow the place up.

The Cardinals are transitioning from LaRussa’s team to something else. They won’t function on cruise control forever and it’s when Matheny has to manage that his evolution will be clearer. He might learn on the job, but he might get swallowed up by its magnitude and what has to be done post-LaRussa/Duncan/Pujols—things he might not be capable of doing.

Matheny’s own statement that it was the money he owed which spurred his return to baseball is also a potential issue. Whether it was what he intended or not, it sounds as if he’s implying that he’s doing the Cardinals a favor by managing the team and if his real estate goals didn’t go bust, he’d have left baseball in the rear view mirror on his way to becoming a real estate titan.

There are a number of ways for this to go and a lot of the “if then, then that” can lead to a dark place for the Cardinals. It might wind up amounting to a personal financial situation that’s being handled legally, but ends up permeating the job he’s trying to do now, festering negatively, and turning in a direction that few will be willing to openly discuss, but is there nonetheless and isn’t going to go away.

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Zack Greinke Reverberations and Madness

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Zack Greinke has reportedly agreed to terms with the Dodgers on a 6-year, $147 million contract. Let’s look at the reality and reactions.

The money

For those looking at the Greinke money, comparing him to pitchers from years past and wondering what they would’ve earned had they entered free agency at the same age as Greinke, it’s a stupid question and argument. What would Sandy Koufax get? What would Pedro Martinez get? What would Greg Maddux get? What would Randy Johnson get?

Does it matter? Had they been free agents at age 29 in 2012, they would’ve gotten more money than Greinke. But they’re not. So it’s meaningless speculation.

Then there are the complaints that it’s “too much” money—not in context of pitchers who were better than Greinke, but in context, period.

The pitchers listed above weren’t available. As for the contract itself, how is “enough” quantified? Would $120 million be acceptable? Why is $147 million “too much” and what amount is “just right?”

Greinke is the best pitcher on the market, found a team willing to pay him, and he got the most money. If and when Justin Verlander is a free agent (and he probably won’t be), he’ll set the market. That’s capitalism. That’s baseball.

The media

Joel Sherman exemplifies the half-wit media by saying the following on Twitter:

I know timing/supply-demand determine $, but if you had to pick 10 SP to win game for your life, would Greinke even be in the 10?

First he says essentially the same thing I said and made perfect sense in saying it regarding supply and demand. Then he ruins it by making a ridiculous assertion about a “game for your life” that there’s no way to prove its veracity one way or the other until after the fact. Greinke pitched poorly in his one post-season chance, but he was no Kenny Rogers—a thoroughly overmatched, frightened, and non-competitive performer for both the Yankees and Mets who no one could’ve thought he’d turn in the masterful work he provided in the 2006 playoffs and World Series when he was all but unhittable.

Was Dave Stewart a post-season ace before he became one? Was Curt Schilling?

You don’t know until you know. It’s not as if Greinke is tricking people with a pitch that could abandon him at any moment. Like the aforementioned Johnson and Martinez, they know what’s coming and can’t hit it.

This type of “analysis” is a desperate search to be contrary and not based on fact at all.

For the rest of baseball

The “haves and have nots” argument no longer applies as teams like the Athletics and Rays have shown the way of keeping their players or trading them away at their high value to maintain realistic cost while contending. The idea that Billy Beane’s strategies stopped working is accurate. Other teams caught onto what he was doing, souped it up and spent money for the undervalued assets he was able to get on the cheap before. The Rays adapted and overtook the A’s as the team that maximized what they had and could afford with new data and not the old “on base percentage as the Holy Grail” and “counting cards in the draft” idiocy.

The big money clubs who’ve spent wildly haven’t distinguished themselves with annual championships; in fact, many of the clubs have turned into overpriced embarrassments who, like the Yankees, are paring down to avoid luxury tax penalties and are rapidly heading toward a collapse because they tried to copy the Rays and even the Red Sox in development and failed miserably. The Red Sox, Angels, Marlins, and Phillies spent madly in the last several years and the results varied from disastrous to mediocre.

