A Defense Of Josh Beckett

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Josh Beckett is not the first person to take umbrage with the Boston media and fans upon his departure from town. The fans were mostly supportive of him during his 6 ¾ seasons as a member of the Red Sox and the team, aside from the last calendar year, was a legitimate championship contender every season. Beckett replied to the allegations that have hovered over him since the beer and chicken debacle and members of the indicted borgata known as the Red Sox organization began ratting each other out and blaming everyone but themselves for the team’s failures to get a lighter sentence in the court of public opinion. That extends from the top with John Henry, down to Larry Lucchino, through to Theo Epstein, Terry Francona, and the players.

Is Beckett as innocent as he portrays himself in this interview with Rob Bradford? Is he misunderstood? Does he have a justification for being upset at the way he was treated? Was he at fault for what happened from last September to his departure?

It’s a combination of all of the above.

Beckett is not a likable person. He puts forth the image of a bully who can’t walk away from an argument without getting the last word. Many times, when such a person gets the last word, he feels as if that’s a “victory” when it’s little more than the other party walking away because they don’t want to fight anymore.

He’s also been a fine pitcher from whom the Red Sox got, mostly, solid performances throughout his tenure. If he makes the argument in defense of the way he and the other starting pitchers behaved during their off days with the oft-repeated stories of beer, chicken and video games in the clubhouse by saying, “We were doing all of that stuff while the team was winning, so why was it an issue when they were losing?” it’s not an absurd assertion to make, but like the interview, he probably would’ve been better served to keep quiet about it or utter the politically correct, “I enjoyed my time in Boston. We had a lot of success and I made some mistakes that I’d like to do over. It ended badly, but I hope the fans and organization look back on my career there and see it positively.”

But that’s not Beckett.

Part of the negative portrayal of Beckett stems from him appearing as the prototypically arrogant and spoiled athlete who doesn’t see anything as his fault. It’s only a matter of time before he unloads on manager Bobby Valentine because he was “asked about it.” Whether he openly says it or implies it, he will somehow vindicate former manager Francona when Francona is as much at fault as to what went wrong in 2011 as anyone else. Compounding this fact is how Beckett’s behavior as the point man in the clubhouse activities, that he was out of shape, and pitched poorly was a significant factor in the Red Sox collapse and Francona’s subsequent dismissal. Francona let them do what they wanted as long as they played hard and won; the players betrayed Francona by not playing all that hard and by losing. A lack of discipline was seen as a catalyst to the fall, and they brought in someone who’s known for discipline. The holdover players didn’t want to be disciplined, refused to be disciplined and had to go. There’s no blaming Valentine for that.

The post-Red Sox unleashing from whispers inside the organization has been in place under this regime and under every regime. That it’s the Red Sox exacerbates the situation because it’s a circular entity of the media stoking the fans; the fans forcing the front office to try and maintain their success at any cost; and the players getting fat literally and figuratively. This type of thing happens in every organization, but it’s not as noticeable because it’s not the Red Sox.

Beckett’s interview is being cast as the whining of a malcontent who doesn’t understand what he did wrong. I see it as more of an innocence of someone who views things in black and white. To put it succinctly, Beckett’s statements sound as if he’s saying, “I pitched good for you, why do you hate me?” “We were always allowed to hang around the clubhouse on days we weren’t pitching and doing whatever, why is it a problem now?” “I’m in pretty much the same shape when I’m losing as I am when I’m winning.”

The underlying theme of most of the critiques against him are saying, “He just doesn’t get it.” But it’s not due to a lack of understanding or arrogance. It’s the end unto itself and it’s definitive: He just doesn’t get it. Period.

It’s neither intentional nor is it malicious. Similar to the earth rotating around the sun, it simply is.

Both sides need to walk away and move on. The Red Sox have to let it go; the media has to look toward whatever fate awaits the Red Sox; and Beckett has to utter clichés.

It’s not going to happen, but it’s what they all should do.

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The Red Sox-Dodgers Trade, Part II—The Red Sox Alter Their Reality

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Judging by their actions in recent years of chasing championships at the expense of sanity and common sense and the magnitude of the contracts on their ledger, the conventional wisdom was that the Red Sox would keep the players they had and move forward. They would patch the holes with tape, placate the whiny veterans by changing managers, and concede to having a team in 2013 that was barely distinguishable from the 2011-2012 squads that embarrassed themselves, their organization and their fanbase with unprofessional, self-centered, obnoxious, and disinterested behaviors and hope that they’d somehow take advantage of the second Wild Card to make a playoff run.

