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 Should Just Fire Valentine Now

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The Red Sox 2012 season is a washout. We all know that. More importantly, they know that. Already they’ve publicly said that Bill James is going to take a more prominent role in the evaluation of players. Whether that’s to keep him from commenting about current events as he stupidly did regarding Joe Paterno or that they want his increased input is known only to them, but it sounds as if they’re looking at what went wrong not just in 2012, but also in 2011, 2010, and 2009.

In fact, the mistakes can be seen to have extended as far back as to 2005 when the cohesive chain-of-command took a hit with Theo Epstein’s tantrum and “resignation” amid a power struggle (which he won) with Larry Lucchino. The Red Sox were not intended to be a team that tossed money at all their problems in an effort to win every…single…season, but to build an organization that was a moneymaker, that developed their own players, that signed free agents that fit into their on-field template and off-field budget, and endured the valleys that came along with the decision to plot their own course rather than look for every star that was on the market and pay for it.

The winter of 2006-2007 can be lumped in there too. Even though they won the World Series in 2007, it was the checkbook that was perceived to have been the “why” for their second title in four years. In reality, the players they signed—Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew, and Daisuke Matsuzaka—didn’t do all that much to help them that season. In the long-term, Drew was of use, but the Red Sox would presumably have preferred do-overs on the other two as well as Eric Gagne, whom they acquired during the season. In subsequent years, the still had notable success, but the developmental train became secondary to signing free agents. Any season not culminating in a World Series win was a disappointment and nothing they did—losing game 7 of the 2008 ALCS; making the playoffs in 2009; overcoming endless injuries in 2010 to win 89 games—was good enough. So they spent, spent, spent on players who were essentially mercenaries and poor fits for Boston.

They dumped manager Terry Francona when the team collapsed; Epstein left; and they became a case study for the logical conclusion of the mistakes they made in incremental stages to create the nightmare of 2012. Manager Bobby Valentine is the epitome of everything that’s gone wrong even though a majority of the poison had infected the organization’s blood. They’ve dispatched Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford; Valentine isn’t going to be back in 2013. They’re getting back to their roots from over a decade ago.

For right now, however, there is an opportunity to salvage this season and make it memorable for something other than a disaster: They can do to the Yankees what the Orioles, Rays, and to a certain degree the Yankees, did to them a year ago by knocking the Yankees out of the playoffs.

The Red Sox are playing six games against the Yankees with a 3-game series in Boston beginning on Tuesday and the final three games of the season at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees are reeling; their fans and media sycophants are panicking and cuddling one another in a delusional group therapy session, counting the days until the season is over and hoping that their condescension and arrogance isn’t reverberating on them in the most cruel and ironic way by authoring a collapse similar to those experienced by their two most hated rivals, the Red Sox and Mets.

I can tell you right now that if the Yankees don’t win the AL East, they’re not making it to the Wild Card play-in game. The Red Sox can take part in that if they win half of those games against the Yankees. Can they do it? Not as they’re currently constructed, and by that I mean with Valentine as manager.

He’s going to be fired; he’s become the embodiment of this organizational downfall in spite of him having nearly nothing to do with it; after his interview on Wednesday in which a joke was blown out of proportion to sound as if it was an “ugly confrontation” with an obnoxious radio host, his time in Boston is coming to a merciful end. It makes no sense to move forward with him after tomorrow, especially with the Yankees series starting on Tuesday. The Red Sox talent level and effort is currently that of a last place team, which is what they might be by Monday. The Yankees are fighting for their playoff lives. The current Red Sox players presumably know they’ll have a new manager in 2013, but there’s a rampant disinterest in how they’re playing now; an expectation to lose. A portion of that might be not wanting to play well enough to leave any possibility that Valentine is going to return. They’re not tanking, but they’re not enthused either. Firing him now and replacing him with an empty uniform to run the team could provide a spark and wake them up for the last three weeks and those six games against the Yankees.

Would it feel better going into the winter laughing at the Yankees and their fans for enduring a collapse that’s worse than what the Red Sox and Mets suffered? Of course it would.

Keeping Valentine postpones the inevitable and could help the Yankees, so just pull the plug now. They could leave a better taste going into the winter by dragging the Yankees into the same abyss that they’re currently in. If they pull that off, most of 2012 will be forgotten.