Teams that want to prevent Greinke-like contracts have to take the risk and do what the Rays have done with Evan Longoria, the Pirates have done with Andrew McCutchen, and the Rays and Mets have done with Matt Moore and Jonathon Niese—sign them early and hope they make it worth the team’s while to do it.

For the Dodgers

The Dodgers spending spree doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win in and of itself, but they do have some semblance of continuity backed up by the new money their ownership is spreading around, much to the anger and chagrin of all observers due to jealousy or the simple desire to complain.

It made no sense to pay $2 billion and then try to create a winner with an $80 million payroll and prove how much smarter their baseball people are than everyone else. It made no sense to hire Stan Kasten as team president and have Magic Johnson as a front man and not let them do what they do the way they know how to do it.

Kasten is a professional dealmaker and, unlike Randy Levine across the country with the Yankees, isn’t despised and openly meddling with the baseball operations implying that he knows more than he does (and Kasten is a qualified baseball man, unlike Levine). Kasten helped build the enduring Braves playoff dynasty using development and Ted Turner’s money to keep his own players, trade the minor leaguers for veterans, develop youngsters for the Braves’ use, bolster the club with Maddux-like stars, and let his GM John Schuerholz be the GM and the manager Bobby Cox be the manager.

He’s repeating the process with the Dodgers, Ned Colletti and Don Mattingly.

Comparisons to the aforementioned clubs that spent insanely is not accurate as a “that didn’t work, so neither will what the Dodgers are doing.” The Dodgers spent a ton of money and are asking their manager Mattingly, “What do you need?” whereas the Angels, with a new GM Jerry Dipoto who didn’t hire Mike Scioscia had different theories on how a team should be run; the owner Arte Moreno betrayed what it was that made the Angels a beacon of how to put a club together as he spent on players who simply didn’t fit and created a glut and altered identity, leading to the image of dysfunction and disarray.

The Red Sox made a mess in 2011, compounded that mess in 2012, and are getting back to their roots with questionable decisions currently being made by Ben Cherington when the jury is still out on whether he’s one of those executives who was better off as an assistant.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has the countenance and behavior of a character straight out of a Dickens story with barely concealed greed and unrepentant evil, while Magic is the charming frontman to bring the fans in and impress the players with his star power.

Star power.

Magic was a Lakers star with a star coach Pat Riley and a glittery style that inspired the moniker “Showtime.” It wasn’t just a show. The Lakers were a great team with star talent surrounding Magic in the form of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, underappreciated stars like James Worthy, and gritty tough guys like Kurt Rambis. Magic is the epitome of cool who knows everyone, gets invited to every party, has access to all the trappings of Los Angeles with the age and wisdom to advise players what and whom to avoid. He’s got an eye not just on winning, but winning in the Hollywood fashion with stars and style. He’ll fill Dodger Stadium and make it the cool place to go again; he’ll recruit the players; he’ll represent the team to make everyone money; and he won’t overstep his bounds into the baseball ops.

They didn’t buy it as an investment to flip in a few years; they bought it to turn it into a greater financial powerhouse and increase its value. That’s what they’re doing and Greinke is a cog in that machine to achieve the end.

And for Greinke

No one will ever know whether Greinke, whose past emotional problems are given far too much weight considering they six years ago and haven’t cropped up since, could’ve dealt with New York, Boston or Philadelphia.

Going to the East Coast with the pressures and expectations inherent with the Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies wasn’t a good fit. But the Angels weren’t matching the Dodgers’ cash and the Rangers were the main competition for the pitcher’s services and were a winning, positive locale for him and his former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader wife. But they were outbid and have other, more reasonably priced options via trade.

That left the Dodgers. It’s a laid back atmosphere as a matter of course; they already have an ace in Clayton Kershaw so the pressure won’t be as great for Greinke to win 25 games; and no one will bother him as they would in New York, Boston, or Philly.

He got his money; he’s a great pitcher; and will continue to be a great pitcher for a Dodgers team that is a legitimate championship contender.

