Theo Epstein’s Masquerade

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The increased use of analytics has also given rise to the loquaciousness of the decision-makers. You can pick any of the new age general managers in baseball and find one of their statements when a somewhat controversial decision is made and interchange them. When they fire a manager, it’s generally even longer. The explanation is convoluted and rife with semantics designed to protect their own interests.

This was evident again today when Theo Epstein – someone who clearly loves to hear his own voice whatever the circumstances – gave this long-winded statement as to why the Cubs’ hand-picked manager to oversee their extended rebuild, Dale Sveum, was fired following a 66-96 campaign. The accolades and qualifications Epstein gave to justify Sveum’s firing are little more than a dressing up of the dismissal of an employee.

Was it justified? Did Sveum deserve to take the fall for what was an organizational failure? Should the Cubs have been better than they were?

Considering the expectations (I had the Cubs’ record exactly right in my preseason predictions) they weren’t supposed to be contenders. They traded away veterans Alfonso Soriano and Scott Feldman during the season. They were functioning with journeyman Kevin Gregg as the closer. A team like the Cubs isn’t meant to be judged based on their record alone which lends more credence to the idea that Sveum is being thrown overboard to quiet the rising number of critics wondering when they’ll get Red Sox-like results from Epstein.

With the number of prospects they have on the way up, if the young players like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney and Jeff Samardzija take steps back, then the manager is going to take the fall for it. That doesn’t mean he gets the blame.

Much like the Red Sox failure in 2003 was passed off on Grady Little’s call not to pull a clearly tired Pedro Martinez in game seven of the ALCS against the Yankees, the Cubs are holding the manager in front of the GM, president and owner like a human shield. Little’s choice in not yanking Martinez was due in part to an old school decision that if he was going to lose, he’d lose with his best. It was also done in part because the Epstein regime had made the conscious choice to go with a favorite concept of the stat guy in the closer by committee and didn’t give Little a competent short reliever he could trust in a game of that magnitude. It all turned out fine as the Red Sox won the World Series the next year only after signing Keith Foulke, a legitimate closer. Crisis averted.

With the Cubs, Epstein has been lauded for his and GM Jed Hoyer’s trades and restructuring of the minor league system. Whether or not that credit will bear fruit in the coming years for the new manager remains to be seen. Until they perform, prospects are only prospects.

Epstein’s big name free agent signings have long been inconsistent. With the Red Sox, he was able to cover it up with John Henry’s money. Whether that will be the case for the Cubs is as unknown as their young players’ development. For the Cubs this season, he signed Edwin Jackson to a four year, $52 million deal. Jackson went 8-18 with an ERA of nearly five. He signed Kyuji Fujikawa to a two year, $9.5 million deal and Fujikawa wilted under the pressure as set-up man and closer before requiring Tommy John surgery. It cannot be said that these were worthwhile and cost-efficient signings.

When Epstein says, “Jed and I take full responsibility for that,” as he discusses the state of the big league product, it’s little more than a hollow accepting of responsibility. He’s been on the job with the Cubs for two years and is ensconced in his job. There might be a small amount of pressure on him because of his reputation and the expectations that surround his high-profile hiring, lucrative contract of five years at $18.5 million and final say powers, but he’s going to get at least two more years before he’s on the firing line. Hoyer is Epstein’s front man and is safe as well.

If the duo is taking “responsibility,” what’s the punishment? They’ll get roasted on talk shows and in print for a while. Attention will be paid to who they hire as manager because GMs and team presidents, no matter how respected, generally get two managerial hirings before the focus of blame falls to them. For now, though, he’s safe.

He says that Sveum isn’t a “scapegoat,” but then two paragraphs later says that the team needs a “dynamic, new voice…” It certainly sounds like scapegoating to me.

I’m not defending Sveum and many times when a firing of this kind is made, there are behind the scenes issues that the public isn’t privy to. Epstein and Hoyer can fire Sveum if they want to. It’s completely up to them. There’s never been anything wrong with firing the manager for any reason that the front office wants to give. In fact, they don’t even need to give a reason. “I felt like making a change,” is a perfectly acceptable response.

However, to take the firing as an opportunity to provide a new line of defense of the front office and disguise it as a “we’re all at fault” line of faux solidarity is an insult to the intelligence of any person who’s been an observer of Epstein’s behavior since he first came to prominence a decade ago as a 28 year old “genius” who was going to lead the game into a new age with his youth and creativity. Getting past the mask, he’s little more than a younger and supposedly more handsome version of the 1960s era of GMs who threatened and bullied employees just because they could and had a job for life. It sounds like the common “blame the manager” rhetoric. The only difference is that it’s camouflaged by a Yale graduate’s skill with the language and ability to make circular sludge sound like the dulcet tones of a gifted tenor.

The firing of Sveum might be retrospectively seen as a the catalyst to the Cubs jumping into contention and breaking their World Series drought. Even if that happens, it can’t be masqueraded as anything more than what it is: they’re blaming the manager. No amount of verbal deftness will alter that fact whether it’s coming from Epstein or anyone else.




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(Over) Reactions To The Phillies’ Firing Of Charlie Manuel

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Considering what I wrote in my preseason book, the Phillies’ decision to fire Charlie Manuel and replace him with Ryne Sandberg should come as no surprise:

Manuel will either resign or be fired (my money’s on a firing because he won’t resign) during the season to pave the way for Sandberg.

It happened yesterday and the responses from fans, media members and players ranged from “Manuel deserved better,” to an attack on general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., to shock and outrage, to the assertion that Manuel should have been allowed to finish out the season.

In a fictional utopia, I suppose there are arguments to be made for all of the above. In reality, even with its perceived brutality, the decision makes sense. Let’s look at the participants:

Charlie Manuel

Let’s not turn Manuel into a blameless 69-year-old man who is being forced out of a job he wants to continue doing. The same logic that says Manuel isn’t to blame for the Phillies’ 53-68 record also nullifies the credit he receives for the five division championships and 2008 World Series.

Which is it? One, the other or both?

Manuel did a good job with the Phillies and his main attributes were corralling a roomful of egos and not taking crap. The players knew he was in charge and, for the most part aside from Jimmy Rollins, played hard for him day-in, day-out. That said, independent of Manuel’s substantial accomplishments as their manager and as a baseball man in general, he’s 69-years-old and the Phillies are set to undergo a retooling.

