Friday, January 25, 2013

Highway 2011 Revisited

One thing that doesn't surprised me about Dan Shaughnessy's book on Terry Francona's years as the manager of the Red Sox is that it doesn't answer the question of why the 2011 collapse happened, and perhaps that's the point.  I doubt that Shaughnessy made a conscious effort to push this point across since, after trudging through what he likes to define as "writing", I'm surprised that Shaughnessy is literate. Regardless, we should keep in mind that the 2011 Red Sox collapse was part reality and part media creation.

It's undeniable that a collapse happened, just look at the standings from 2011 and the drama/torture porn surrounding the last games of the regular season.  And Shaughnessy, like everyone else, just throws a smattering of reasons against a wall for why this collapse happened without advancing beyond those arguments.  His book, essentially, is a rehash of those arguments and he never explores them.  Shaughnessy does get a few telling quotes simply due to the fact that he was in the right place at the right time, which I'll touch upon later.  

Getting back to the 2011 season, though, it's easy to point to all of the arguments presented and say "That's the reason!"  But we need to compare arguments against a control subject, which nobody really does.  I'm not quite sure how you can do it...  Get the same inside stories about, say, the Kansas City Royals clubhouse?  What would be a "neutral" team to compare the 2011 Red Sox to?  Does one exist?  I doubt it. 

So pointing out the supposed flaws of the 2011 Red Sox team in retrospect really doesn't answer any questions.  Indeed, saying that the 2011 squad lacked unity is easy to do now, but if the 2004 Band of Idiots ended up being swept by the Yankees in four games because the ump blew the call on Dave Roberts' steal, we all know what headlines would have filled the sports pages for the next decade: "RED SOX HAD A MIDGET IN THE CLUBHOUSE! THEY DID SHOTS OF JACK BEFORE THE GAMES! THIS TEAM WAS TOO LOOSE! TOO UNPROFESSIONAL!" and blah blah blah.  All the things that we love about The Idiots now and fondly remember them for, if one or two cruel twists of fate happened and they lost, then the media would have turned all of those positive aspects of the 2004 team into supposed flaws.  

It's good to keep that situation in mind when assessing the current state of the Red Sox, because it's easy to blow supposed team flaws out of proportion when, if one or two things went their way before the end of the regular season, they would have made the playoffs.  Of course, they probably would have lost in the ALDS, and much of the blame would be been placed on the starting rotation, but that would have been the extent of it.  The 2011 Red Sox wouldn't have become this epic shitshow of a story about the collapse, the horrors of chicken and beer, how the team was full of assholes, etc.  Of course, it doesn't help that the organization itself freaked out in 2012 and blew everything up. 

So, how do we measure what happened?  What factors played a role in eroding the quality of the Red Sox organization? 

As I previously mentioned, Shaughnessy stumbled upon a couple of things while interviewing Tito and Theo for his book.  He doesn't do much to explore these issues, he just reports everything that his interview subjects tell him and leaves every point they mentioned dangling there for a second before using a crappy segue to start another paragraph.  He's like an archivist who is lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, but is too daft to notice such before moving on.  

In my opinion, leading upto 2011 there were parts of this organization rotting from the core, with the rot creeping outward: 
  • Ownership's push for consistently increasing profits
  • Failures of the medical staff
Let's look at the medical staff, first.  This is the best quote that Shaughnessy got out of Tito: "Our medical was all fucked up.  There were more egos on the medical staff than there were on the team."  Tito goes on to note that Dr. Larry Ronan kept the medical staff together, saying "People don't know how many fires we put out there."  A couple of paragraphs beforehand, Shaughnessy detailed departures from the medical staff since 2004, including Head Trainer Paul Lessard at the end of 2009 -- a departure that Tito was none too happy with.  

Indeed, after Lessard left the Red Sox had an injury filled 2010 campaign, and in 2011 it looked like some of the pitchers gained weight as the season went on.  Physical conditioning suffered after Lessard left. 

