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.
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
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
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
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?
4% at fault
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