Did it make sense to move forward for another day with Manuel when it’s been known for a year that, barring a World Series win, he wasn’t going to be back in 2014? When Sandberg had the heir apparent moniker attached to him from the time he joined the Phillies as their Triple A manager? When the Phillies were 21 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East and 15 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card spot?

Sentimentality is fine and it wouldn’t have hurt the Phillies to let Manuel finish the season, but it wouldn’t have helped either. If they’re going to commit to Sandberg to manage the team, they need to have a look at him and he needs to have a look at the roster as the man in charge. They have to see how he handles the media and the egos. In short, they have to see without speculation and guessing. Giving him the chance now gives them that opportunity.

Ruben Amaro, Jr.

Another line from my book sums up Amaro’s future as GM:

Amaro’s status after the year is also uncertain. Then the long rebuild will begin in earnest as the Phillies come apart.

The Phillies are financially bloated, destitute of impact youngsters and trapped in a division with four other teams that are younger and with brighter futures. While not overtly defending many of the things Amaro has done in his tenure as GM, I understand why he did them. That won’t save him at the end of the season if ownership decides that they need a whole new regime.

Amaro had been completely upfront about Manuel’s future. There was no contract extension offered and given the team’s struggles last season, their age and huge holes, even Amaro knew that everything would have to break right for them to contend. It’s broken wrong and it was time to move on.

Giving Manuel the last month-and-a-half of the season might’ve been the nice thing to do, but why? There’s the “what’s the difference?” argument and there’s the “we have to see what we have” argument. Amaro chose the latter and it wasn’t wrong in a moral or practical fashion. He didn’t callously shove an old man in a wheelchair out a window. He dismissed his manager who wasn’t going to be managing past this season anyway.

Ryne Sandberg

Sandberg is far from a guy who decreed, “I’m a Hall of Fame player and now I wanna be a big league manager. Give me the job.” He began his managerial career in the minors with the Cubs, worked his way up from A ball to Triple A and left the Cubs organization after he was passed over for the big league managerial job in favor of Dale Sveum. He joined the Phillies, managed for two years in Triple A Lehigh Valley before joining Manuel’s coaching staff this season.

Only Manuel knows whether he felt threatened by Sandberg’s presence; whether there was an undermining aspect to Sandberg as to what he would’ve done in certain situations had he been managing. With the decision essentially fait accompli as soon as Sandberg joined the organization and hammered home when he joined the coaching staff, all the ambiguity was gone. Manuel was going to manage in 2013 and, unless there was the aforementioned and unlikely World Series run, he wasn’t going to be back. There was no reason for Sandberg to undermine or run interference because he was going to get the job regardless.

The Phillies organization

The Phillies are entering a new phase. Their signing of Chase Utley to a contract extension and refusal to clean out the house of marketable veterans Cliff Lee, Carlos Ruiz, Jonathan Papelbon and Michael Young is an indicator that they have no intention of starting over again from scratch, but they’re incorporating young players like Cody Asche and must get younger and cheaper over the next several years. Part of that process includes the manager. Sandberg is younger and cheaper than Manuel. They knew what they had in Manuel and don’t know with Sandberg. It might sound cruel, but the Phillies had to break with the past and the only difference between doing it now and doing it after the season is that waiting would’ve postponed the inevitable. It elicited a fiery public response, but it was coming one way or the other. Doing it now was the logical decision.




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The Cubs Abandon The Pump, Now We Wait For The Dump

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Financial terminology is now popular in baseball and the Cubs were trying to use the strategy of inflating a stock as much as they could before selling it. The stock is closer Carlos Marmol whose time with the Cubs is either limited to the rest of this season after which he’ll become a free agent or anytime before then if a team is willing to take him. When the Cubs signed Japanese free agent Kyuji Fujikawa, it was no secret that he was their closer for the future, but they still have Marmol making $9.8 million this season and would desperately love to: A) save some money on that deal; B) get a prospect or two for him if he’s pitching well; or C) both of these.

The Cubs are in the middle of a rebuild but they’re not being as despicably overt in not caring whether they win or lose as the Astros are. They’re simultaneously trying to straddle the line of competitiveness and showing respect to their loyal fans and the spirit of pennant races and clearing out all the dead money from the Cubs of 2006-2011 and bringing in free agents such as Edwin Jackson. Sometimes wins must be risked in order to try and inflate the stock (Marmol) and hope he’ll come through. Marmol’s appeared in three games this season. In the first, he received a “hold” and allowed 1 run in 1/3 of an inning. In the second, he got a save, but gave up 2 runs and 3 hits. Last night, in his third and presumably last chance, he entered the game in the ninth inning against the Braves with a 5-4 lead, surrendered a game-tying home run to B.J. Upton, retired Jason Heyward on a fly ball to left field, then bookended the elder Upton’s homer by giving up a game-ending homer to his younger sibling Justin Upton.

After the game, Cubs manager Dale Sveum implied that he might switch closers with the cryptic, “We’re definitely going to talk about it now.” Then this morning, the switch was made official with Fujikawa taking over. Obviously he talked about it with his coaches, but he also required approval from GM Jed Hoyer, team president Theo Epstein and the rest of the front office before making the switch because while the players and coaches definitely wanted to make the change, the front office was still hoping that they’d be able to get another team thinking that Marmol can help them if the Cubs straighten him out.

Fujukawa didn’t distinguish himself either allowing 3 runs in the eighth inning and although Sveum mentioned Shawn Camp and James Russell as options, they only had one choice and it was Fujikawa.

The extensive consultation is indicative of the new way in which baseball is run with the manager having to get approval for such a maneuver that, years ago, would have been left at his discretion. The reality is that the Cubs couldn’t keep putting Marmol out there and tell the other players and fans that they’re doing everything they can to try and win. This isn’t an isolated loss of control or a slump that might happen to any closer, it’s a continuous trend of lack of control and propensity to give up the home run ball that make it too risky to put him in the game in the ninth inning, especially when they have his heir apparent on the roster and waiting to be handed the job.

