It’s not as if we have not been down this road before. Yogi Berra might say the present, on-going, and possibly endless Red Sox meltdown featuring scandal, treachery, and the bitterest of recriminations is a clear case of déjà vu all over again, the historical Red Sox having long ago perfected the fine art of self-implosion.
Among the classic examples – at least of the modern era – were the managerial merry-go-rounds of 1959-’60 when first Billy Jurges replaced Pinky Higgins and then Pinky Higgins replaced Billy Jurges. That came at the height of the Country Club Era when most of the team’s crucial decisions were crafted in hotel cocktail lounges. The final strokes of Higgins’s Stalinesque purge, in which he also got rid of Bucky Harris, took place in a Baltimore bar. If owner Tom Yawkey was even dimly aware of it, all he was able to do, in his own fine stupor, was ignore it.
In 1971, the team was split in half by a nasty dispute between Billy Conigliaro and Carl Yastrzemski that also ensnared Reggie Smith, Joe Lahoud, and Billy’s brother Tony, even though the latter was no longer a member of the team. The contretemps wiped out what little was left of the 1967 afterglow. A no-longer amused Yawkey lashed back by ridding himself of all the principals, except Yaz.
From Yawkey’s death in 1976 deep into the ‘80s all the brawls were corporate drawing room fiascoes as various characters worthy of a Dickens novel schemed to gain control of this jewel in the baseball crown, preferably on the cheap. The faintly hilarious climax came on “Tony C Night” in June of ’83 when the irrepressible Buddy LeRoux mounted a palace coup that in the end crumbled like the denouement in a Marx Brothers movie.
There have been other occasional descents into the familiar madness since. There was nothing pretty about the end of the John McNamara or Joe Morgan or Kevin Kennedy managerial stints. Who could forget the uproarious 2001 season, which starred Carl Everett and ended in the managerial follies of Joe Kerrigan? It was on that sorrowful if faintly appropriate note that the Yawkey era came to a close.
Three months later the Estate sold out to the John Henry group in a sweetheart deal – some have called it a ‘bag-job’ – that was totally orchestrated by the manipulative baseball commissioner. In their near decade with us, the new boys had been very shrewd about avoiding controversy while cleverly depicting themselves as saviors, humanitarians, and defenders of the faith. Until the last night of the recent baseball season they got away with it quite serenely. They could do no wrong.
Is it not wonderful how a soft liner clumsily misplayed by a miscast $20 million left-fielder can change everything in an instant? If Carl Crawford had caught that ball and they’d gone on to beat the Orioles in the 10th and then gotten lucky enough in the playoffs to make it to at least the second round, the testiest baseball discussion in this town at the moment would be about which of the pets should be named AL MVP, Gonzalez or Ellsbury? Happily we’ve been spared that.
For some – a perverse lot, for sure – it’s as if the good old days have returned. Those teams of yesteryear you once ended up weeping over while gnashing your teeth all winter were nonetheless loveable losers and if they were made up of deeply flawed characters, they seemed terribly human and thereby easy to identify with. Above all, they were never boring.
One confesses to having found the recent seasons of consistently great expectations – pretty much if not entirely realized – a tad tedious. When they finally snapped the alleged ‘curse’ in ’04, wise baseball men warned hat they would never again be so interesting. The current mess – a spectacular production even by fabulous Red Sox standards – is thereby a welcome change of pace. Face it, you members of the so-called Nation. They had been getting a bit complacent. And so had you!
How long will the prevailing nonsense roll on? It will certainly rumble until Theo Epstein is officially not only gone but formally replaced and officially proclaimed a non-person, in roughly the fashion Terry Francona experienced. There’s no chance Epstein will also get smeared the way Francona did. There’s no potential for that. But even if there were, it wouldn’t happen because those who roughed up Francona as he was boarding the west-bound heading out of town wouldn’t dare attempt the same stunt with Epstein. The backlash would be considerable.
It should not have gotten so personal as it did with Francona, with the spilling of cheap innuendo besmirching his character and reputation. He didn’t deserve that, whatever his managerial lapses at the end of his tenure. You wonder where the Globe is coming from with its massive front page presentation of the grittiest stuff. Was it our newspaper of record’s make-good for having rather too much pandered to the Henry ownership for nine years? There seemed anger behind it, tempting you to remind them that it’s only about a bloody game.
The question of who has been the source of the juiciest details concerning Francona’s personal issues lingers. Someone had to have leaked that dirt and there was initially the assumption it had to be the owner, or his cronies in the inner sanctum at Fenway Park. That suggestion – which swiftly gained momentum – is what motivated a furious John Henry to storm the ramparts of a mere talk-radio station to take his case directly to the Nation’s great unwashed.
It was a first, and in the interminable history of baseball there are very few of them left. Can you imagine Yawkey pulling such a stunt; or even Mr. Bombast himself, George Steinbrenner?
Henry’s performance on the radio was pretty much just theater, and this ownership team is good at that stuff. But all that aside, I believe him when he insists he and his pals had nothing to do with the smearing of Francona because they simply aren’t that dumb. My theory holds that it was an inside media job, with a couple of heavyweights who wanted to get it out but who didn’t want to do the dirty work, doing the deed. It’s an old trick in this town.
Epstein won’t get smeared, but he will get debunked on the way out of town. Ownership doesn’t want us to get too weepy about the fallen-wunderkind’s departure. Ownership also wishes to hold firmly to the rights of authorship to the epic tale of “How the Curse was Reversed.” They sure don’t want Theo to take all that with him. This much you can take to the bank: Theo won’t escape unscathed.
Otherwise, of course, they are happy to see him go. Their protestations to the contrary are only designed to ratchet up the compensation. At the last minute Owner Henry avows, “I would have loved for Theo to have been our general manager for the next 20 years.” But only five days earlier he also said, “Theo is not going to be our general manager forever.”
One has news for John Henry; 20 years is the equal of “forever” in this business. One can count on one hand the number of GMs who did not also share in a team’s ownership who lasted 20 years in the same town. Moreover, Mr. Henry also needs to understand there is also a “shelf life” for owners.
This mess has legs enough to carry all through the winter, right up to spring training. Now be honest with us, Bunky. Doesn’t a part of you delight in this prospect? You’ll be gassing about it with friends and neighbors all the way through the holiday season. That should be enough to keep Henry and his cronies squirming.
On the other hand, you ought to keep this much in mind: It could be a lot worse. You could have those swinging kids, Frank and Jamie McCourt, for owners.