MLB Trade Deadline: Relievers and the Eric Gagne-Jesse Crain Parallel

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It’s safe to say the two veteran relief pitchers the Red Sox just signed to minor league contracts, Brandon Lyon and Jose Contreras, won’t be the missing pieces to their hoped-for 2013 championship puzzle. Suffice it to also say that neither will pitch as terribly as Eric Gagne did when the Red Sox surrendered three players to get the veteran closer from the Rangers in 2007. If they do, it’s no harm/no foul.

The trade for Gagne was meant to create shutdown eighth and ninth innings with Gagne and Jonathan Papelbon and lead them to a World Series title. They won the title with no help from Gagne, who posted a 6.75 ERA with 26 hits allowed in 18 2/3 innings after the trade and pitched as badly in the post-season as he did in the regular season. In retrospect the trade wasn’t one in which the Red Sox are lamenting letting young players they needed get away.

For Gagne, they traded former first round draft pick outfielder David Murphy, lefty pitcher Kason Gabbard and young outfielder Engel Beltre. Murphy has been a good player for the Rangers, but the Red Sox haven’t missed him. Gabbard was a soft-tossing lefty whose career was derailed by injuries and actually wound up back with the Red Sox in 2010 for 11 Triple A appearances and hasn’t pitched since. If the Red Sox wind up regretting the trade it will because of Beltre who is still only 23, has speed, occasional pop and can play centerfield. Regardless of what happens with him, few will hold it against them for trading a 17-year-old in the quest of a championship that they wound up winning independent of Gagne’s terribleness.

The trade could have been far more disastrous than it was and it was due to the club overvaluing both the player they were getting and the importance of a relief pitcher who was not a closer. Interestingly, as written by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy in The Red Sox Years, the Red Sox original intention was to use Papelbon as a set-up man and install Gagne as the closer. They went so far as to go to Papelbon’s home prior to pulling the trigger to discuss the possibility of letting Gagne close. Papelbon objected and the club made the trade anyway to use Gagne as the set-up man. As the numbers show, it didn’t work and it might have been hellish had they made Gagne the closer by alienating Papelbon, angering a clubhouse and fanbase still harboring dreaded memories from the failed 2003 attempt at a closer-by-committee, and repeating a mistake that the Red Sox have—even today—continued to make in undervaluing a good and reliable closer.

No one is expecting Lyon or Contreras to be key contributors to a title run, but they’re “why not?” moves to see if they can get cheap production from a couple of veterans. It’s doubtful the Red Sox are going to give up a top prospect for a non-closer again. Already the club inquired with the Mets about Bobby Parnell and the Mets reportedly asked for Jackie Bradley Jr., to which the Red Sox wisely said no. The Mets are willing to move Parnell if they get that kind of offer but it’s hard to see that happening, so it’s unlikely that they trade him. However, one relief pitcher who is on the market and will be traded is Jesse Crain of the White Sox. What happened with Gagne should not be lost on a team hoping to bolster their relief corps by acquiring Crain.

Gagne, before the trade, was closing for the Rangers. He’d saved 16 games, posted a 2.16 ERA, struck out 29 in 33 1/3 innings and allowed 23 hits. For the White Sox this season Crain made the All-Star team and is in the midst of the year of his life with a 0.74 ERA, 31 hits allowed in 36 2/3 innings (with a .337 BAbip), 46 strikeouts, 11 walks and no homers. Crain has always been a solid set-up man, strikes out more than a batter-per-inning and is a free agent at the end of the season. He’s a good pitcher, but he’s not worth what the White Sox are going to want for him and might possibly get from a desperate team looking to help their bullpen. In reality, the team that acquires Crain won’t win the championship because of him if he pitches as well as he is now, nor will they lose it if he falls to earth.

There are times in which it’s worth it to give up the top prospect to get that last missing piece if the championship is the goal. The Marlins traded former first pick in the draft Adrian Gonzalez to get Ugueth Urbina in 2003. That trade is nowhere near as bad as it would’ve been if Gonzalez had blossomed for the Rangers and the Marlins hadn’t won the World Series, but the Rangers also traded Gonzalez (no one knew how good he really was), and the Marlins did win the World Series that year. They might’ve won it with or without Urbina, but the bottom-line perception is what counts and the title justifies anything they did to get it. It’s the same thing with Gagne. The Red Sox won the title, so nothing else really matters.

Will Crain yield that for the team that acquires him? Is it likely? Probably not on both counts. The only time to give up a significant piece for a known set-up man is if you’re getting Mariano Rivera from 1996 Yankees or the Rob Dibble/Norm Charlton combination from the 1990 Reds’ Nasty Boys. Other than that, a team is better off doing what the Red Sox did with Lyon and Contreras and tossing a dart at a dartboard or finding a reliever who isn’t in the midst of his career year as Crain is and hoping that a move to a contending team and more than a little luck turns into a “genius” move when it was exceedingly lucky.