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The Pirates Take Advantage of the Yankees

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The way a team like the Pirates has to function is by taking advantage of the big market clubs in the opposite fashion to the way those big market clubs take advantage of them. That’s what they did in getting A.J. Burnett—a talented and enigmatic arm—for just about nothing.

By design, by luck or both the Pirates aren’t the desolate wasteland they’ve been for most of the past 20 years.

That’s not to suggest they’re contenders, but they’ve taken some steps to create a viable big league club rather than a punching bag and target for looting by the bullies at the trading deadline.

We’ll never know what would’ve happened had the Pirates won the 19-inning game against the Braves on July 26th in which home plate ump Jerry Meals made one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen in my life by declaring Julio Lugo safe on a play at the plate where he was clearly out by a mile.

At the time, the Pirates were one of the pleasant surprises in all of baseball with a record of 53-47 and tied for first place in the NL Central.

They lost the next game in 10 innings, won the finale of the Braves series then proceeded to lose 10 in a row and 14 out of 16.

Can one game affect an entire season if it’s sufficiently draining, emotional and so egregious an error on the part of an outside force?

I say it can.

Naturally as the Pirates came undone, the “experts” made their snide comments to the tune of, “Remember when the Pirates were ‘contenders’?” as if they knew what was going to happen.

Well, they didn’t know. They were validating their preseason analysis of the Pirates where they’d lose close to 100 games. It was ego, not contextualized understanding. It’s similar to taking credit for the Cardinals winning the World Series when almost the whole roster was turned over at mid-season. The team that was analyzed in the preseason wasn’t the team that won the World Series, so how do you take credit for it?

The Cardinals were essentially finished by August 31st, 8 1/2 games behind in the NL Central and the Wild Card. Helped along by the Braves collapse and their own hot streak, they made the playoffs and wound up winning the World Series.

It’s post-event gloating to say one was “right” about something when there was nothing to be right about.

No, the Pirates didn’t have the personnel to hang with the upper echelon teams in the National League, but maybe with that win against the Braves, they could’ve finished at 82-80 rather than 72-90. How would that have looked on the resume of manager Clint Hurdle and in the scope of their rebuilding process? It certainly would’ve helped their young players to be part of a winning team and for available free agents to stop seeing the Pirates as a last ditch destination and instead a place where they could go to possibly be part of a renaissance for what was once a great baseball town.

The Pirates wound up at 72-90, but Hurdle’s clubhouse discipline (his biggest attribute is that he doesn’t take crap) did help the team look and play better. That doesn’t show up in any numerical formula and until someone comes up with a Not Taking Crap metric, we won’t be able to judge it.

Now the Pirates have traded for Burnett, gotten the Yankees to take two very low-level prospects and pay a massive chunk ($20 million) of Burnett’s salary.

Out of necessity, they’re signing oft-injured and talented arms like Erik Bedard and trading for Burnett. But in the best-case scenario, they’ll get good work from the veteran pitchers and show improvement in the standings. Middle-case, they’ve got players to trade at the deadline for a better return that what they gave up to get them.

They’re probably not going to get the great bullpen work they did last season; they haven’t upgraded the offense and are relying on improvement from Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, plus the continued rise of Andrew McCutchen; but their rotation with Burnett, Bedard, James McDonald, Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton is okay and Joel Hanrahan is a top closer.

The NL Central is vulnerable. The Cardinals are in serious flux; the Brewers are waiting out the news whether they’ll be without Ryan Braun for 50 games; the Reds are good, but short in depth.

If everything goes well, the Pirates could finish in third place and over .500.

Considering their circumstances, that’s very, very good and it’s refreshing that they used the Yankees’ desperation to get rid of Burnett to their own benefit.

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The Papelbon Aftershocks

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Let’s separate the Jonathan Papelbon aftershocks by reaction and affect.

Jonathan Papelbon

Papelbon has never been fully appreciated for how good he’s been—especially by the Red Sox.

He has a clean motion; the post-season history of success; has done the job in a smothering atmosphere of scrutiny; is durable; throws strikes; and is an accountable team player.

Naturally, as they usually do, the Red Sox will start talking about some phantom malady that “concerned” them; in this case it will be Papelbon’s shoulder. A shoulder for which he’s missed zero time since 2006.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story with Papelbon. Because his blowups generally include 4-5 games a season where he’ll allow a crooked number of 3-5 runs, his ERA and ERA+ are always higher than they’d normally be if the lowest grades were dropped.

