|GM Ben Cherington has to shoulder some of the blame for the Red Sox's disappointing season. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK – Just a bit more than three-quarters into his first year with the Boston Red Sox, Bobby Valentine looks like a dead manager walking. Though these days, it appears to be a plus he very likely won't have to manage out the final season of a contract next year in an organization where ownership hired him but doesn't fully support him, where at least a couple of his coaches are openly disdainful toward him, and where both the coaches and the players are still given far too much say, leeway and rope.
The noose appears to be readied to be employed this winter on Valentine, a wholly sympathetic figure now. In Boston's dysfunctional mess, he never had a chance.
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General manager Ben Cherington, an intelligent, hard-working young man caught up in a nightmare of a rookie season as GM, has tried to play the good soldier by pretending, at least in the beginning, that Valentine was his call. But no one above Valentine ever had the inclination or pull to bring into line an over-privileged, high-on-themselves group of underachieving players (or even a couple rogue coaches).
The meeting without Valentine present in New York last month, which is said to have originated with the owners but at least had the strong approval of some very key players, may not have been quite the Valentine bash fest it was first portrayed to be. But a mid-to-late-season meeting in which the owners flew into enemy territory to hash it out with the players and not the manager is merely the latest example of the inmates running a failing asylum.
There are some clutch and great players on this team (certainly enough to be better than three games under .500, now 59-62 after the 4-1 win over the arch-rival Yankees Saturday in the Bronx), and injuries have caused a great deal of the underachievement. But that doesn't mean the players know best. Nor does it mean the higher-ups should be listening to them, not when these players haven't won a playoff game since 2008. These are the same guys who treated two-time World Series winner Terry Francona, a guy they supposedly loved, like a substitute teacher last year. They are the very reason a sterner self-starter such as Valentine was summoned to clean up a messy situation that turned to embarrassment in the beer-tinged haze of the all-time September collapse. But for Valentine to work right, he had to be allowed to do his job. His way.
You hire Valentine, you are getting a brilliant baseball mind who knows talent like few others. But you are also accepting a few firestorms, and maybe even a soap opera or two. There's no point to hiring him then a few months later removing his vocal cords.
That's just about what happened. When Valentine gave that negative early review about Kevin Youkilis, Cherington erred by publicly siding with Youkilis. Cherington, an earnest, introspective fellow has gone over it in his head plenty of times since, and he's still not sure what he should have done when Valentine publicly questioned Youkilis' drive. But what Cherington shouldn't have done was say aloud that Valentine messed up and was wrong, which is what he did do.
Cherington knew going in he was going to be tested with some manager-inflicted storms (that's part of Bobby V's considerable charm), and Cherington did the standup thing by going immediately to Valentine and telling him he messed up and informing him what he was about to say. The mistake was in saying it.
Meantime, Youkilis had stormed into Valentine's office after hearing about the negative comment and Valentine tried to explain and apologize. But as Cherington believed from the start, Youkilis was a sensitive sort. He didn't accept Valentine's apology, not for a second. So Cherington apologized double in an effort not to lose one of two remaining players who helped bring Boston two titles. Instead, what he did do badly damaged the manager.
Once Dustin Pedroia chimed in by announcing to Valentine and everyone else that's "not how we do things around here" regarding the negative remark, Cherington should have slapped down Pedroia who, unlike Youkilis, is tough enough to take it. It didn't help that Pedroia was predisposed to detest Valentine since he was Francona's pet, confidant and cribbage partner. He is also a star in the stable of the Levinson brothers, a poisonous pair of agents who swore off then-Mets manager Valentine as an enemy after Valentine's very on-point (and if anything, soft pedaled) comment that beloved but troubled catcher Todd Hundley needed more sleep.
Pedroia is a terrific player, but the very reason things were supposed to be done differently this year is that the inmates ran the asylum after Francona lost his grip on things last September. Valentine was supposed to be that change, the very culture shock the team needed after they misbehaved under Francona. But now the players might realize they had it easy before. Some of them talked themselves into hating Francona by the end, but now they miss him.
|Even Bobby Valentine's coaches, like Tim Bogar, have a frosty relationship with the embattled manager. (US Presswire)|
What's even more surprising on its own level is that the discord has been allowed to drag into its sixth month without so much as a coach firing, fine or even a known reprimand. If Cherington could go along with Valentine as manager (at least on the surface), then the coaches, much lower on the club's hierarchy, should have been forced to get in line. Folks around here note that Valentine brings baggage with his history, and his 15-year-old dustup with Tim Bogar appears to have come back to haunt him here.
