Throw the Switch on Valentine; Then, Start Rebuilding

Once upon a time, George Scott, an ertswhile Red Sox star, moved to the Milwaukee Brewers (he was part of the deal that also made ex-Red Sox out of Jim Lonborg, Ken Brett, and Billy Conigliaro), had a conversation with the Brewers’ one-time co-owner, Edmund Fitzgerald. No, silly, not the wreck about which Gordon Lightfoot wrote a certain ancient song hit, however the Brewers weren’t doing at the time. “You know, Mr. Fitzgerald, if we’re gonna win,” the big man called Boomer said, “the players gotta play better, the coaches gotta coach better, the manager gotta manage better, and the owners gotta own better.”

Two days ago, feeling the heat, after a Yahoo! Sports story cited him as one of the two inspirations behind a big sit-down between some Red Sox players and the team brass in New York, Dustin Pedroia said damn near the same thing, while trying to tell reporters he didn’t think Bobby Valentine deserved a trip to the guillotine just yet. “When I spoke [at the New York meeting],” Pedroia said, “I said we all need to be better. That includes owners, Bobby, coaches, and especially the players.”

You might prefer George Scott’s flair for rhetoric but you can hear the same sentiment in the Red Sox’s incumbent captain-in-everything-but-name. And if you agree with Scott and Pedroia and about half a score of analysts, since the Red Sox’s toxins have swollen to nuclear fallout levels, then the owners who gotta own better could—should?—take step one by admitting and correcting their biggest 2012 mistake.

Not at the end of this season. Not at the end of next season. Now. Or, at least, after the Red Sox and the Yankees get finished with each other this weekend. For the Red Sox’s sake; and, for Valentine’s, too.

“Of course Bobby Valentine should be fired,” Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports writes. “Some rival executives say the Red Sox should have fired him as manager two weeks ago, when they had a better chance of salvaging their season.”

The Red Sox were toxic enough before team president Larry Lucchino, who’s believed only too widely to have done so, overruled general manager Ben Cherington and a few other Red Sox brass and—contradicting those people’s assurances, including to enough players, that Valentine wasn’t even a topic—bringing Valentine aboard to succeed the ill-fated Terry Francona.

Right then and there, there should have been red flags run up the flagpoles, and not merely because of Valentine’s major league rap sheet, which was considerable enough. What manner of management allows some of its people to assure players they won’t be hiring a certain individual, then overrides the man who’s supposed to have that authority (Cherington, succeeding Theo Epstein, who must have known something like this would be coming, if Francona walked before he could be strapped to the guerney) and hires that individual anyway?

And what manner of management, even removing the former observation from the equation, would think that, whatever animated the September 2011 collapse, the Red Sox—who probably needed a certain kind of disciplinarian to help them right themselves—needed a man whose history, too much repeating itself this season, indicates he doesn’t obey the line between mere discipline and playing with matches in the middle of toxic fumes?

The players aren’t even close to blameless. Let’s say it unequivocably. The Red Sox aren’t the only team wracked by the disabled list; it isn’t just the injuries that have produced their inconsistent-to-impossible play. There do remain a few clubhouse cancers among them. But how brilliant an idea could it have been to hire a manager who wouldn’t have needed a knife and fork to attack the clubhouse chicken spread because, as Johnny Carson once said of a once-fabled Hollywood gossip reporter, he cuts his food with his tongue?

There’s something almost nobody’s been thinking about all that much in the middle of the hoopla. I noted it a few days ago, and it bears a revisit. It was what Valentine said, to the Boston Herald, when the Yahoo! Sports story broke and the madness ramped up to, ahem, fever pitch. “I hear a lot of (players) say, ‘Why doesn’t anybody talk about this other team like that? Why don’t they talk about anyone else?’ I just say, ‘It’s just because this is who we are. We’re the Red Sox.’ And maybe it’s because of who I am, too. They have to understand, I’m here. There’s going to be a lot of bullets thrown my way, and they can become collateral damage.