It’s a simplistic and self-serving effort to bolster a narrow argument to say that Papelbon is a “fly ball pitcher” and his home games being played in Citizens Bank Park will yield a larger number of home runs. His splits between fly balls and ground balls are negligible and slightly higher for fly balls; but he also strikes out over 10 hitters per 9 innings.

He’s a strikeout pitcher with a searing fastball and a vicious splitter.

He allowed 3 homers all season in 2011; 2 in Fenway Park (9th in homers out of all ballparks in baseball) and 1 in Cleveland (tied for 11th in homers).

The ballpark in Philadelphia is not going to be an issue for Papelbon; nor will the tough fans, the expectant media and the pressure of a championship or bust team upon whose hopes may ride on his shoulders.

He’s been through it before and come through repeatedly.

Philadelphia Phillies

This is as simple as it gets.

The Phillies have a superlative starting rotation; they’re old; they have money to spend and a short window to win another championship or two.

They spent a reported $50 million on the top closer on the market after the breakdown in negotiations for Ryan Madson.

They’ve acquired a known quantity for slightly more money than Madson’s asking price.

It’s a championship or nothing for the Phillies. With their success or failure no longer based on a winning season or making the playoffs, they needed someone they trust in the playoffs and World Series. Papelbon gives them that.

Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have a compulsive, fervent, almost blindly faithful reluctance to accept the fact that they need a legitimate closer to win.

They never appreciated what they had in Papelbon even after having endured the nightmares of 2003 and 2005 when they didn’t have a closer and it cost them dearly; they tried to go with the closer-by-committee nonsense again in 2007 and were saved from themselves by Papelbon seeing where the team was headed and offering to move back to the bullpen after an ill-advised spring stint as a starter.

Papelbon could’ve been signed to an extension, but the club never broached the subject with any seriousness. This is while they tossed money into the trash for Daisuke Matsuzaka, Matt Clement, Bobby Jenks and Julio Lugo.

They paid Keith Foulke $20 million over three years for what amounted to one season of production—and he was worth it because they won a championship they wouldn’t have won without him.

They’re not overspending to replace Papelbon; they’re not going after Ryan Madson and trust me when I say the Red Sox fans do not want Heath Bell.

Daniel Bard is fully capable of taking over for Papelbon in the regular season; but like the Phillies, the Red Sox metric is not the regular season, it’s the playoffs and that’s when Bard will be tested and judged…if the Red Sox get there at all.

Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan are more likely for the Red Sox to sign to cheap deals; they could try to trade for Joakim Soria or approach Theo Epstein to see if he’d like to move Carlos Marmol.

There won’t be a retaliatory strike of “we lost Papelbon so we need a ‘name’ to replace him”—that’s not what the Red Sox do.

Comparisons

B.J. Ryan and Papelbon are human beings; both pitched and made their living as short relievers; Ryan was 30 when he signed with the Blue Jays; Papelbon will be 31 next week.

Apart from that, I see zero connection between the two pitchers.

Ryan was lefty; Papelbon righty.

Ryan’s mechanics were among the worst I’ve ever seen; Papelbon’s are picture perfect.

Ryan was leaving an atrocious Orioles team and heading for a team that was a fringe contender at best with the Blue Jays; Papelbon’s going from one team that was picked for the World Series in 2011 to the other team that was picked for the World Series in 2011.

If there’s a legitimate comparison between two pitchers in this murky plot, it’s Madson and Ryan.

Madson’s mechanics are herky jerky and stressful—they’re not as bad as Ryan’s, but they’re not to be ignored as a non-issue either. Madson missed time with a strained shoulder in 2007.

Madson has been a closer for 2011 only; he hasn’t done it long-term; he is not a strikeout pitcher and uses different strategies with a fastball, cut fastball and excellent changeup than Papelbon does with his power fastball and strikeout-begetting split-finger.

It’s short-sighted and simplistic—the same accusations stat people levy against old-schoolers—to reference numbers as the final word without examining the other aspects of the overall equation—and I don’t mean numbers.

B.J. Ryan is not Jonathan Papelbon; Papelbon is not Ryan Madson.

There’s no connection other than the specious reasoning in equating contracts and variable statistics.

Some have suggested that Madson is “better” than Papelbon based on selective use of said statistics. Madson’s agent Scott Boras appeared close to completing another inexplicable financial coup with the $44 million rumored deal with the Phillies. That’s gone. Now Boras is going to whip out his Madson “book of accomplishments” and numbers crunching of his own to “prove” that his charge not only deserves a Papelbon contract, but more than a Papelbon contract.