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Red Sox Return to a Strategy From 10 Years Ago

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After a last place finish and disastrous 2012 season, it’s a convenient storyline for the Red Sox to get back to their “roots” that built the annual title contender under Theo Epstein from 2003-2011. That the reality of this narrative isn’t precisely accurate is beside the point. They won. Because they won, the SparkNotes version of how it happened has degenerated into a brief and simplistic summary that using stats and undervalued attributes while also spending money was the “formula”.

Facts get in the way, so the facts are being eliminated in most Red Sox-centric circles.

I’m indifferent to allegiance and twisting truth to fit into what a constituency wants to hear, so here are those facts:

  • A large chunk of the Red Sox 2004 championship team was built by Dan Duquette
  • What Billy Beane had planned to do (according to Michael Lewis, so take it with a bucket of salt) had he followed through on his agreement to take over as the team’s GM after the 2002 season would’ve resulted in a horror movie
  • The Red Sox were somewhat dysfunctional during that whole time with the mad scientist closer-by committee experiment; Epstein eventually resigning and returning to win a power struggle with Larry Lucchino; and other examples of infighting
  • They were lucky with players like Mike Lowell, whom they were forced to take even though they didn’t want him
  • The 2007 club that won their second World Series in four years was the product of tossing money at their problems as a reaction to fan anger following their 2006 stumble
  • There were numerous other unquantifiable occurrences that were equally as important in the building of the brand as their adherence to new age statistics.

Rises of this nature tend to take on lives of their own and the Red Sox, who had turned to the new age techniques in part because their new ownership was intent on running the club as a business and in part because what they’d tried for so many years—keeping up with the Yankees and other clubs by doing the exact same things—had failed repeatedly. They made the switch to cold-blooded calculation out of necessity as much as design. What they were doing wasn’t working; what Beane was doing in Oakland was working, so they consciously mimicked the template and souped it up by hiring Bill James and backing up their newfound convictions with money.

Eventually though, after two championships, it wasn’t enough. There could no longer be the intelligent free agent signings stemming from their own analysis and volition, reactions and outsider perspective be damned; they had to compete with the Yankees and get the biggest names; a season in which the club finished with 95 wins and lost in the ALCS was not good enough anymore. In the World Series win or bust world, the Yankees had been joined by the Red Sox. It’s an almost impossible vacuum in which to function over the long-term. When operating under such self-administered constraints, teams tend to do things they might not otherwise do. The Red Sox were bounced in the 2008 playoffs by the low-budget Rays; the Angels took them out in 3 straight games in the 2009 ALDS; they were riddled by injuries in 2010, but still somehow won 89 games and missed the playoffs; and they spent wildly and absurdly in the winter of 2010-2011 to import more names whose suitability to Boston should have been known beforehand as players to avoid. Unlike acquisitions from the early days for the transformation when Johnny Damon and Curt Schilling could handle the madness surrounding the Red Sox, Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Adrian Gonzalez couldn’t.

Culminating in the overriding expectations and disaffected personalities that behaved as entitled and disinterested brats, the 2011 Red Sox undermined their manager Terry Francona, acted as if they were entitled to a playoff ticket simply due to their payroll and reputation, and collapsed. Trying to patch it together with one more run, the club took the shattered strategy to its logical conclusion by hiring a “name” manager to replace the discarded and exhausted Francona, Bobby Valentine. Epstein climbed the exit hatch to take over as President of the Chicago Cubs and the new GM, Ben Cherington, didn’t want Valentine. Lucchino overruled him, the coaching staff and factions in the front office passive aggressively set Valentine up to fail. Predictably Valentine’s reputation and personality resulted in a mid-season mutiny and exponential selfishness that dwarfed that which doomed Francona.

A 69-93 season, endless ridicule, and a livid fanbase spurred the Red Sox to get back to the drawing board and they’re in the process making a show of returning to what it was that sowed the seeds for their decade long dominance.

Amid all the ESPN headlines of expectancy for the 2013 comeback; with the money freed from the salary dumps of Crawford, Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett; the promises of a return to the past by hiring a link to that past as the new manager John Farrell, the signing of “character” players such as Jonny Gomes, David Ross, and the pursuit of Mike Napoli, it’s taking the tone of an on-paper back to basics of a strategy that is now behind the times.