No one would be fooled by Marmol if he saved five straight games. Perhaps a change-of-scenery can help him. He still strikes people out and has a 95-mph fastball and strikeout slider, but he’s almost useless to the Cubs as a pitcher and as trade bait, so they might as well stick Fujikawa in as the closer and accept that Marmol can’t help them as a Cub or as an asset to trade. The stock has reached its low level and they’re not getting anything for it.

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Blame for Bobby Valentine’s Red Sox Failure Extends Worldwide

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Bobby Valentine was fired as manager by the Boston Red Sox yesterday with approximately $2.5 million remaining on his 2-year contract. He’s taking the fall for what wasn’t simply an organizational set of problems, but for issues that extended far beyond Boston and were negatively influenced by people, perceptions, and circumstances. Valentine certainly bears a portion of the responsibility for what went wrong in his dream job that rapidly—immediately–degenerated into a nightmare, but there’s plenty to go around.

Let’s look at the map with percentages as to who’s at fault.

Boston, MA

The Red Sox were in total disarray after their collapse in September of 2011. Manager Terry Francona’s contract options were not exercised (technically he wasn’t fired, but he was fired); GM Theo Epstein left for the Cubs shortly thereafter; and the roster was essentially stagnant with owner John Henry slamming shut the vault that had bought and paid for Carl Crawford, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

They had a choice: either hire one of the names that GM Ben Cherington preferred like Gene Lamont or Dale Sveum, or do as team CEO Larry Lucchino wanted and hire the polar opposite of Francona and a big name, Valentine. Lucchino was reestablishing his power with the departure of Epstein and, as expected, got his way. This implication that had the Red Sox hired one of Cherington’s choices as manager, everything would’ve been okay, is ridiculous. The team needed structural changes on the field—changes they didn’t make. Such maneuvers would’ve been nearly impossible to construct with other clubs and sell to their fanbase and media, but they could’ve done something to break from the past by dispatching a veteran or three.

I understand why they did what they did with Valentine, but do they? Are they willing to admit it and look into the mirror? Does the Red Sox front office know what they did wrong and why it didn’t work? That it was a huge gaffe to drop Valentine into that toxic stew without altering the ingredients by getting rid of Josh Beckett over the winter? That saddling Valentine with coaches that were a sure bet to undermine him would serve nothing apart from giving the players a sympathetic ear to complain to and the media an “unnamed source” through whom the players could anonymously air their gripes? That these coaches would play clubhouse politics to expand their own influence and possibly become the manager of the team themselves?

The transformation from intelligent and comprehensive decision-making that was implemented under Epstein was gone in favor of spending on free agents and making headline-worthy trades for big names to keep up with the Yankees.

After the 2011 debacle, rather than formulating a cogent plan that may or may not have included Valentine, everyone was looking out for himself. Lucchino with his freedom from Epstein to do what he preferred and have the world know he was in charge again; Cherington going along to get along and letting Lucchino have his way; Valentine for not making sure he wasn’t surrounded by a pack of Judases; and the players for behaving as spoiled, entitled brats.

35% at fault

Arizona

I’m sure Francona, observing the Red Sox train wreck from the ESPN booth and his Arizona home, was amused and satisfied at the 69-93 record and last place in the American League East that the Red Sox “achieved”. Not to imply that Francona wanted the Red Sox to disintegrate as they did, but the implosion somehow validates that the 2011 collapse was not the fault of the former manager when, in part, it was. Francona’s lackadaisical discipline and inability to stop the breakdown of intensity; stem the rise in overwhelming arrogance; and harpoon the sense that because the Red Sox had become such a machine over the years that they were automatically anointed a spot in the post-season, made 2011 inevitable. Francona had been there too long; the team had become complacent under his leadership; and his refusal to appear at the Red Sox 100th anniversary celebration and then decision to show up in a passive-aggressive display of selfishness against Lucchino while he knew the difficulty Valentine was having only exacerbated the situation.

His looming presence as a popular and well-liked person who happened to be in the ESPN broadcasting booth shadowed Valentine and the Red Sox. The idiotic entreaties from the likes of Ken Rosenthal and now others that the Red Sox bring him back are similar to a divorced couple that splits and only remembers the good times and not the reasons they broke up in the first place.

Francona is a good, but not great manager who will do well if he has the players to win. Put him in a rebuilding project such as the Indians and he’ll revert to the, “nice guy, okay enough manager…I guess” individual he was with the Phillies when all he did was lose. He got the Red Sox job because he was willing to take short money for the opportunity, he was agreeable to Curt Schilling whom the Red Sox were trying to acquire, and he would adhere to stat-based principles and do what the front office told him. In short, he was the opposite of Grady Little. The concept that he’s more than that because he was the manager of a loaded Red Sox team is a concocted story that will be proven to be false if he does indeed go to the Indians. (I don’t think he will. He’ll wait out the Tigers/Angels/Dodgers/Diamondbacks jobs.)

12% at fault

Toronto, Canada

The Red Sox are enamored of John Farrell. They wanted him a year ago and didn’t want to surrender what the Blue Jays supposedly asked for (Clay Buchholz) in compensation for their manager. Farrell desperately wants to go back to Boston and he is the next manager of the Red Sox, for better or worse.

That the Blue Jays are willing to let him go to a division rival should be a warning sign to the Red Sox that they may not be getting the problem-solver they’re looking for. Farrell is popular with the players, beloved by the Boston media, and a conduit to the memory of when the Red Sox were a championship team. But, as the Blue Jays and their fans will attest, his in-game managerial skills are lacking and the Blue Jays were an undisciplined and haphazardly run bunch that was expected to be much better than they were in 2012. His longing gaze back at Boston and that Boston was gazing back didn’t help Valentine either.

1% at fault

Chicago, IL

From poor drafts in 2008 and onward, to overpaying for free agents nationally and internationally, the 2012 Red Sox were largely put together by the current president of the Chicago Cubs, Theo Epstein. Those are the same Cubs that lost 101 games under Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer, and the manager that Cherington preferred, Sveum. The Cubs were in need of a total overhaul and that’s what Epstein and his crew are doing, so he can’t be blamed for the monstrosity they were this season, but the 2012 Red Sox are absolutely Epstein’s responsibility. He decided to git while the gittin’ was good, but that doesn’t absolve him of the carnage that his acquisitions, signings, and failure to address lingering issues created.