The problem is there’s no one who’s going to give it to him.

I liken this situation to the Braves in 1997. Jeff Blauser was coming off a terrific season and was negotiating a new contract as a free agent. His agent was Scott Boras. Blauser felt he was worth the same money that Jay Bell received from the Diamondbacks ($35 million); Braves GM John Schuerholz reacted to this leap of logic by telling Blauser and Boras to take a hike and signed the superior defensive shortstop Walt Weiss. If Boras compares Madson to Papelbon and Mariano Rivera—and he will—any sane team is going to walk away.

Media/Fans

The one legitimate gripe from fans of other clubs is that the Phillies have blown up the market for closers with the Papelbon contract. That said, Papelbon was the number one guy on the market and he got the most money any closer is going to get. No one’s giving Madson that money or anywhere close to it. Nor should they.

Why the fans are worried about Papelbon’s years and dollars is beyond me. My criteria for a contract that’s too expensive is if a want precludes a need. If there’s an overpay for a want and you can’t buy what you need, it’s a bad deal.

The Phillies needed Papelbon and they bought him.

Everything else—the draft, the after-effects, the market—are subsidiary.

You cannot make the suggestion that Madson is “better” as Keith Law does, and then ignore his mechanical issues; you can’t dismiss the closer designation as a meaningless mental exercise as Jonah Keri does in playing up the Rays use of Kyle Farnsworth on the cheap while failing to mention that Rays manager Joe Maddon intentionally declined to name Farnsworth the “closer” because he didn’t want his skittish pitcher thinking about being the closer.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said that Madson wasn’t good at closing. He used him in the role out of necessity and, with a great sense of timing, Madson did well in 2011.

The Blue Jays erred in overpaying for Ryan. That won’t be replicated with Madson. Or Papelbon.

As for the suggestion that the Phillies don’t understand where they are and what they’re doing, it’s the height of outsider arrogance and “I’m smarter than you” pomposity.

They know.

They know that by 2014 they’re going to be ancient, super-expensive and probably on the downslide. Will it be worth it if the Phillies are hoisting a championship or two because of the players they have now? Absolutely. GM Ruben Amaro tried to maintain the farm system while simultaneously contending and keeping financial sanity and it didn’t work; the Red Sox tried to do it and it didn’t work.

They’re paying the price to win now and will pay in the future as well.

Papelbon is proven; he’s better; he’s what the Phillies needed; and they got him.

It’s not difficult to comprehend—tremors and madness irrelevant.

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The Red Sox Come Apart

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

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

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

But it happened.

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s real.

It happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was his life. And that was the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did this team collapse?

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

Why did Epstein jump ship rather than repair it?

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

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

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

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

What were the consequences?

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

It wasn’t working.

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

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

Where was the galvanizing force with the 2011 Red Sox?

There wasn’t one.

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

But it did.

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

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

But it’s not played on a computer.

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

Francona left before he could be dumped.

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

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

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

And it was.

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

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

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

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

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Challenges Are The Way To Go With Expanded Replay

Fantasy/Roto, Games, Management, Media, Players

In case you missed it, last night’s Pirates-Braves game ended on a controversial call by umpire Jerry Meals in which Julio Lugo was deemed safe when—by all angles—he appeared out.

You can see the clips and different angles below.

It was a horrible gaffe, but to suggest any malfeasance on the part of Meals is nonsense. Much like the reactionary idiocy surrounding Jim Joyce’s courageous (and wrong) call on the final out of Armando Galarraga‘s imperfect-perfect game, it was a mistake pure and simple.

Even the worst umpires don’t make it to the big league level with any essence of possible chicanery in their history. In short, Meals didn’t say Lugo was safe because it was the 19th inning and he wanted to leave. Like Joyce, the easier thing for Meals to do would’ve been to call the runner out.

As for the resurgence of demands for expanded instant replay, here’s my solution: the managers get one challenge per game. Independent of what’s already in place for reviewable calls for home runs, one challenge to be used at any time for the managers to protest.

That’s it.

No more than one.

Expanding replay to the degree that some are suggesting would take far too much time and—much like governmental intervention into too many aspects of our lives—where does it end?

One challenge. If Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had such an option, he could’ve used it in last night’s game. He didn’t, so now MLB is dealing with this debate again.

This is the simplest and most logical solution.

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