Though Valentine seems not to have been completely satisfied with the makeup of the coaching staff, he eventually OK'd the holdovers who were under contract and well regarded in the organization -- Bogie, Mags (well-regarded hitting coach Dave Magadan) and Tuck. He talked to all three before agreeing to keep them, but now has to suspect lingering resentment by Bogar over being Valentine's last cut on the 1997 Mets. This became a surprise cause célèbre at the time, and apparently it's even come up as a topic in the Red Sox clubhouse recently.
The players undoubtedly felt emboldened to air some complaints in the meeting after seeing what coaches, far down the rung, could get away with. One player complaint apparently involved leaving in well-liked but struggling starter Jon Lester to give up 11 runs in a game against the Blue Jays. The other was a sarcastic remark Valentine made to rookie Will Middlebrooks after a rare two-error inning, which became known after Valentine mentioned it on a radio show.
Valentine has been a Middlebrooks supporter since spring (over Youkilis) and is one of the players seen as a Valentine guy (Jacoby Ellsbury is said to like Valentine, and David Ortizmight be another who does). But the fact that the Middlebrooks story reached upper management gave rise to the question of whether someone else inside the clubhouse is ratting out Valentine. That could well be, but at this point it might be hard to narrow down who the whistleblower could be.
Valentine has become the focus, and Cherington rightly suggests it isn't fair to him since the issues go well beyond the manager's office.
"We're working on six months that haven't gone according to plan," Cherrington said. "It's on us. It's on me. It's on the front office to assess the talent ... I don't think there's been enough focus on the collective shortcomings. Yes, it's the manager. But it's the front office, it's the general manager, it's the players."
Of course, all those other folks were in the meeting room at the Palace Hotel in New York, just not Valentine.
And of course with Valentine, a natural lightning rod anyway, having only one year left on his two-year deal it's to be expected that the focus is on him. Club president Larry Lucchino has said Valentine will survive this season, but folks around baseball suspect they will again target Blue Jays manager John Farrell, the ex-Red Sox pitching coach who has a year to go on his Toronto deal and is the only man in the A.L. East with a worse record than Valentine, to become the next manager. Boston could be willing to trade for Farrell in the manner that they, in effect, traded ex-GM Theo Epstein, though after all the pitching injuries suffered in Toronto this year the attraction is a bit curious.
Cherington declined comment about whether he's inclined to recommend an extension or perhaps bring Valentine back as a lame duck (both seem like long shots at the moment), saying, "I haven't thought past the next six weeks."
Valentine being Valentine being the interesting one, it isn't such a surprise he's the focus. He's lived his life as the focus. But Cherington didn't just pay lip service to this not being all on Bobby V. Very likely, he's heard from his bosses. Word is, the higher-ups aren't thrilled with the trades that brought talented but injury prone Andrew Bailey, who got hurt right away and just got back now, and talented Mark Melancon, who the Yankees thought was too soft for New York (and is proving that to be the case in Boston).
The clubhouse remains too fractured, just like last September. While Cherington praised the effort on the field -- "I have not seen one time where there's been a lack of effort on the field," he said -- this is the sixth month of abject underachievement, counting the embarrassing September flop.
At the end of last year, some pitchers are said to have suspected Youkilis leaked the info on the starting pitchers' in-game beer-and-chicken parties. There was the Pedroia-Youkilis faction, and there was also the starting pitching faction, led by sullen veteran Josh Beckett, the two-time World Series hero who is looked up to by a generally underachieving rotation of Lester, Clay Buchholz and the injured John Lackey. And also by Cherington, apparently. "I think the narrative that this is on Josh Beckett is wholly unfair," Cherington said. "He's a guy who's been on the mound for our most important games, he's taken the ball whenever asked and he's mostly been a very good pitcher.''
Beckett's also a guy who was caught playing golf after missing a start, who routinely blows off the media and who is the recognized leader of a rotation gone awry.
Under current conditions, with Beckett lording over a rotation that's close to a colossal failure, an influential Pedroia is unlikely ever to be sold on Valentine and a dysfunctional organization that gives way too much rope to the misbehaving coaches and altogether too much say to the players -- even players who never won anything -- Valentine could be the lucky one in that his sentence seems almost up now.