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About John Henry, Theo, the Nation, and the team

Being hardly above the small-minded joys of schadenfreude, Red Sox Nation revels in the rapid dismissal of their arch foes from Tampa and New York. Turns out the cheeky winners only survived the pathetic loser by about a week. Raise high the roofbeams, Seymour, and break out the bubbly. Rarely has the notion that misery loves company been more eloquently served.

Of course, it would be a serious mistake for this team and its addled adherents to rationalize that the post-season stumbling of the Rays and Yanks amounts to some sort of lame redemption, let alone that it softens the sting of Boston’s late and truly historic tank job. But then, all concerned are desperate for anything that will lessen the historical ignominy of the thing. In this instance, pride goeth after the fall.

All of which guarantees a wild winter. The hot stove flames already roar.

The kickoff came with the scapegoating of manager Terry Francona, which was happening even as his immediate superior, G.M. Theo Epstein, was declaring there would be “no scapegoats” for what Theo termed “an organizational failure” with “everyone sharing the blame.” Ah, yes!

“Speak for yourself, young man,” is what the boss of the bosses, John Henry, seems to be saying, although he has actually said very little aside from his somewhat stilted and self-serving ramblings on a talk show carried by his house radio station.

One senses that principal owner Henry feels absolutely no responsibility for this mess and resents any implications to the contrary while his buddy, co-owner and so-called chairman Tom Werner, likely feels roughly the same way. The third character in Fenway’s governing troika, resident prime minister and CEO Larry Lucchino, is tougher to read. Being a more traditional baseball man than the other two, Lucchino presumably understands that there is a big difference between a hedge fund and a baseball team. Do you think Henry will be shocked when he emerges from this fiasco much less beloved by the Nation? I’d bet the ranch on that.

What Epstein does now will greatly influence the final verdict. If he departs, it will be a public relations nightmare for the troika no matter how they spin it or how sincerely Theo goes along with the spin or labors to aid and abet it. The Nation can reluctantly come to grips with the notion that Francona somehow lost his grip on a clubhouse routinely full of traditional Red Sox underachievers and head cases. But they won’t be able to accept that the shy, so bright, and dashing man-child from Yale whom they deeply believe made their wildest dreams come true has also lost his fastball overnight.

Owners are funny people. No matter how it ultimately works out, and even if Henry gives Epstein a new contract at double the dough, the owner’s cynical aside about how “all general managers have a certain shelf life” tells you a whole lot about this guy. Owners can strike an entertaining even amusing pose, sort of like Santa Claus. But we actually never get to know them; not in the real sense. Tom Yawkey kicked around here more than four decades and we never really knew him.

It’s involves what Scott Fitzgerald famously mused: “The very rich … they are different from you and me.” And if there is one thing all owners have in common, it’s that they are all very rich and most of them, like Mr. Henry, are nouveau riche and such characters tend to be the most difficult of all. When John Henry said what he said he may have been effectively saying, “GM’s come and go but WE are eternal.”

And, above all, such characters do not accept blame. That is what they hire other people to do. I don’t know Mr. Henry but I did know Tom Yawkey and I am convinced that Tom went to his grave never believing he was responsible for the legendary blunders and pratfalls that littered his tenure to the point that it became synonymous with frustration and failure and even shame in ways that became the stuff of a rather tiresome if storied myth. And through it all – I remain further convinced – Uncle Tom devoutly believed the blame rested not with him but with those unworthy stewards he so handsomely rewarded for serving him so poorly.

Ungracious and even snide as it may have been, Mr. Henry’s snippy comment is historically valid, as he well knows. Even Branch Rickey – widely regarded as the greatest of all the general managers – had a very decided shelf life. Like clock work, the great “Mahatma” out-lived his stay at all three of his posts and was spectacularly canned in St. Louis, Brooklyn, and Pittsburgh. Like managers, general managers are hired to be fired. The only GM who proved genuinely inviolable was the legendary Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A’s of sainted memory who, of course, was also the A’s owner.

But the salient point is this: If GM’s are a dime a dozen, which Mr. Henry and his cronies may now conveniently believe, they don’t grow on trees, to grab another cliché. Show me a baseball dynasty and I’ll show you a ballclub that was led by first class GM’s. When the Yankees dominated baseball from the early 1920’s all the way into the 1960’s – as no team in any sport has ever dominated any game – they had two GM’s calling their shots over 42 years: first Ed Barrow, then George Weiss. On the other hand, teams that stupidly commission dumb and reactionary fools can suffer the consequences for a generation as the Red Sox did when the deeply misguided Yawkey placed his trust in the bizarre likes of Pinky Higgins.

Not that we are predicting anything comparable is about to happen to your contemporary Red Sox. No matter how the current nonsense is resolved they are in no danger of lapsing into the heresies of the past. We’ve moved well beyond all that. The more practical issue is: Can they remain apace of the Rays and Yankees who so gravely humiliated them in 2011 even if they, too, only survived another week.

On the one hand, the Yankees are the Yankees. They’ll remain what they became in the era of “The Boss,” the late George Steinbrenner, and more or less continue to be under his sons. And that would be a boisterous but bloated and pretentious assemblage of glittering, pricey, but intrinsically flawed talent smartly designed to overwhelm the regular season but ill-equipped to survive the post-season. For the ninth time in eleven years the Yankees were dominant from spring through summer but flopped in the fall. Do we detect a pattern here?

On the other hand, the Rays are loveable throwbacks, reminders of the game we loved as it used to be. They disdain mere muscle -- either with the bat or the checkbook – because they have no choice. Everyone admires their pluck and valor and revels in the wit and wisdom of their manager. But all of that has a shelf life, too. And it expires when you arrive at crunch time.

Barring the sort of flights of lunacy that bedeviled them in their distant past, the Red Sox should have little trouble elbowing back into the ranks of the elite. It’s a task that, given their awesome wherewithal, even a Pinky Higgins could handle. If his scorecard for recent transactions – both in free agency and the trade market – isn’t pretty, young Epstein still deserves the chance to be the architect of the grand rebound. But if I understand Epstein, you can forget about that. He’s gone.

Given a clear chance to extend a vote of confidence to his once favored boy wonder whom he’d seemed to regard as his own son, owner Henry casually declared in an air of faint boredom and a voice full of money, “Theo is not going to be the general manager forever.”

Which reminded me of that wonderful moment from “The Maltese Falcon,” when the thieving Casper Gutman looked down upon the shriveling Wilmer, and declared; “One can always get another son, but there is only one Maltese Falcon.”

Theo is no Wilmer. He’s gone.