Also in Chicago was Kevin Youkilis of the White Sox.

One of the seminal moments of Valentine’s downfall in Boston was his innocuous criticism of Youkilis early in the season in which he said he felt that Youkilis’s commitment was lacking. It was amazing how a presence like Youkilis, who had begun to be seen as a problematic clubhouse lawyer and divisive busybody in September of 2011, evolved into a rallying point for the Red Sox veterans to say, “See?!? Valentine’s a jerk!!”

Whatever the catalyst was of Valentine’s criticism and Youkilis’s eventual trade to the White Sox, was Valentine wrong?

The injury-prone Youkilis wasn’t hitting for the Red Sox, they had a replacement at the ready in the younger and cheaper Will Middlebrooks, and after Youkilis joined the White Sox, he was the same inconsistent, limited player he’d become for the Red Sox.

Youkilis was an outlet for strife within the Red Sox roster, but he was one of convenience.

30% at fault

Los Angeles, CA

Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Crawford were traded to the Dodgers in a salary dump that the Red Sox were beyond lucky that they were able to complete. Gonzalez was a bad fit for Boston due to his laid back West Coast personality and desire to be left alone to do his job. As the veteran leaders like David Ortiz got injured and Gonzalez was called to the forefront on and off the field, he was swallowed up, unable to come up with any legitimate, intelligent response as to why the club faltered in 2011 and was coming unglued in 2012 aside from referencing God.

Crawford tried hard, but was hurt. His deployment was a point of contention between Valentine and the front office with the random decision that he would play X number of games and get Y number of games off to account for an elbow that required Tommy John surgery.

Beckett is the epitome of the problem child bully who needed a smack, but no one in Boston willing to give him that smack. The one person that Valentine needed to come to an understanding with was Beckett. Or the Red Sox had to trade Beckett. Neither happened in time to save 2012, and when they finally traded Beckett in August, it was too late to do any good.

Is it fair to blame Beckett for not behaving as a professional and an adult when he’s never done it before in his entire career and it was up to the front office to accept that and get rid of him? Is it fair to blame Gonzalez for not being any more of a leader than he was with the twice-collapsed Padres clubs for whom he was also the centerpiece? Is it fair to blame Crawford because he was hurt?

Not really.

4% at fault

Stamford, CT

After waiting so long to get back into Major League Baseball as a manager, there has to be a sense of embarrassment for Valentine that he got the chance of a lifetime with a team that spends a lot of money and was rife with stars and that he “blew” it.

But did he blow it?

Valentine, being Valentine walked into the job with the knives already out to get him. The perception of him being a loud, arrogant, condescending, abrasive, micromanaging nuisance notwithstanding, it was up to him to get the players to take him at face value based on their dealings with him rather than dredging up old criticisms from those with an axe to grind such as John Franco, his deposed closer with the Mets.

Valentine saw how Francona became lauded and celebrated after breaking the “curse”; that it could have been him who was managing the Red Sox back in 2003 had he been willing to compromise on his principles and tell Lucchino during an informal chat that he disagreed with Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in to pitch in that fateful game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. But he refused to criticize Little, wound up in Japan for several years, missed out on the Marlins and Orioles jobs and was left with one final opportunity.

Early in the season, had Valentine been the strategic wizard he was portrayed to be, then it might’ve been okay. But he was rusty having not managed in the big leagues for 10 years and in the American League for 20. In an apropos analogy considering Valentine’s bicycle spill in Central Park during the last series against the Yankees, managing is not like getting on a bicycle. Valentine tried and fell.

Valentine won’t regret taking the job, but he will regret not making a greater effort to get the veterans on his side; on not allowing coaches that he didn’t want and were likely to be undermining influences to be on his staff; and for not making a greater effort to dispel the aura than he carried around with him. Making the effort could have helped. Telling Beckett and others, “Listen, I’m sure you’ve heard all the stories about me. Some are true, some aren’t. But I was in my 40s then. I’m 62 now. This is my last chance. I know it, you know it. I wanna win. You guys wanna forget about what happened last year. Let’s work together to make it happen.”

Beckett would probably have still acted the way he did (and does), but Valentine could say he tried.

This was Valentine’s last shot. There are two strategies to take when facing a last shot: 1) go for the deep strike and say, “If I’m going down, I’m going down my way,” and make sure you’re comfortable with everything for better or worse; or 2) be conciliatory and agreeable, hoping it works out based on talent level and available money.

Valentine chose the latter with the results we see. He bears a significant portion of the responsibility and was jettisoned, but this was a combined effort from all over the map and top to bottom. No one should be spared from their part in the horror film that is the 2012 Boston Red Sox.

18% at fault

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John Henry’s 2012 Of Apologies And Damage Control

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Owner John Henry wrote a letter of apology to fans of the Liverpool football (soccer) club for their bad start and to do damage control for the decision to loan striker Andy Carroll to West Ham United without finding someone to replace him.

I’m pretty much summarizing what’s in this piece in the New York Times. I have no idea what Henry’s ownership group has or hasn’t done with Liverpool and whether it’s positive or negative, explainable or ludicrous. I do know what’s gone on with the Red Sox, however, and even predicted it almost to the letter.

Henry’s had a busy and bad week as Liverpool’s struggles coincide with the Red Sox having lost 7 straight games on a West Coast swing—so bad that Henry flew to Seattle along with GM Ben Cherington to meet with manager Bobby Valentine. Speculation was rampant that flying cross-country signified that Valentine was about to be fired. He wasn’t and the Red Sox nightmarish season continued with Valentine as they again lost to the Mariners.

It’s not simply that the Red Sox are losing, but they’ve become resigned to losing and to this hellish season that is thankfully coming to an end. In all of his years as a manager in both the U.S. and Japan, in the majors and minors, Valentine has always put forth the optimistic, upbeat, and confident tone of knowing what he’s doing is right and that if he keeps trying, eventually things will fall into place. This season has sapped that from him. Valentine looks to be a man who knows his fate, and in some respects wants it to happen. Yes, there will be the embarrassment of having come back to the dugout amid much fanfare and presided over a disaster. No, he’s probably not going to get another chance to manage. After this, I’m not sure he wants one. The Red Sox are an infighting, unlikable monstrosity. It’s hard to picture Valentine managing the team when they home on Friday and presumably, he’s waiting for the axe to fall and will be grateful when it does. His contract runs through next season, so he’ll get paid whether he’s dealing with this aggravation or not.