Additionally, Shaughnessy rehashes how the medical staff fucked up their diagnosis of Jacoby Ellsbury's injuries in 2010, causing him to lose faith in the medical staff in 2010 and 2011.  More importantly for the 2011, though -- since the starting rotation was their biggest problem -- Tito admits that everyone on the team knew that Lackey's throwing arm was hurting due to his need for Tommy John surgery.  Yet nobody ordered Lackey to undergo such surgery before the season was over.

This pisses me off.  The fact that Lackey needed Tommy John surgery itself doesn't piss me off, but the fact that the Red Sox organization left him out there to make starts in that condition...  I mean, I thought the point of putting together a Red Sox team was to win games.  In the book, Tito makes to clear that he didn't feel empowered enough to pull Lackey from the rotation because everyone on the team was pulling for him.  To me, at that point, it says that ownership or the General Manager needs to step in, take the blame off the manager, and place Lackey on the disabled list to A) Get a healthy pitcher on the roster, and B) Not leave fans with a sour taste about Lackey in their mouths.  Bottom line is that this organization's field management, ownership and medical staff knew that Lackey needed surgery, and they left him out there to hang in the middle of a playoff race.  You can't blame Tito for that, you just can't.  How Sox ownership tried burying Tito at the end of the 2011 season, while leaving Lackey hanging out there injured during the season, is just despicable.

Worse than this was the fact that Carl Crawford was offered a contract after his physical.  Crawford was uncomfortable in his first season as a Red Sox player, and I suppose that is a matter of clubhouse culture which should be discussed.  But after 2011, Crawford become a walking injury.

When Pedro Martinez signed a deal with the Mets after helping the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years in 2004, it was generally understood in Boston that Pedro's rotator cuff was so damaged that he was on the last legs of his career, so it was OK to let him walk.  That notion was mostly true.  Pedro became a walking injury for the Mets, but ended up pitching in game 2 of the World Series for the Phillies.  He'd lost his fastball, and he didn't do well in his final World Series game, but you know what?  Pedro was so good that he made it to that point without his fastball, and perhaps some people saw Pedro becoming that pitcher. It wasn't worth the money to wait for that conclusion, though.

I've veered off point.  That's Pedro's fault, because I don't want to disrespect him when I discuss his legacy as a pitcher.  But, getting back to the state of the Red Sox medical staff in 2004, they were the purveyors of the thought that Pedro would blow his arm out less than 4 years after 2004, therefore you couldn't sign him to a 4 year contract.  And you know what?  The Sox medical staff was mostly correctly, and they prevented the organization from signing a legend, future first ballot Hall of Famer, to a large contract that he wouldn't have fulfilled.  That takes balls.

What happened to those balls?  They were absent after Carl Crawford's physical, a matter that Shaughnessy doesn't make an effort to explore.  Because Shaughnessy sucks.  Between the departures on the Red Sox medical staff and Tito's comments about the egos on that staff, I would think that the Red Sox recent free agent signings and their physicals would be a matter of discussion.  Crawford succumbed to two injuries in 2012, but what about Adrian Gonzalez?  Adrian was head and shoulders above 99% of other Major Leaguers even without his homerun stroke, but he seems to have lost that swing after the 2011 all star break.  Why?  Shaughnessy, of course, never investigates that issue.  I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Gonzo had a mystery back injury...  Players try to hide their injuries, though.  Just look at Mike Napoli.  Seattle and Texas knew Napoli had an issue with his hips, but he tried slipping that by the Red Sox for a big contract before his physical ruined his chances for such a contract.

Honestly, I hope that the results of Napoli's physcal -- which kept the organization from signing an injury prone player to a large contract -- signals a turning point for the Red Sox medical staff.  However, the fact that Napoli was offered such a large contract in the first place means that the ownership monster is still alive and well.

