August 15, 2012, seemed like just another miserable night for one of the most loathsome teams ever foisted upon fans of the Red Sox. The most dysfunction $175 million can buy lost 5--3 to an Orioles team that was better than Boston by seven wins with less than half the payroll and none of the pettiness. Bobby Valentine, revealed in a report the previous day as a manager the players wanted fired, had been ejected. But the night was about to get better for John Henry, the principal owner of the Red Sox.
Henry was sitting outside the Four Seasons Hotel in Denver with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston, enjoying some fresh air during a break in the baseball owners' meetings, when another familiar face approached him.
"I need to grab you for a minute."
It was Stan Kasten, the president of the Dodgers, a team that came under the ownership of Guggenheim Baseball in May and is in line for a regional television package after the 2013 season worth untold billions. Kasten had, in fact, placed a call two weeks earlier to Red Sox president Larry Lucchino. Then, Kasten had said, "This is an unusual call, Larry, but I want to tell you, we are out there and we are prepared to add significant payroll to make our team stronger this year and in the future."
Now Kasten was delivering the message to Henry, face-to-face and with even greater urgency. It was obvious what was going on—the Dodgers were flush with money and were willing to pay sticker price—and what this meant for the Red Sox, a franchise that had lost its way and disgraced its premium brand. Los Angeles was willing to be Boston's bailout fund.
Ten days later the Red Sox traded first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, outfielder Carl Crawford, pitcher Josh Beckett and infielder Nick Punto to the Dodgers for four minor leaguers and first baseman James Loney. The Red Sox, but for $12 million they included in the trade, were off the hook from $272 million worth of contracts, not to mention the brooding mug of Beckett and the unsightly hacks of Crawford, whenever he was healthy enough to play.
In 1991, Massachusetts was hit by a deadly Halloween nor'easter that was immortalized in print and film as The Perfect Storm. "This," Lucchino says, "was whatever the opposite is of a perfect storm." Never have a team and its fans been so happy to officially pull the plug on a season. Not only were they lucky to have found a trading partner that behaved like a hedge-fund manager in the midst of a midlife crisis, but the Red Sox were also fortunate they had become miserable to the point that the once-unthinkable act of deconstruction was an easy choice.
Less obvious is where the Red Sox go from here. They must decide what to do with their Captain Queeg, Valentine, as well as the $104 million coming off the books this year alone. "I think you'll see a sort of slow and steady reinvestment of the money," Lucchino says. "What we were looking for was payroll flexibility, and we're not going to squander that payroll flexibility with intemperate actions immediately."
The Red Sox as we knew them are done, having collapsed upon themselves like the Beatles, the 2007 housing market and the Soviet Union. From 2003 through '08 they won two World Series and came within two wins of reaching two others. In the process Boston defined state of the art in baseball in building both a team and a brand. The franchise's quest to increase revenue could be measured in the inches it essentially annexed from the public sidewalks and streets around Fenway Park to sell more cold beer, pink hats and assorted other official totems of tribal affirmation.
To keep it all going, like a factory with three shifts, the Red Sox ran at peak capacity. They sold every last obstructed-view seat at Fenway, charged the game's highest ticket prices, kept ratings and ad rates high on their television network, and kept signing or extending expensive veterans (Gonzalez, Crawford, Beckett, J.D. Drew, John Lackey, Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo, Daisuke Matsuzaka, et al.) until they were more like the Yankees than they would ever dare admit. When they took New York to a Game 7 in the 2003 ALCS, the Red Sox' payroll was 65% of the Yankees'; by this year it was 84%. They have spent $629 million over the past four years without a single postseason win to show for it.
When former general manager Theo Epstein dared speak of a "bridge" season after an ALDS sweep at the hands of the Angels in 2009, indicating a need to scale back even if it meant taking a step backward in the standings for a year, team chairman Tom Werner later publicly rebuked him for even suggesting an idea like that in Boston. Now the bridge must be built. Asked via e-mail whether Boston's poor track record with top-end free agents leaves the club less inclined to invest in those kinds of players, Henry replied, "Yes."
"Other than losing and injuries," Henry wrote, "if you ask what the biggest disappointments were, I would say how hamstrung we were financially with long-term, expensive commitments and the level of our return on those commitments whether due to injury or poor play....
"But aside from the injuries, we have had no consistency. We would have poor at bats one night, poor starting pitching the next night, a poor bullpen the next. By mid-August it was clear we needed to rebuild. What appeared to be an outlier month in September 2011 turned out to be a harbinger instead."
Boston's 7--20 collapse last September chased Epstein and manager Terry Francona from their jobs. The ownership group quickly moved to promote one of Epstein's assistants, Ben Cherington, but finding a manager proved trickier. Cherington was identifying up-and-comers such as Dale Sveum (who was ultimately hired by Epstein to manage the Cubs), but Red Sox ownership didn't want a rookie G.M. and a rookie manager. One day Valentine's agent telephoned Lucchino to say Valentine wanted the job. Valentine hadn't been in a major league dugout in a decade, but the phone call and his reputation for being a cutting-edge tactician were enough to gain him traction with ownership.