When Epstein sought to remake the club in the statistical image, it was new and few clubs understood it, were willing to implement it, or knew what they were doing if they tried. Already in place was a megastar starting pitcher in Pedro Martinez and some young players in the organization such as Kevin Youkilis who would cheaply contribute to what they were putting together.

These factors are no longer the case. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are a good place to start a rotation, but are not on a level with Martinez and there’s little backing them up; the bullpen is weak; the lineup is pockmarked with gaping holes. In 2012, when clubs scour the market for players, everyone has the same numbers and uses them. It’s not 2002. Clubs are taking the initiative by signing their young stars long term; the Red Sox farm system has been gutted by ill-thought out trades for “name” players. Players that had undervalued attributes like on-base percentage are not floating around for a pittance. When the Red Sox made the decision to dump Shea Hillenbrand in favor of a player who had been a journeyman, Bill Mueller, it was reasonable to wonder what they were doing. It was a stroke of genius as Mueller won the batting title, the Silver Slugger, and was a key component to the 2004 championship.

Is Gomes a Mueller? Is he going to develop into something other than what he’s been his whole career? How about other players they’re avidly pursuing like Napoli or Nick Swisher?

Yes, they’re good players and likable personalities who will help the Red Sox be better than what they were in 2011-2012 on and off the field. Unfortunately, that doesn’t eliminate the inherent problems of clinging to a bygone template to sell to the fans and media to put forth the pretense of getting back to fundamentals. The days of a player being different from his perception are over. Substance is required, but the substance is lacking as the Red Sox revert to the past.

Farrell is straight out of central casting as a manager. He’s well-spoken, handsome, big, intimidating, and the remaining players from his time as Francona’s pitching coach like him and lobbied for him. Everyone from the front office is onboard with his hiring and they’re giving him a freedom to hire coaches he wants and a voice in the construction of the roster that was not given to Valentine. That doesn’t alter the fact that no one from the Blue Jays has expressed regret that he’s gone; that the Blue Jays were one of the worst run clubs in baseball during his time and were atrocious in the most rudimentary aspects of the game to the point that had the Red Sox not wanted Farrell back so desperately the Blue Jays were probably going to fire him. Francona, for his faults, was a sound strategic manager who had managerial experience with the Phillies. But like the Francona Phillies, the new team Francona has been hired to manage, the Indians, doesn’t have very much talent and his mere presence isn’t going to change that or the end results on the field. The same thing applies to Farrell on a different scope tied to higher expectations. Farrell’s limited managerial experience and terrible results won’t be glossed over in Boston as they will for Francona is Cleveland because Francona knows what he’s doing and Farrell doesn’t.

The Red Sox of 2004-2010 would have won with Farrell as the manager because they were so talented that there was little for the manager to do other than write the lineup, make the pitching changes, deal with the media, and steer the ship—perfect for a figurehead. It also helped that the competition in the division was mostly limited to the Yankees and, for a couple of years, the Rays. Now, with the Red Sox lack of talent and stiff competition in the division, they can’t toss out their return to glory concept and expect to win because they’re all on the same page with the manager and they have a couple of gritty players added to the clubhouse. They need pitching; they need bats; they need guidance; and they need to be managed.

Napoli, Swisher, Gomes, Ross, and Farrell aren’t going to undo the dilapidation that was an end result of years of patchwork repairs reaching its nadir in 2012. The obvious thing is to blame Valentine and make the claim that the mistakes are now understood and won’t be repeated. It’s easy. It’s also inaccurate. Farrell’s back; James is more involved; everyone’s working toward the same goal. The Red Sox are upfront about operating from the 2002-2003 playbook in 2012-2013. Is that going to vault them from 69-93 to 90-72 or a similar win total that will put them in playoff contention in a bearish American League?

Do you see the problem there? Considering what they’re doing and how they’re marketing it, the Red Sox clearly don’t.

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