Monday, September 10, 2012

Down the stretch

Here it is mid-September, and it's an odd time of year for the Red Sox fans.

They are following the National Football League instead of the baseball scores.

When's the last time that happened? I guess the 2001 season has that feeling. That was the year when Jimy Williams was fired and replaced by Joe Kerrigan, who went 17-26 and seemed to destroy a good reputation built up over the years as a pitching coach. (Although, you too can be a good pitching coach with Pedro Martinez running out there every five days.)

But perhaps that isn't bad enough. Perhaps we have to go back to the 1994 Red Sox, who went 54-61 in a short season under Butch Hobson. Even Roger Clemens went 9-7 on that team.

The Red Sox problems have been well documented. They started last September, when the team forgot how to pitch for a month and missed out on a playoff spot. The collapse received a little more attention than the Braves' fold, in part because of market size. Then the stories started to leak out about chicken snacks among the starting pitchers who weren't playing on a particular day.

Theo Epstein fled to the Cubs, where he soon discovered what a rebuilding job really looks like. Terry Francona fled to ESPN, following the tradition of Bill Parcells and Doug Collins of keeping your name out there until the next good coaching job comes along.

From there, life in Fenway Park seemed to spiral downward. New general manager Ben Cherington wasn't allowed to pick his own manager, as Bobby Valentine got the job. And Valentine wasn't allowed to pick all of his own coaching staff, which is never a good sign. Valentine knows his baseball inside out, and I still can't believe he got THAT Mets' team in 2000 into the World Series (go look at the roster sometime). But I wouldn't prescribe him as the anecdote for a potentially tense situation.

Valentine didn't help himself by making some curious remarks about Kevin Youkilis, who might be in decline physically but certainly always gave 100 percent on the field and was popular. He also got hamstrung by injuries to players like Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz, and events such as Daniel Bard's complete loss of effectiveness. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett were pretty bad in the first half of the season as well.

Then came the reboot. You'd probably heard a little about the trade that sent a quarter of a billion dollars in contracts to the Dodgers for mostly prospects. It was the smart thing to do under the circumstances, since the season was going nowhere. Still, I wouldn't want to be in charge of selling tickets and sponsorships next season. And since the move, the current Red Sox team seems to be saying that if the front office has given up on us, we'll give up on them. They are in last place in the American League East.

Someone will pay for all of this, and certainly Valentine will have to be sacrificed. Bobby V. had me somewhat emotionally when he took Tony Conigliaro's number (they were roommates with the Angels), and I don't think he had a fair chance. Still, he didn't help himself at times.

But there's one big question that hangs over the franchise. It was asked a few years ago by a reporter, and it still remains valid today. Why don't star players on the Red Sox ever leave on good terms?

Ponder the list, which obviously includes Youkilis and Beckett. Pedro Martinez departed as a free agent after a squabble over contract length. Nomar Garciaparra had turned sullen by the time of his trade. Manny Ramirez's own teammates didn't want him around. Heck, we could go back to Mo Vaughn about this. Well, Carl Yastrzemski wasn't run out of town.

Boston baseball is followed as closely as it is anywhere in the country. The media can have an unyielding appetite, and the pressure is intense. It takes a certain type of personality to thrive there. The catch is that it takes a certain type of personality to stay there. When the rebuilding process begins this year, Red Sox management will have to ponder those factors in addition to mere baseball skills.

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