Shaughnessy catches Theo blaming himself for this "Monster".  In the book, the "Monster" generally comes to signify the pressure that Henry, Werner and Lucchino bring upon - and continue to impress upon -- the Red Sox organization.  As Theo defines it:
"They told us we didn't have any marketable players, the team's not exciting enough," Epstein recalled.  "We need some sizzle.  We need some sexy guys.  I was laughing to myself.  Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist cmedy.  We'd become too big.  It was the farthest thing removed from what we set out to be.
That type of shit contributed to the decision in the winter to go for more of a quick fix. Signing Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez was in direct response to that in a lot of ways. Shame on me for giving in to it, but at some point the landscape is what it is.  I didn't handle it well, but that kind of explains the arc of what we were doing." 
This quote says a lot.  Let's tackle it from the inside out before getting to the heart of the matter.  In the context of Theo being tasked with building a winning team immediately, I think he did a great job.  Adrian Gonzalez should have been a game changing player, someone you shape your organization around -- in fact, that's how the Dodgers saw Gonzalez when they choose to take on Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett's contracts just to absorb Gonzo.  Despite our (misguided) impressions of him in Boston, Gonzo is still very well respected around baseball.  Don't be surprised if he has 40 homers next year, and the fact that he didn't have that kind of power with the Red Sox is the organization's fault for giving up on him too quickly.

However, Gonzo was going to be a free agent in the 2012 offseason, so why give up prospects to sign him in 2011?  The simple, and only answer, is because Theo felt Henry, Werner and Lucchino breathing down his neck.

Fact is that John Henry doesn't have a grip on reality.  Henry has been running the Red Sox like a publicly traded company, expecting the organization to increase its profits every year.  When NESN ratings dipped in 2010, Red Sox ownership cracked the whip and told Theo to make the team "more exciting".  Theo claims that he failed to fight against this notion, but the fact is that Theo didn't matter.  Theo would have been fired if he didn't sign Gonzo and Crawford, and he got fired because he did sign them.

Henry put Theo into a no-win situation because he had wholly unrealistic expectations of what the Red Sox were.  Henry should be proud of the fact hat he owned a baseball team that commanded over a decade of unadulterated profit growth, along with two World Series titles.  This is an extreme rarity for any baseball team, and eventually a team reaches peak popularity and must move back towards its natural median -- which is what we've been witnessing with a change in the feelings of the Red Sox fanbase.  That explains why NESN's ratings have been dipping.  We love the Sox, but let's face it -- Fenway will have less pink hats over the next decade.  I don't mind this, however, those pink hats paid the salaries of good free agents that came to Boston.  Where is that money going to come from now?

Henry, Werner and Lucchino treated the Red Sox like they were a publicly traded company, and you just can't do that with a baseball team.  The Red Sox avoided a state of flux for a generation, but if you look at baseball in other cities, you understand that their teams have good and bad years.  Their owners rake in profits some years, and have shity teams in other years.  That's life, and that's baseball.  Henry, et al., tried avoiding this reality -- and they were successful for a while.  But this attitude of treating the Red Sox like a publicly traded company went too far.  When they threatened Theo and Tito with their jobs if the Red Sox didn't just win, but win in an "exciting fashion", that's when peak popularity with the Red Sox fanbase was breached.

This isn't a reality show for NESN, this is a baseball team. There are ups and downs.

Between the growth-at-all-costs organizational ethos instituted by Red Sox ownership and the depletion of quality in the medical staff, Theo and Tito were placed in an impossible situation.  It just happened to explode in 2011, but it could have blown at any time.  Throughout the 2011 offseason, and during 2012, Red Sox ownership fed countless stories to Shaughnessy and other members of the media that undermined the players of the Red Sox, and that's shameful.  Shaughnessy won't report this in his book -- maybe because, and I'm purely speculating here, he hasn't had a real job in his life -- but when you work for an organization closely tied to the attitude of the owner, it effects the entire organization completely.  And if those owners have a shitty attitude, everything else becomes tainted with shit.  That's not the fault of the players, that's the fault of John Henry and his acolytes.

It's about time somebody wrote a book about the fall they should take.  

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