You don’t have to look too hard to discover managers past who took no crap, called players to public account, but drew the line at letting their players become collateral damage for their bluster or bristle.

An otherwise high-flying bunch of early 1980s Phillies got fed up with Dallas Green’s whip-cracking public floggings but not even the most disgruntled Phillie accused Green of being reckless enough to leave the undeserving in the firing line, too. A collection of 2011-2012 Mets have a manager who takes no crap, calls players to public account, but not even the most disgruntled among the very few disgruntled Mets have had any reason to accuse Terry Collins of leaving them to be collateral damage. No early-80s Phillie or 2011-12 Met has yet accused either Green or Collins of agreeing to talk privately about one or another concern only to have either manager fink to the press about it, so far as I know.

One of the twists is that Collins, who once helped to blow up a pair of Show clubhouses with high-strung, high-anxiety management, as in treating every single act in a game as though it were life and death, actually learned from his mistakes. Valentine, by every indication, hasn’t.

Valentine took the Mets to a pair of postseasons (including a World Series) during his earlier reign there. But in 2002, when the Mets began to collapse more profoundly, his act—specifically, ginning up conflict with particularly popular players, playing certain members of the press against others, and using private concerns to rip players publicly in short order—finally got him run out of the job.

Maybe nothing could have stopped the Red Sox high command from overreacting after the September shrinkage. Still, the Atlanta Braves collapsed practically even-up with the Red Sox, but the only thing they did afterward was change hitting coaches. The Red Sox let Francona resign, after he’d only been the most successful manager—and maybe the best—in franchise history, so they wouldn’t have to throw the switch on him. They let Epstein walk in favour of Cherington. (Epstein made a couple of mistakes with a couple of dubious contracts, but was that enough to think about life without him?) Then, they all but stripped Cherington of power enough to leave room for a duplicitously-done Valentine hire which, considering Valentine’s history, shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

It left room for Valentine to question since-traded Kevin Youkilis’s heart in hand with his physical maladies when the season was barely underway. It left room for Valentine to betray since-traded Kelly Shoppach’s private, off-the-record complaint about playing time. To betray Clay Buchholz’s private, off-the-record request for one extra day’s rest, implying a no-heart tag upon the Red Sox’s most consistent starting pitcher this season. To admit to a smartass remark to Will Middlebrooks over one bad inning when he should have kept his mouth shut about it in the first place. To leave Jon Lester in to take one of the worst beatings a starting pitcher without his best stuff on a day can take (which prompted the New York sit-down in the first place, apparently), with, apparently, nobody else willing to stand up and take one for the team. (Wonder why?) To betray Carl Crawford’s wrist soreness, after the outfielder came out of a game late, before allowing Crawford himself a chance to talk about it. Among other things.

Plan for the post-Beckett future . . .

Such a shame that it didn’t leave room for the Red Sox powers to seize the moment, and unload Josh Beckett when the Rangers were willing to bring him aboard, with Beckett’s reputation in tatters and the righthander still thought to be unrepentant in his actual or alleged defiance. (Beckett has 10-5 rights and a no-trade clause, but he’s also a native Texan who might have enjoyed going home to pitch.) Moving Beckett at the non-waiver deadline might not have stanched the bleeding, but it might have sent a message that, yes, we made a big mistake bringing aboard the human chemical leak to manage this team but no, we’re not going to suffer any other fools gladly any longer.

You think Valentine non-chalantly shrugging that his players might have to accept that he’ll leave them as collateral damage should have jolted the Red Sox powers bolt upright? You should have heard what he told a radio station in the middle of the latest hoopla: From what I gather it’s common, it’s what happens here. One of the things I was discussing with one of the players was that all this noise is one of the reasons players don’t like to sign here. You know, they don’t have to deal with it in other markets. They don’t have to worry about the drama of the day; they can just go out and play baseball.