In retrospect, Valentine was doomed to fail because 1) Cherington had not wanted to hire him (though he did warm to him during the interview process); 2) Valentine, never known to play well with others, was not allowed to handpick his coaching staff; 3) the Red Sox owners gave him the least support possible: a two-year contract. (One-year deals for new hires are virtually unheard of.) The owners were so unsure about dropping Valentine into this group of players that they considered 2012 something of a trial, like trying on a boldly styled suit. They would reassess the fit after the season.
It was evident quickly that Valentine, thanks partly to his confrontational reputation and partly to his aloof, off-putting carriage, could not win the trust of key players, especially when he took an open shot at third baseman Kevin Youkilis in April and was reprimanded through the media by second baseman Dustin Pedroia. (Youkilis was traded to the White Sox two months later.) "If you're going to manage today, you better have the important players in the clubhouse," says one NL manager. "You have to work through them; otherwise you lose the others."
Another key April misstep occurred when Valentine didn't know whether an opposing pitcher, Liam Hendriks of the Twins, was lefthanded or righthanded when he made out his lineup. He admitted he checked his phone for the information—and still got it wrong. Valentine laughed it off, but it was a dagger to his credibility, especially in light of the club's ethos. The Red Sox had earned a reputation as a forward-thinking franchise with proprietary metrics, sophisticated scouting reports and a secret computer program dubbed Carmine to catalog and update the streams of information. Francona would arrive eight hours or so before game time to begin sorting through the daily piles of analysis.
Privately the owners, who worry incessantly about how the team is covered, grumbled that members of the Boston media were prewired not to like Valentine. The opposing-pitcher snafu, they thought, wasn't a big deal. But snafus seem to happen a lot to Valentine. In August he referred to pitching coach Bob McClure's being "on vacation" for two weeks, when the coach had returned home because of a family emergency. Last Friday, Valentine showed up at the park in Oakland at 4:15 p.m. for a 7:05 game because he had been picking up his adult son at the airport—then watched a 20--2 defeat, the worst Boston beating in a dozen years.
"The problem when you have a manager like Bobby is you're always refereeing if the players don't like the manager," says one baseball executive. "That gets old. And when some people aren't happy, they go around and get other people to be unhappy."
Indeed, Valentine, and the coverage of Valentine, have drained energy in the clubhouse. Players arrive not with scouting reports or opposing pitcher tendencies top of mind, but the latest gossip about what their manager said or how he was covered in the latest blogs, talks shows and columns. Such misplaced priorities say more about the players than Valentine. Francona operated a loose clubhouse with few rules, an atmosphere the players grew to exploit. Valentine, too, did not bring many rules with him. Without his own staff or much muscle behind him from ownership, he would sequester himself in his neatly arranged office. Outside that office the lack of rules, discipline and focus continued to be a problem.
"I think Bobby has done a hell of a job given what he has faced," Henry wrote. "He has always been a lightning rod and has never avoided confrontation. Our players were used to what is commonly called a 'players' manager.' Bobby just isn't that. He's more of an old-school manager with players while being a new-school manager with his approach to tactics and everything else. He's brilliant but not someone who's going to be liked by everyone. Popularity is overrated, but he's had a tough go this year."
What to do about Valentine is the owners' first major decision in rebranding this team. The owners could bring him back in 2013 on his current contract, leaving him with even less security as the lamest of ducks. They could continue to jettison players and coaches not in his camp and extend his contact after the worst Red Sox season in 15 years. Or they could fire him and find the state-of-the-art manager Cherington wanted in the first place. (They could try to pry John Farrell from Toronto or hire Blue Jays first base coach Torey Lovullo.) "Firing Bobby V would be admitting a mistake," says another baseball executive, "but you have to do it to move forward, to show you're not picking sides in this thing after getting rid of players."
No matter the manager, the Red Sox are likely to be a younger, cheaper team that may not be ready to contend next season. Boston does have a core of exciting young players: third baseman Will Middlebrooks, catcher Ryan Lavarnway, infielders Xander Bogaerts and Jose Iglesias, outfielders Bryce Brentz and Jackie Bradley Jr., pitcher Matt Barnes and the key prospects received in the Los Angeles trade, pitchers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster.
This winter's big-ticket free-agent market probably won't help the Red Sox: Neither pitcher Zack Greinke, because of his introverted nature, nor outfielder Josh Hamilton, because of his age (32 next year) and injury history, is a good fit for a skittish big-city buyer. The key for Boston will be finding good value in short-term deals and dipping into the farm system to trade for young, established stars along the lines of Alex Gordon of Kansas City, Justin Upton of Arizona or Chase Headley of San Diego. The Red Sox might also explore trading centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, a free agent after next season, for longer-term assets.