Of course there wasn’t going to be a playoff run. When a team collapses amid turmoil and doesn’t drastically change the personnel, it has one way to go: down. That Larry Lucchino was reveling in the departure of Theo Epstein and that he once again held certain sway over the personnel only sped the decline. No one knew who was in charge; what strategies were being deployed; whether the inmates were running the asylum and their disdain for manager Bobby Valentine would predicate a managerial change because it’s easier to hire a new manager than it is to try and get rid of massive contracts for declining players.

Easier.

That’s been the hallmark of the Red Sox behaviors and player acquisitions since the winter of 2006-2007. It worked in 2007 as they won a second World Series. In 2008, they made it to game 7 of the ALCS. In 2009, they won 95 games but were bounced in 3 straight games by an Angels team that was running on emotion from the death of Nick Adenhart and having had enough of being a punching bag for the Red Sox.

In 2010, they maintained that grinding, gutty persona that had brought them the first championship and had down-and-dirty players who you’d have to kill to make them quit like Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia leading them on the field even though they didn’t make the playoffs; they won 89 games with rampant injuries and a patchwork lineup as their template of on base percentage, power and pitching was still intact, coupled with the steady guidance of manager Terry Francona.

In 2011, they morphed completely into a mirror image of that which they despised more than anything—the Yankees. They spent, spent, spent to fill their holes by trading for Adrian Gonzalez and signing Carl Crawford to join with the remaining star-caliber players. So blinded by the splashy acquisitions, the Red Sox were ludicrously compared to the 1927 Yankees. They started poorly, righted the ship, then collapsed in September amid more injuries—expected occurrences with a veteran roster in the age of drug testing and banned amphetamines—and to make matters worse acted as if they didn’t care. Off the field, the players didn’t like each other, were not cohesive, and behaved as if their playoff spot was a divine right because they were expected to be so good; because the backs of their baseball cards were so gaudy.

We know what happened. Amid chicken, beer, and arrogance, the season came apart at the seams in September of 2011. Following the exodus of Francona and Epstein came the contretemps, blame, pure absence of accountability, the power vacuum and grasping for control. This led to the hiring of Valentine, the players squawking, more injuries, dysfunction and a team that was unlikable on and off the field, one that didn’t understand what it was that made them good nor what it was that made them bad.

Gonzalez is a star player who, in retrospect, was a bad fit for Boston and the poisoned Red Sox culture. As a quiet, subdued, religious person, he constantly appeared uncomfortable as the center of attention. As the star player on not one, not two, but three teams that have collapsed out of playoff spots and one who referenced “God’s plan” when the Red Sox were bounced last September, it was clear that the acquisition had been a mistake. Gonzalez is not a leader, nor is he made to be the “man”. He’s a great player as long as there’s a David Ortiz, a Youkilis, a Pedroia to take the brunt of the media scrutiny. When the media comes to him to ask what happens, he’ll paw at the floor with his foot and utter clichés and religious invocations long enough until the reporter just wanders off. But they’re not going to wander off in Boston as they did in San Diego or as they will in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Matt Kemp is the out-front star and the media will leave Gonzalez alone in a way they never would have in Boston. In a way, Gonzalez exemplifies what the Red Sox have become.

Beckett had worn out his welcome in every single aspect. Apart from a rubbernecking at a car crash, “let’s hear what this idiot has to say”, John Rocker-style curiosity, we’ll wait for Beckett to unleash on Boston, on Valentine, on the media, on everyone. The one saving grace he’ll have is if the change in venue reverts him back to the solid pitcher he once was and, the Dodgers hope, a post-season ace.

Crawford is a good guy and, when he’s healthy, a terrific all-around player. He, like Gonzalez, was ill-suited for Boston, tried too hard and got hurt. Also like Gonzalez, he doesn’t need to be the center of attention.

The Red Sox played checkbook, brainless rotisserie baseball in the winter of 2011-2012, drew accolades from all quarters for their aggression but abandoned what it was that helped them build an annual championship contender using intelligence, numbers and good old fashioned instinct, continuity (will this guy fit in Boston?), and scouting acumen.