The manager gets the credit and takes the blame and a portion of this is Valentine’s fault, but the Red Sox season wouldn’t have gone any differently in the won/loss column had they hired Pete Mackanin, Dale Sveum, John Farrell, Sandy Alomar Jr., or Gene Lamont. Valentine has become a convenient scapegoat for what’s gone wrong, but in the end it’s the players.

The purpose of Henry’s flight to Seattle is unknown. From the outside it appeared to be a pretentious, “Look I’m doing something,” effort. Perhaps he should’ve flown from Seattle to Liverpool to try to get a handle on his other mess.

Henry’s apologies and pledges to fix what’s gone wrong with both franchises will be of little consolation to fans who’ve grown as accustomed to success as those of the Red Sox and Liverpool. It’s a toss-up as to which fanbase of the teams owned by Fenway Sports Group (FSG) is more passionate and, at this point, angry. But the season for Liverpool just started and their fans hold out hope that something good can result from their anger. Unfortunately for Liverpool, there are no diversions to catch their attention if that doesn’t work any better than it did for Red Sox fans. Liverpool fans need only look at what’s happened in Boston and gaze into a possible future that was overseen by the same man—the man who keeps apologizing. Red Sox fans accepted their reality long ago and are waiting for the beheadings to begin with their baseball team as they look toward the NFL season and the Patriots.

The Fenway Sports Group doesn’t own them.

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Your Alternate Red Sox Universe

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You’ve all heard and read about the Red Sox players running to ownership to complain about Bobby Valentine. Analysis of this is rampant, but I’m going to do something different. Let’s say that Terry Francona wasn’t forced out and as a corollary to that decision, Theo Epstein stayed on as GM to fulfill the final year of his contract. What would the Red Sox look like right now without Valentine as manager; without Ben Cherington in this no-win situation and having his power usurped by Larry Lucchino; without the moves they made to patch over holes while keeping the foundation of the team intact?

Epstein said that his future with the Red Sox was tied to Francona. Epstein was entering the final year of his contract and, in a benevolently arrogant Theo way, would’ve done the Red Sox a favor and stayed under those terms contingent on Francona being retained as manager.

I think Francona wanted freedom from the out-of-control nuthouse and expectations the Red Sox had become. I think his desire to leave was due to his physical and mental health. What had once been appreciated was no longer so; in a state of World Series win or bust, there’s no enjoyment, only relief in winning or devastation in losing. Francona had had it.

I also think Epstein wanted out. Whether it was to escape the pressure of his hometown and the victories that had turned into a burden or that he wanted a new challenge, he needed to move on. Both achieved their ends. Francona is able to sit in an ESPN booth and luxuriate in the accolades of what he presided over and be absolved of the blame for the lack of discipline, overt disrespect, poor play, and questionable decisions that led to the 2011 collapse and set the stage for the exodus.

Is it something new for voices in the Red Sox organization to unload on employees who’ve departed by choice or by force? They did it with Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Johnny Damon, and now Francona. This offended the players? It’s par for the course. They ripped David Ortiz and Jason Varitek before both decided to stay. In 2005 Epstein left in a power grabbing snit and came back. It’s the way things go in Boston. The “grand returns as beloved conquering heroes” for these star players as if there was no bad blood is inherent and hypocritical. It’s not going to change.

Would the 2012 team be different with Epstein and Francona? Would Josh Beckett be pitching better? Would Jon Lester? Would they have moved forward with Kevin Youkilis?

Considering how he views the closer role as easily replaceable, I can tell you now that Epstein would not have traded Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey. Epstein would also have blunted Lucchino’s incursion into the baseball operations. But it was Epstein who put together the 2011 team. It was Epstein who paid over $100 million for Daisuke Matsuzaka; signed Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Bobby Jenks. Most of the roster and the players who are underperforming and throwing tantrums were brought in by Epstein. It was Francona who let the players run roughshod over all propriety and behave as if they were entitled to do whatever they wanted just because. To think that the club would be better now if Francona and Epstein had stayed is ignoring the fundamental issues that caused the 2011 collapse in the first place.

Both Epstein and Francona can feel badly for players they have affinity for and who played hard for them like Dustin Pedroia, but privately don’t you think they’re wallowing in what the Red Sox are going through now? Loving it? Sitting there with smug half-smiles as they’ve moved along and their former organization is teetering on the brink of revolution?

The Red Sox are 57-60 and are not making the playoffs. It would be the same circumstances with different actors in the drama if Epstein and Francona had stayed. If that had happened, Epstein’s expiring contract would be the hot topic of discussion and those who are looking back on Francona’s tenure with the remembrances of a long-lost love would’ve called for his head in May and the Red Sox would’ve had no choice but to fire him. Do you think the players would’ve defended him? Or, just as they leaked the meeting with ownership regarding Valentine, would they be privately saying that the clubhouse had tuned Francona out and a change needed to be made?

This is not a good team. Valentine has brought on many of the problems himself because of who and how he is, but the players were ready to mutiny the second he was hired before even talking to him and it was all based on reputation. He was a bad choice to patch over the holes that led to the massive changes, but it was either make structural changes to the personnel or put a Band-Aid on them and try to find someone who they felt would handle the stat-studded roster they were stuck with. It hasn’t worked, but they wouldn’t be in a better position with Francona; with Gene Lamont; with Dale Sveum; with John Farrell; with anyone.

The issue of the players failing to look in the mirror and accepting that they’re part of the problem still remains sans Francona and Epstein and with Valentine targeted for elimination. Beckett refused to take responsibility for being out of shape, arrogant and selfish last season and the same issues are in play now. Adrian Gonzalez’s looking toward the heavens and referencing God’s plan at the conclusion of 2011 along with him having been the star player for three teams that have collapsed and his whining about Valentine are validating the perception that he’s not a leader and has a preference to being a background player rather than the out-front star.

Is Valentine to blame for Beckett? For Lester? For Daniel Bard? For Crawford?

No. But he’s the scapegoat.