"Do we believe Boston and Red Sox Nation will accept a young and hungry baseball team?" Lucchino says. "Yeah, I think they will. Our intention is to make sure it's a mixture of young and hungry and older and more established. There's a notion that we've got to have high-priced brand names in our lineup to make it work. Don't assume that's the case."
The Red Sox also need to emphasize players with extroverted personalities, such as rightfielder Cody Ross, who has fit in well this season on a one-year deal. Players uncomfortable with the intensity of the media coverage—think Renteria, Drew, Crawford and Lackey—tend to fare poorly in Boston. Even Gonzalez was something of a poor fit. Teammates were surprised that someone so talented was so sensitive to how he and the team were covered. (A July text to ownership asking for a team meeting at which Valentine's performance was discussed was reportedly sent from Gonzalez's phone.)
When Gonzalez arrived in Los Angeles, he admitted to reporters that he changed this year—becoming "more outspoken" after hearing last year that he should be more vocal. "The way things were spinned is unfortunate," he said. The unanswered question: Why would an established star care about that at all? Why change?
The Red Sox need to return to being a leaner, more disciplined organization that—starting with ownership—doesn't allow media coverage to drain its focus. If, for instance, Boston won't immediately reinvest all of the $104 million coming off this year's payroll, it should be up front with fans by de-emphasizing the questionable sellout streak at Fenway (now at 782 games) and by cutting ticket prices across the board.
"Do you mean consider lowering ticket prices if we don't spend all of our budget in 2013?" Henry wrote. "One thing is clear: we generally end up above budget so to have one year under budget in a rebuilding wouldn't be out of the question."
Three days after the bailout trade, Major League Baseball announced an agreement with ESPN to extend their broadcast partnership through 2021 for about $700 million annually—a 94% increase over their current agreement. The other national television partnerships are still in negotiations, but assuming a similar percentage increase in those rights fees, every team starting in 2014 will see its cut from national TV money increase from $25.5 million to $49.6 million. That's another $24.1 million for your team to spend.
Not only will the Red Sox have more money coming in, they will also have the same ownership that built the 2003--08 success. They still have a loyal fan base with high expectations, and the Yankees as the next-door neighbor with the bigger house and the bigger car to motivate them. It won't be long before the payroll ramps up again. Almost overnight, their payroll flexibility has become an asset. Boston, for instance, has only $47.2 million on the books for the 2014 and '15 seasons combined; the Yankees have $143.3 million in commitments for those years.
"It is a change in course," Lucchino said, "not an entirely new direction."
On Aug. 31, 2011, a comfortable evening at Fenway with a sweet breeze blowing in from rightfield, the Red Sox beat the Yankees 9--5. They had the best record in the American League, stability in the dugout and in the front office, an MVP candidate in Gonzalez, an AL ERA leader in Beckett and a nine-game cushion on a playoff spot.
That moment in time seems ancient now, like a lost civilization. The Red Sox used 12 players to win that game. Eight of them are gone (Gonzalez, Crawford, Beckett, Marco Scutaro, Jason Varitek, Jed Lowrie, Josh Reddick and Jonathan Papelbon), as well as the manager and general manager. Boston is 69--93 since then. It took being that bad and that unlikable for that long, coupled with the Dodgers' money, for the Red Sox to disown what they had become. They are better for such clarity.
done broken SPLIT
overpaid @#%$ unaccountable
divided flop MISMANAGEMENT mediocrity
MEDIA CIRCUS errors
chicken and beer secret meetings chaos
blown leads unprepared
injuries FUNEREAL collapse
LACK OF LEADERSHIP
Ben Reiter traces the long, strange trip of Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti, who helped make the Red Sox bailout of 2012 possible, at SI.com/mlb
Photograph by ELISE AMENDOLA/AP
DEAD MANAGER WALKING? Valentine, working on a mere two-year contract, quickly found the Fenway confines most unfriendly when he called out his own players but failed to recall an opposing pitcher.
THE CLEAN-UP ARTIST Cherington, who didn't get to hire his choice for manager, now has the unenviable job of mopping up Boston's mess—a task made easier by the blockbuster L.A. trade.
THE GREAT RED SOX BUBBLE OF 2012 Even after last September's disaster, a $175 million roster drove expectations for this season sky-high—a burden that next year's scaled-down team isn't likely to carry.
JIM ROGASH/GETTY IMAGES
UNSPLENDID SPLINTER Boston has gone 16--29 since Ortiz went on the DL with an Achilles injury in July; the tension of a lost season has boiled over in dugout arguments like the one between Alfredo Aceves and Pedroia in Oakland last Saturday (far right).
[See caption above]
JUSTIN EDMONDS/GETTY IMAGES