Good luck getting coming or future free agents to sign on for that. I can think of no more delicious translation that that of Gordon Edes, longtime Boston Globe columnist, who’s been an ESPN writer since 2009:

So, there you have it, the raw material for future recruiting pitches by general manager Ben Cherington. It’s bad enough that 2012 has been a disaster. Might as well pay it forward, too.

Boston: You Sure You Want to Play Here? No One Else Is.

Boston: The Noise Will Drive You Nuts.

Boston: A Place Only a Drama Queen Could Love.

It’s time for the Red Sox to think about blowing up 2012 once and for all. Even if—unlikely as it may seem today, as opposed to, say, 2004, or 2007—they spend the weekend sweeping the Yankees, who are no strangers to off-field toxins but who still manage to field a team of absolute professionals. (On the other hand, maybe Red Sox Nation should think seriously about rooting for the Empire Emeritus—as distasteful as the prospect normally might be—to wax the Red Sox in a sweep and hasten Valentine’s trip to the chair.) Write 2012 off as the unmitigated disaster it is.

. . . and let the GM be the GM . . .

Next, clear their throats to swallow the rest of Valentine’s contract. Now. Lucchino may have assured one and all that Valentine will survive the season, but it looks more and more as though the Red Sox won’t survive him. Lucchino’s bosses can convince him it’s the right move, before Valentine pours another can of gasoline on another fire. And, before the alienation of three valuable holdover coaches (bench coach Tim Bogar, bullpen coach Gary Tuck, batting instructor Dave Magadan), who seem to care for Valentine about as much as he seems to care for them, which is barely if at all, prompts one or all of them to think about walking.

Then, finally, start reshaping this roster. Start planning on a post-Beckett future and find a trading partner who’d be willing to take on some of Beckett’s salary through 2014. (The Rangers might still be a viable candidate, considering Ryan Dempster might walk into the free agency waters at season’s end.) Secure yourselves with a core of Pedroia, Buchholz, Jon Lester, and Jacoby Ellsbury; they’re still young enough, and under friendly-enough deals, that they can recover once the Valentine toxin is purged. Unless, of course, the only way to purge Beckett and bring in valuable return might be to include Ellsbury in the deal, as painful as that might be. (The Rangers may have had just that in mind at the non-waiver deadline.) And, while you’re at it, let it be known to one and all in that clubhouse that Ellsbury was no wimp, the way some of those characters accused him of being when he missed so much of 2010 with back trouble, pointing to his trying to play when still not recovered quite all the way from another injury this year.)

Let nothing and no one stand in the way of the emergence of lefthander Felix Doubront, third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and shortstop comers Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts. And, if John Lackey returns successfully enough from Tommy John surgery in 2013, don’t be shy about yielding him to that year’s non-waiver trade deadline.

Spend 2013 if you must as a rebuild year. But rebuild in earnest. If you want people to take the rebuild seriously, including your own players, you can’t wait to send Valentine to the firing squad. You could let bench coach Tim Bogar take the team to play out the string. You can let Cherington be the general manager in more than just job title. And, you could explore a couple of managing possibilities for 2013 in advance.

You can think about Gene Lamont, who was on your minds before you went for Valentine and is probably better than his previous teams allowed him to be. You can think about asking the White Sox for permission to talk to Joe McEwing, once a hustling utility player (Tony La Russa admired the hell out of him) who’s made an under-the-proverbial-radar reputation for game knowledge and hustle managing in their system. You can think about asking the Phillies for permission to talk to Ryne Sandberg, since the Cubs, insanely enough, didn’t want him for all the work he put in in their system to prove himself, and Charlie Manuel isn’t about to take the fall for the Phillies’ deflation this season.

Before the players can play better, the owners gotta own better. The same ownership who built two World Series winners in four seasons can start a fresh rebuild by dropping the blindfold and the cigarette on Valentine. Now.

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