Red Sox ownership is going to have to confront these hard truths. Yes, they can fire Valentine and install whomever as the new manager, but is that going to fix things? Will the players suddenly rediscover a work ethic that’s sorely lacking? And if Pedroia is so hell-bent on winning and doing things the “right” way, why didn’t he confront the players who were clearly acting in a manner that was diametrically opposed to winning and was affecting the team negatively last September?

The team doesn’t need a new manager. It needs a mirror. A big one.

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Larry Lucchino’s Letter to Red Sox Season Ticket Holders

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If Red Sox fans weren’t overly concerned about their club’s mediocre first half, clear lack of a coherent plan and inability of organizational factions to get on the same page, then the latest news should wake them up with the cold fear of a premonition of an oncoming natural disaster that they can neither avoid nor stop.

Team President/CEO Larry Lucchino sent the following letter to season ticket holders.

Dear Season Ticket Holder:

As we cross the midpoint of our 2012 season, we thank you for your loyal support thus far. We met many of you at our new spring home, JetBlue Park at Fenway South, and renewed more acquaintances as we opened the 100th Anniversary season at Fenway Park.  We sensed that the nostalgia touched you, and we hope to continue to celebrate this special anniversary from time to time throughout the year.

Our play on the field has at times tested the mettle of the faithful.  It could be maddening one day, enthralling the next day.  Along the way, we have seen our bullpen gel, young players emerge, and veterans lead.  We have watched the team coalesce into a close group.  Personalities are enhancing the chemistry, such as the cheerful Cody Ross, the friendly Mike Aviles, and the inspiring story of Daniel Nava.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia has shown power, in the clutch, worthy of an All-Star.  And as the talented Will Middlebrooks forced his way into the lineup, we bade farewell, with gratitude, to Kevin Youkilis, who helped us win two World Championships.

The one constant on the field has been our beloved Big Papi, David Ortiz.  How thrilled we were that our gregarious leader reached the 400-home run plateau in a career that we hope will forever be with the Red Sox.

The one constant off the field is that we have had a veritable All-Star Team on the disabled list.  As we begin the second half, we look forward to the return of the “varsity,” including Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Andrew Bailey, and the ever-dirty Dustin Pedroia.

While this infusion of such talent in late July may make other General Managers green with envy, you can be sure that Ben Cherington and his Baseball Operations Staff will approach the July 31 trading deadline with their tireless work ethic.  If someone can further help this club, and if the deal makes sense, we will be aggressive.  We want to play October Baseball this year.

Meanwhile, as you come to Fenway Park throughout this season, we hope you will come early—the secret to fully enjoying a sports venue.  Now “A Living Museum,” Fenway Park probably leads the league in bronze plaques and commemorative displays along the concourses.  Enjoy them at your leisure early, well before the escalation of excitement as game time approaches.  And as always, if you have reactions, suggestions, or ideas that will make the ballpark experience even better, we invite you to send them to fanfeedback@redsox.com.

By the way, if we’re in your neighborhood for a visit during “Acts of Kindness Month” this month, please come over and say hello.  We enjoy listening to you, and we enjoy talking baseball with you.  We’re your biggest fans.  So, on behalf of John Henry, Tom Werner, our partners, and our entire organization, we thank you again, and we look forward to seeing you at Fenway Park.

Keep the Faith,

Larry Lucchino

I’ll ignore the obvious laughlines like “cheerful Cody Ross,” “friendly Mike Aviles,” and “the return of the ‘varsity’”. What would concern me if I were a Red Sox fan is that Lucchino is sending a letter like this out in the first place and is implying that the Red Sox are going to be “aggressive” at the trading deadline in order to play October baseball this year.

There are times to be aggressive and there are times to hold one’s fire, wait and let things play out without chasing the past—a past that had the Red Sox in legitimate title contention for almost the entire decade of 2000 to 2011. I don’t see this letter as an organizational boss assuaging the concerns of an angry (and somewhat spoiled) fanbase. I see it as the man behind the scenes putting his voice out there in the public and pulling levers to make sure he’s having a significant influence in team construction.

This is a problem that’s been ongoing since the departure of Theo Epstein and will continue until owner John Henry steps in and lets someone—anyone—take charge as he did with Epstein. The letter is not baseball related and coincides with the series of decisions that were made last winter to try and patch over the issues that caused the self-destruction on and off the field of a club that, before the fact, was compared to the 1927 Yankees.

There’s no one in charge and willing to say, “I’m in charge.” Cherington’s certainly not running things because if he was, Bobby Valentine would not be the manager. And that’s not a defense of Cherington’s preferred choices because neither John Farrell nor Dale Sveum are lighting up the world with their baseball brilliance as the respective managers of the Blue Jays and Cubs.

Lucchino wanted Valentine, again, to have a “name” to replace Terry Francona and lay down the law that the lack of discipline that was blamed for the club’s demise last season wouldn’t happen again. Naturally Valentine has butted heads with the veterans and his almost immediate battle with Youkilis greased the skids for Youkilis’s departure from the team. Not that that’s a bad thing. Even though they gave him away, they probably should’ve traded Youkilis over the winter to shake things up before the inevitable happened with Valentine.

Lucchino sending out this letter to keep the season ticket holders happy is indicative of a fanbase that’s gotten so greedy that they’re blind to the reality that they’ve become mirror images of that which they despise more than anything: the Yankees. Do they need to be given assurances that the Red Sox are going to try and win? Wasn’t the breaking of The Curse in 2004 and another championship 3 years later enough to keep them happy for awhile? To maintain loyalty and, even if the team isn’t performing up to expectations and lofty payroll, ensure that the season ticket holders will keep their plans intact due to reciprocal appreciation?

Like him or not, Lucchino helmed the rise of the Red Sox and was a major part of turning Fenway Park into a rebuilt place to be where the tickets were hot rather than an aging and dilapidated relic with players, coaches, managers and front office people who only cared about themselves. If a lean year or two is necessary for the greater good and to prevent the whole thing from crashing to the ground, isn’t it worth it to accept that and say, “We’ll take an 81-81 season if it means we’ll be contending for a title in 2014 or 2015”?