They became the Red Sox of the 1990s or the Yankees of the 1980s and it showed on and off the field.

The Red Sox had two choices: move forward with the players and the immovable contracts, fire Valentine, give the toy to the tantrum-throwing baby that had become the club’s roster and shut it up, or do what they did. They were lucky that the Dodgers have a new ownership that is willing to do something this lunatic; that in order to get Gonzalez (who they claimed on waivers), the Dodgers were willing to take on both Beckett (who they claimed on waivers as well), and the injured Crawford. They were also lucky that the no-trade clauses in the contracts of Crawford and Beckett weren’t hindrances because they wanted to get out of Boston just as desperately as the Red Sox wanted to be rid of them.

The amount of money the Red Sox cleared—$261 million after this season—will allow them to sign players who will fit into what Valentine wants (if they keep him); who will act as if they’re there to play baseball and not bully the front office due to contractual obligations, veteran status, and threats; to re-sign Jacoby Ellsbury and, rather than chase the same stars as the Yankees and overpay to do it just to keep up and one-up, will go back to doing it the way they did it between 2000 and 2010. Most importantly is the off-field dynamic. Red Sox fans cheered for these players wearing Red Sox uniforms, but they didn’t like them—they were unlikable. I’ll discuss the prospects they got in the trade in an upcoming posting, but the players they got are secondary to the message that was sent loudly and clearly with the players they got rid of.

Now they can freshen the polluted air of the attitude of Beckett, the reticence of Gonzalez, and the injuries and desire to depart of Crawford. They sent the message to the players that regardless of how much they complain, they’re not going to decide who the manager is. They got rid of Francona through their actions; they’re not going to get rid of Valentine through holding their breath until they turn blue.

The Red Sox front office could’ve accepted their future, looked at those onerous contracts, shrugged and moved on, keeping on doing the same things and praying for a different result. They didn’t. When the Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti claimed Gonzalez and Beckett and called to discuss a deal, they didn’t pull the players back and say, “Forget it.” They listened and they acted. They’re more likable, have money available to change the roster and the culture, and have stuck to a principle that looked to have been abandoned and was part of the rise of the Red Sox from for the decade prior to 2011—if you don’t like it here and don’t want to be here, we’ll accommodate you and find people who do.

They’re a better team and, more importantly, a better organization for not bowing to expediency and accepting reality. They changed it. Rightly or wrongly, successfully or unsuccessfully, at least they can look into the mirror. And at least when they look, they’ll no longer see the Yankees.

Self-respect is important too.

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The Red Sox Out-of-Book Experience with Bobby Valentine

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The Red Sox made the smart and gutsy decision to shun the “middle-manager” nonsense that came en vogue after Moneyball and hired Bobby Valentine to take over as their new manager.

Here’s what to expect.

The beer and chicken parties are over.

The somewhat overblown Red Sox beer and chicken parties of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and their crew are referenced as the fatal symptoms of apathy under Terry Francona.

When Valentine’s name was mentioned as a candidate amid the “new sheriff in town” mentality, the 1999 NLCS card-playing incident is presented as an example of what went on with the Mets under Valentine.

What’s missed by those who constantly mention the Bobby BonillaRickey Henderson card game as the Mets dejectedly entered the Turner Field clubhouse after their game 6 and series loss is that Bonilla was gone after the season (at a significant cost to the Mets that they’re still paying); and Henderson was released the next May.

Those who expect Valentine to storm in and start getting in the faces of the players immediately are wrong.

He won’t tolerate any garbage, but it’s not going to be a both-guns-blazing, walking through the door of the saloon like Clint Eastwood bit.

He’ll try a more smooth approach at first, telling them what the rules are, what’s expected and demanded and what won’t be tolerated. If he’s pushed, he’ll make an example of someone and it’s going to happen fast.

This is not to say that he’s an old-school social conservative who’s going to interfere with his players’ personal business. Bobby V liked chewing his dip when he was managing the Mets; he treats his players like men; but if their off-field activities are affecting on-field production—as was the case with Todd Hundley and Pete Harnisch—they’re going to hear about it. It will be done privately at first, then publicly if it continues.

His big theme concerning the way the players behave will be “don’t make me look like an idiot”.