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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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Radio Appearances and International Disarray

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Terry Francona went on Michael Kay’s ESPN radio show in an apparent attempt to do some damage control to repair his fading image as the innocent bystander in the Red Sox’ 2011 collapse and only succeeded in making things worse.

You can read about the appearance here on ESPN.com.

In the piece, it’s revealed that—shocker!!—Francona is working on a book with none other than reporter Dan Shaughnessy who also happened to pen the piece in which Francona aired his reasons for not attending the 100th anniversary celebration to commemorate Fenway Park.

I’m not sure which upcoming book is going to fire more vendetta-tinged salvos, Francona’s or Tony LaRussa’s.

For someone who’s viewed positively throughout baseball for his good guy persona, Francona is doing his best Gary Sheffield impersonation.

Those who remember Sheffield know that whenever a reporter needed a hot story, all he had to do was walk over to Sheffield and ask him about something that he’d insisted he wasn’t going to talk about. Sheffield would invariably reiterate that stance…then go into a long-winded rant about precisely what he said he wasn’t going to discuss. Sheffield’s reputation made it easy to dismiss his complaints whether they were valid or not. Francona’s the opposite.

Francona backtracked on his decision to go public with his gripes and then snatched Kay’s bait like a starving shark.

Here’s a clip from the above-linked ESPN article:

Kay also asked the question many around Boston have been wondering: “As you sit back on Thursday, April 12, and the Red Sox are 1-5, is there a part of you that’s absolutely elated?”

Francona laughed at first, but then said: “I wouldn’t say elated. I know what you mean, though. You know, everybody has human emotions … there are so many people there that I’ve gone through so many things with, that I care so much about. You know, somebody asked me yesterday and I said ‘I hope (Dustin) Pedroia hits 1.000 and I hope (Jon) Lester wins every game.’ … At the same time, I recognize the way things ended there didn’t make me very happy. And actually really hurt me. And I’m aware of that also. So, you try to balance it a little bit. But being vindictive is not a good way to go through life. And I hope I’m not that way.”

No, the Red Sox are not playing well. Yes, it’s natural for Francona to feel a certain amount of satisfaction that they’re going poorly without him. But this looks and sounds bad because it is bad in perception and practice.

Would the Red Sox be better with Francona? If Francona had stayed, Theo Epstein was going to stay as well, so the construction of the club would be radically different. We don’t know what they’d look like with a different GM and manager, who would and wouldn’t be on the team.

It’s a question that can’t be answered.

What he’s doing is distracting and unfair to the club that gave him an opportunity that other teams weren’t prepared to give him in a situation that was ready-made to win immediately.

It’s clearly intentional payback.

Regardless of how it ended with the Red Sox, Francona’s in a far better position now with a lot more money in the bank and industry-wide respect that wasn’t there when he was fired by the Phillies after a four-year tenure of 285-363.

He wasn’t hired by the Red Sox because they were expecting the reincarnation of Connie Mack. He was hired by the Red Sox because the Red Sox were trying to get Curt Schilling to agree to a trade to Boston and Francona was an agreeable choice to the pitcher; Francona was willing to take short money for the opportunity; and he would do what Grady Little didn’t do—take orders from the front office.

This labeling of Francona being a “great” manager is directly connected to the results he achieved. That Red Sox team in 2004 was very good and it wasn’t his mere presence that was the final piece in the championship puzzle. They would’ve been good with or without Francona.

The Red Sox have earned the right to celebrate their ballpark and try to right the ship on the field. Francona’s gloating makes him look petty and babyish and won’t be lost on any club that considers hiring him as their manager in the future. He may feel safe in his new broadcasting job and is trying to retaliate for the shoddy manner in which he was treated when the Red Sox let him go, but he’s making himself look terrible and it’s casting the Red Sox in a far more sympathetic light than they were in before.

Francona needs to shut up.

Period.

On another Red Sox-related note, the football club their ownership purchased that was supposedly siphoning money away from the Red Sox—Liverpool FC—has made their own change at the top. This clip is from the NY Times:

Liverpool dismissed its director of football, Damien Comolli, after criticism of his transfer strategy since he was hired 16 months ago. Liverpool has spent $183 million on players since Comolli joined the club, but expensive recruits like Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing have failed to impress.

You can read analysis of this maneuver here.

Is Comolli going to go on Kay’s show? Will he write a book?

The mess has gone international and it shows no signs of abating any time soon.

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