Epstein was a check on Lucchino. Cherington can’t be that same check. Now there’s no one in command and no single voice to put a stop to a lunatic maneuver designed to steal the headlines for a week, perhaps help the club win 2 more games than they would have otherwise and wind up in the exact same position they would’ve been in had they been prudent and held onto whatever assets they surrendered to make that incremental and meaningless “improvement”.

As the head of the organization, Lucchino is addressing fan concerns and trying to please his customers, but the customer isn’t always right and because the fans want the Red Sox to do something drastic doesn’t mean it’s wise. There’s a difference between compromising within reason for the constituency and compromising for expediency and self-immolating in the process. If he’s going to try and make sure his word is proven true and Cherington and the baseball people are forced to do something they don’t want to do, it’s only going to make the current predicament worse. Except now it won’t be short-term, it will be long term, deep and that much harder to dig their way out of.

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National League Central—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

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Cincinnati Reds

Reds’ GM Walt Jocketty is a buyer and wants to win now. The Reds have what it takes to go far in the playoffs with a deep starting rotation and bullpen and mashers in the middle of their lineup. They’re still in need of a bat at shortstop, third base or in the outfield. The only position where they should consider a long-term solution is third base and that’s where they should make a move on Chase Headley. Jocketty and Padres’ GM Josh Byrnes came together on a mutually advantageous blockbuster last winter when the Reds acquired Mat Latos so they’re able to come to consensus on deals.

Apart from Headley, short-term upgrades in centerfield or at shortstop would be better than more expensive, longer-term options. If the Phillies put Shane Victorino on the block, he’d be a positive addition. At shortstop, Stephen Drew of the Diamondbacks is absolutely available. An extra lefty for the bullpen would be of use with Joe Thatcher and Jose Mijares attractive targets.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates have to decide whether they’re going for it with a bomb or going for it with short precision passes.

What I mean by that is if they’re going for it with a bomb, then their top prospects Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole would have to be on the table. The “bomb” type players they could acquire would include Justin Upton, Starlin Castro, Giancarlo Stanton or a similar young bat.

A shorter pass would include Drew or Carlos Quentin.

The Pirates are legitimate contenders and do need a bat, but I would not gut the system to get it. Another concern of mine would be messing with team chemistry by trading for a star player who’s going to be with the club longer than for the rest of this season. They’ve charted a course and need to stick to it because it’s working.

St. Louis Cardinals

GM John Mozeliak has proven himself to be aggressive in the fact of overwhelming odds to the point that he was perceived as desperate and delusional at the trading deadline last season when he made his one marketable young player, Colby Rasmus, the centerpiece of the deal that got them Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel.

Will the Cardinals make a similar decision this season? Tony LaRussa is gone and it’s doubtful that Mike Matheny’s voice will elicit the same wearing down effect that LaRussa’s whining and organizational politicking did.

The Cardinals are leading the league in runs scored but should bolster their bench with a Ty Wigginton or Jason Giambi. They need a starting pitcher and have the prospects to get Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels. I can’t imagine the Cubs trading Ryan Dempster or anyone else to the Cardinals. For the bullpen, they could look to the Mariners for Brandon League; the Athletics for Grant Balfour; the Padres for Thatcher, Huston Street or former Cardinals’ prospect Luke Gregerson; or the Rockies for Matt Belisle or Rafael Betancourt.

I don’t think the Cardinals are legitimate contenders as currently constructed and will fade without improving the pitching.

Milwaukee Brewers

Mixed signals are coming from Milwaukee. Like the Phillies, they’re waiting and listening. Francisco Rodriguez just replaced the struggling John Axford as closer, but K-Rod is a free agent at the end of the year and would bring back a couple of prospects from a team like the Angels or Rangers. There’s speculation that Greinke is hurt after he was pushed back from his start to “recharge his batteries”—whatever that means. They’re supposedly accepting offers for a free agent they signed last winter, Aramis Ramirez.

I don’t think they know what they are at present.

The problem the Brewers have is that their farm system is essentially gutted and they put everything into winning last season and didn’t. The next two weeks will determine the remainder of 2012, but they have to be open to trading Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, K-Rod, Ramirez and calculate the draft pick compensation they’d get for Greinke in comparison to what teams are offering.

They’re not out of contention…yet. Considering where they’re heading with a rebuild/retool on the way after this season, they might be better off adding a Drew, Victorino or Bryan LaHair rather than clean house.

Chicago Cubs

Everything must go.

They’ve denied it, but I think they will absolutely be willing to trade Castro. When the manager of the team, Dale Sveum, has to bench a player and have that player sit next to him to explain why things are happening on the field and quiz him about where he should be in certain situations and what he should be doing, he’s not a Theo Epstein-type of self-starter who plays the game correctly. Castro’s extremely talented, accumulates hits and makes a sparkling play here and there, but he’s not good.

Matt Garza doesn’t have to be traded and that makes him more valuable since he’s under team control through 2013. Dempster’s getting traded; LaHair might get traded; if he was hitting, Geovany Soto would be in heavier demand than he is and might get traded anyway. They should do whatever they can to get rid of Alfonso Soriano and if that means accepting the sunk cost of his contract and paying him off, so be it. Someone might be willing to take a chance that a change of scenery would help the strikeout/walk-machine, on-again/off-again closer Carlos Marmol.

Houston Astros

GM Jeff Luhnow got a couple of useful pieces for Carlos Lee. They were willing to listen on Jed Lowrie, but Lowrie’s hurt. Brett Myers is marketable as is Brandon Lyon. Wesley Wright will be in play as a lefty reliever. The opinions on Wandy Rodriguez are varied and vast. I’ve always liked him and think he’d be a good addition to a team with a solid defense and playing in a park where it’s not easy to hit home runs like the Mets, Angels, Dodgers and Marlins.

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Would Terry Francona Have Basis for a Lawsuit Against the Red Sox?

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In an interview with WEEI radio, former Red Sox manager Terry Francona lashed out against the person or persons who leaked the story that painkillers were an issue for him this season—Boston.com story.

Given his anger at how the Red Sox slammed him on the way out the door and the anonymous sources that suggested Francona had a prescription drug problem, does the former manager have a case to sue the Red Sox and the Boston Globe for slander and libel respectively?

There were two openings that Francona was up for following his departure from the Red Sox. One was with the Cubs and the other the Cardinals.