The stuff that went on under the watch of Francona was more embarrassing than damaging. If the players had been performing their due diligence in workouts and not been so brazen about their clubhouse time, it wouldn’t have been an issue. But because they so cavalierly loafed and lazed, seemingly not caring what was happening on the field, it snowballed and became a flashpoint to the lax discipline of Francona and festered into unnecessary problems.

Relationships with opponents, umpires and the media.

Valentine has endured public spats with many other managers and hasn’t shied from any of them, even suggesting they possibly turn physical if need be.

During his playing days, no one wanted to mess with Don Baylor. Baylor, who crowded the plate and steadfastly refused to move when a ball was heading in his direction, led the league in getting hit-by-pitches eight times. Valentine had protested a mistake the then-Cubs manager Baylor had made on his lineup card when the Mets and Cubs played the season-opening series of 2000 in Japan; Baylor made some comments about it; Valentine, who never brought the lineup card to the plate as Mets manager, did so in the first game of the Mets-Cubs series in May; Valentine asked Baylor if the two had a problem, Baylor said no and that was it.

This was indicative of the personality and gamesmanship of Valentine. Managers and players from other teams don’t like him, but he doesn’t care.

As Red Sox manager, he’s going to bait Joe Girardi; he’ll annoy Joe Maddon; he and Buck Showalter will glare at each other from across the field at who can be more nitpicky in a chess match of “I’m smarter than you”; he knows the rules better than the umpires and finds the smallest and most obscure ones to get an advantage for his team; he manipulates the media and his temper gets the better of him—he’ll say he’s not going to talk about something, then talk about if for 20 minutes; and his foghorn voice will echo across all of baseball to let everyone know the Red Sox are in town.

Francona was well-liked by everyone.

Valentine won’t be. And he doesn’t care.

Valentine can be annoying. He was a three-sport star in high school and a ballroom dancing champion, is married to his high school sweetheart and is still remarkably handsome even at age 61; he was Tommy Lasorda‘s pet in the minor leagues and his teammates loathed him—he grates on people because of his seeming superiority and perfection.

He’s not irritating people intentionally unless he thinks it will help him win a game—it’s just Bobby V being Bobby V.

The GM/manager dynamic.

Did new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington want Valentine?

There will be an across-the-board series of analysis why he did and didn’t—most will detail why he didn’t.

But does it matter?

The whole concept of Valentine being impossible to handle, undermining, subversive and Machiavellian stem from his inter-organizational battles with Steve Phillips when the duo were the GM/manager combination for the Mets.

Valentine hated Phillips and vice versa; it wasn’t simply that Valentine hated Phillips as a GM, he hated him as a human being more.

But Phillips’s personal behaviors weren’t publicly known to the degree that they are now; it’s doubtful that Cherington will be stupid enough to get caught up in the number of foibles that have befallen Phillips and sabotaged someone who was a better GM than he’s given credit for and an excellent and insightful broadcaster.

Despite the disputes and cold war, something about the Valentine-Phillips relationship worked.

As long as there’s a mutual respect between Valentine and Cherington, what’s wrong with a little passionate debate even if it’s of the screaming, yelling and throwing things variety?

It’s better than the alternative of King Lear—the lonely man seeking to salvage what’s left of his crumbling monarchy—as there is in Oakland with Billy Beane; or what we saw eventually disintegrate with Theo Epstein’s and Larry Lucchino’s Macbeth and Duncan reprise with the Red Sox.

The only difference between the managers who are installed as a matter of following the script and out of convenience—as Francona was—and Valentine is that Valentine’s not disposable as the prototypical Moneyball middle-managers are and the Red Sox have to pay him a salary far greater than they would’ve had to pay Gene Lamont or Torey Lovullo.

In the final analysis financially, it’s cheaper to hire and pay Valentine than it would be to hire a retread or an unknown and run the risk of a total explosion of the team early in 2012 and having to clean house while enduring a lost season and revenues.

Valentine can tape together what’s currently there better than the other candidates could.

There will be disagreements and if Valentine has to, he’ll go over Cherington’s head to Lucchino or use the media to get what he wants. It’s Cherington’s first GM job; he won’t want to screw it up; plus, it’s a no-lose situation for him because if things go wrong, there’s always the head shake and gesture towards Bobby V and Lucchino to explain away what went wrong and why it’s not Cherington’s fault.

Even if it is.

Strategies.

Valentine isn’t Grady Little and won’t ignore the numbers; he was one of the first stat-savvy managers  who accessed the work of Bill James when he took over the Rangers in 1985.

That’s not to say he won’t make moves against the so-called new age stats that make sense on paper, but are idiotic or unrealistic in practice. He’s not going to demand his switch-hitters bat lefty against lefty pitchers because of an obscure and out-of-context number; he’ll let his relievers know what’s expected of them in a “defined role” sense (to keep the peace); and he’s going to tweak his lineups based on the opponent.

He doles out his pitchers innings evenly and finds players who may have underappreicated talents and places them in a situation to succeed—sounds like a stat guy concept.

Players.

With the Mets, there was a notion that Valentine preferred to have a roster of interchangeable parts with non-stars; functional players he could bench without hearing the entreaties that he has to play <BLANK> because of his salary.

Valentine might prefer to have a clear path to do what’s right for a particular game without having to worry about how it’s framed or answering stupid questions after the fact, but he dealt with his star players—Mike Piazza; Mike Hampton; Al Leiter; Robin Ventura—well enough.

What Valentine is truly good at is finding the players who have been ignored or weren’t given a chance and giving them their opportunity.

Todd Pratt, Rick Reed, Benny Agbayani, Desi Relaford, Timo Perez, Melvin Mora, Masato Yoshii were all Valentine “guys” who he trusted and fought for. All contributed to the Mets during Valentine’s tenure.

If anyone can get something out of Daisuke Matsuzaka, it’s Valentine; if anyone can put Carl Crawford in the lineup spot where he’ll be most productive—irrespective of Crawford’s personal preferences—it’s Valentine; and if anyone can work Jose Iglesias into the lineup without undue pressure, it’s Valentine.

Concerns.

While he managed in Japan for several years in the interim, Valentine hasn’t managed in the big leagues since 2002. Veteran managers sometimes hit the ground running after a long break as Jim Leyland did with the Tigers; or they embody the perception that they’ve lost something off their managerial fastball—I got that impression with Davey Johnson managing the Nationals in 2011.

Valentine’s 61 and in good shape, but ten years is a long time to be away from the trenches.

There will be a honeymoon period with the media and fans, but like the Red Sox attempt to hire Beane to be the GM after 2002, how long is this honeymoon going to last if the Red Sox are 19-21 after 40 games with the expectations and payroll what they are.

It’s hard to stick to the script as the Yankees fans are laughing at them; mired in a division with three other strong teams in the Yankees, Blue Jays and Rays possibly ahead of them; and the fans and media are bellowing for something—anything—to be done.

Valentine’s Mets teams tended to fade, tighten and panic at the ends of seasons. It happened in 1998 and 1999; in 1999 they squeaked into the playoffs after a frenetic late-season run and, once they were in, relaxed to put up a good, borderline heroic showing before losing to the Braves in the NLCS.

There will be players who ridicule, mock and question him. John Franco took the opportunity to get his revenge against Valentine by helping Phillips’s case to fire him in 2002 because Valentine had taken Franco’s closer role away and given it to Armando Benitez while Franco was injured.

Will Beckett push Valentine so one of them has to go? I doubt it, but Beckett’s a bully and won’t like being told what to do.

Will Bobby Jenks‘s attitude or Kevin Youkilis‘s whining cause Valentine to call them out publicly?

Will it damage the team if there’s an early insurrection or will it embolden the front office that a stricter force was necessary?

The real issues.

It’s nice that the Red Sox have hired a proven, veteran manager; a known quantity; someone they can sell to the media and fans, but it doesn’t address the player issues that sabotaged the team as they collapsed in September.

John Lackey is out for the year with Tommy John surgery and they need starting pitching.

David Ortiz is a free agent.

They need a bat.

They have to hope that Crawford straightens out and becomes the player they paid for.

Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia have been enduring multiple injuries.

Clay Buchholz is returning from a back problem.

They don’t know who their closer is going to be.

More than anything else, the Red Sox 2012 season is going to be determined by how these holes are patched and filled.

But the manager’s office is taken care of and they’re indulging in an out-of-book experience in hiring Bobby Valentine.

And it’s a great move.

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