The man who hired him in Boston, Theo Epstein, is now the team president of the Cubs; presumably Epstein knew the whole story with Francona’s pain medication and what really happened in Boston; but the Cubs chose Dale Sveum as their manager. That doesn’t say anything about Francona personally; Sveum is a good choice and probably a better fit for the Cubs in their current state.

Francona was asked about it in his interview to manage the Cardinals. The Cardinals were a solid landing spot for a proven manager. We’ll never know whether his failure to get that job had something to do with the allegations—the Cardinals wouldn’t admit it if it did—but the idea of it being a reason they didn’t select him can’t be dismissed out of hand as they chose the neophyte Mike Matheny over Francona.

Francona is now out of work. His contract with the Red Sox was technically not renewed so he wasn’t fired. Having acquitted himself well as a broadcaster during the ALCS filling in for Tim McCarver, he’ll be a broadcaster in 2012 and those jobs tend to pay well.

He’s very well-liked as a person as well and if he grew desperate, he could find employment without being the manager of a team; Francona worked in the Indians front office after he was fired as Phillies manager and was a bench coach for the Athletics. But it’s a major comedown financially and in stature for a manager with Francona’s pedigree of two World Series wins to have to grovel to sit next to a manager who is undoubtedly not going to have the resume that Francona does.

This is different than the Red Sox saying Nomar Garciaparra was being a petulant, self-indulgent baby when they traded him; somewhat different from saying Pedro Martinez‘s arm wasn’t going to hold up for the length of a 4-year contract and claiming the Jason Bay‘s knees and subpar defense made him a poor signing for the amount of money and years he wanted and wound up getting from the Mets.

This is what the Red Sox do; they continued the tradition by saying negative things about Francona to justify the parting of ways as a means of self-protection for the inevitable backlash for letting the popular manager go.

If Francona has a doctor to back up his version of events and he doesn’t get a managerial position when he chooses to truly pursue one, would he have legal recourse to say the Red Sox impugned his reputation and cost him other opportunities?

I said at the time that the Red Sox—with the amount of money they spent on the 2011 team and the horrific collapse stemming in large part from lax discipline on the part of Francona—had a right to make a change if they felt another manager would handle the club better on and off the field.

But they didn’t have to spread these stories.

Could Francona sue the Red Sox?

It would be a bad idea. This is baseball. A lawsuit might lead to him being blackballed to a greater degree than an addiction; but if he feels they’re doing this intentionally and whispering lies to hurt his career in an effort to look better themselves, he has a legal right to look into it seriously if he has to.

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The Sarah Palin Effect and Baseball Nuance

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The Brewers have hired Johnny Narron as their new hitting coach to replace new Cubs manager Dale Sveum.

This gives them two Narrons on the coaching staff—bench coach Jerry Narron along with Johnny.

I’m not being snarky when I ask whether Keith Law has finally realized that Johnny Narron and Jerry Narron are not the same person.

In 2007, when the Rangers acquired Josh Hamilton, Law wrote a piece for ESPN about the move suggesting that they hire the “former Rangers manager” Johnny Narron as a “support system” for Hamilton given Johnny’s relationship with Hamilton in prior years as he recovered from substance abuse issues.

It made perfect sense.

The problem was that it was Johnny’s brother Jerry who was the former Rangers (and Reds) manager. It wouldn’t have been as glaring an error but for Law’s status as a “baseball insider”.

I wrote a blog posting in my loooong-ago blogging home MLBlogs that was indeed snarky—link.

But I’ve evolved since then. Slightly.

Law’s posting was later edited to correct the mistake. But that’s not the point.

There are factual errors and there’s are screwups.

This was a screwup stemming from an empty vault.

Jerry Narron shouldn’t be an unknown quantity for someone who fancies himself as enough of a baseball expert to comment on everything from scouting to stats to player moves to how stupid GMs of today are. In fact, it was Jerry Narron who, along with Brad Gulden, replaced Thurman Munson as one of the Yankees regular catchers for the remainder of the 1979 season after the Yankee captain’s tragic death in a plane crash.

This reminded me of a brief and not unfriendly back-and-forth I had with a fellow Twitter user about Joe Buck. I’d said something to the tune of, “we all know how Joe Buck wound up in the position he’s in” alluding to his father, Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck. The other user, a relatively known blogger attached to ESPN and angling for a position in a baseball front office, said Joe Buck was in his current position because his dad was a former ballplayer.

How, if you want to be a baseball executive, do you not know enough basic baseball history to understand who Jack Buck was and what he was famous for?

It’s the Sarah Palin effect and the nuance of knowledge.

You can cram all the bits of information into anyone’s brain to try and make them sound like they have a baseline comprehension of whatever’s going on, but that doesn’t imply actual knowing—knowing by observation and retaining information as a matter of course through in the trenches work.

It’s why the armchair analysts who have the audacity to sit in front of their computer screens and criticize Tony LaRussa by implying what they would do were they in his position sound so ludicrous.

It’s not about making the statistically viable decision in every circumstance—it’s about handling people and accessing an accumulated experience to do what might seem unconventional or difficult to explain, but works.

This can’t be accrued by regurgitating scouting terminology and being an “expert” in name only; it comes from years-and-years of involvement. If the former governor of Alaska did something as elementary as reading the newspaper on a daily basis, she wouldn’t have had to go through mock debates with her benefactors on suicide watch and praying for the best possible scenario (or a fire) that she not humiliate them with a ridiculous gaffe that a 2nd grader would know was inaccurate.

It’s the same thing in baseball.

Studying statistics and being able to sound like you know what you’re talking about doesn’t make it so.

It’s why a numbers cruncher has no business walking into then-Padres manager Bruce Bochy‘s office and suggesting he bat pitcher Woody Williams second.

It’s why you have to know who Jack Buck, Red Barber, Russ Hodges and Mel Allen were.

And it’s why you should know who a fringe player who replaced a fallen hero and became a big league manager is and that he and his brother are two separate people.

Either you know it or you don’t; and most of those who are accorded credibility in today’s era of internet journalism and repetitive, circular factoids plainly and simply don’t.

It’s easy to tell the difference if you’re actually listening and know what you’re talking about yourself.

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