Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Boston Globe: World's FInest Sporting Tabloid And Muckrakers Extraordinaire!!!

I have to hand it to Bob Hohler and the Boston Globe. That was one spectacular smear job this morning. In case you missed it, or simply chose to ignore yet another media piece related to the Red Sox 2011 collapse, here's the skinny:

The intrepid reporters at the Boston Globe, after conducting interviews with "individuals familiar with the Sox operation at all levels," have "revealed" a number of supposedly contributing factors to Boston's epic September meltdown. These juicy tidbits include, but are not limited to:

*Sox starting pitchers spending their games off in the clubhouse with beer, fired chicken, and video games.

*Manager Terry Francona dealing with marital problems and a possible addiction to pain killers.

*Several members of the team who had previously been "leaders" in the clubhouse exhibiting a pronounced malaise and generally grumping through the stretch drive instead of, well, "leading."

Their are so many things wrong with the tone and content of this piece that I don't really know where to begin, except to start at the top. Before even getting to the tawdry details, the author loses any and all credibility with this gem:

"All the Sox needed was Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey to apply the skills and commitment that previously made them World Series champions. Instead, Boston’s three elite starters went soft ..."

In future, Mr. Hohler, do not refer to John Lackey as "elite" or put him in the company with guys who were/are legitimate aces if you wish to be taken seriously.

Moving on ...

We'll begin with Terry Francona. Hohler makes him sound evasive and confrontational when discussing whether problems in his marriage might have affected his managerial performance. As if anyone is going to sound otherwise when being asked if and how something genuinely tragic and meaningful (the deterioration of a 30+ year marriage) had any negative impact on something not really tragic or meaningful (a bad month of baseball). Good to see we've all got our priorities in order, here.

As for the painkillers; if I'd had multiple knee surgeries and needed blood drained out of that knee on five occasions over the season, I'd be popping those suckers like Pez and so would you. They probably kept him from totally losing it, what with the grind of six months of near-constant travel on a bum knee.

Finally, the oft-repeated line that Francona was losing his ability to control the team. ("Oft-repeated" is a polite way of putting it; Hohler drives this mercilessly into the ground.) Bob, here's breaking news from anyone who has ever followed a sports team: this swtuff happens. Excepting the very rare cases of guys like Bobby Cox, every 5-10 years or so, organizations need a change. A new voice needs to be brought in not necessarily to fix a problem, but because the same voice/direction/philosophy grows tired and stale if it's around for too long. This is true for every large, collective enterprise. Businesses get new CEOs, teams get new coaches and GMs. It's not only unsurprising, but expected that after seven years and two titles, Francona might have found himself unable to exert the same control or command the same respect in the clubhouse. Implying that this somehow made him an inferior manager is flat-out wrong.

That cover's Tito's exoneration. You might want to grab a drink. We're just getting started.

Let's mull over the failed leadership of the Sox players next.

Bob Hohler - "In the end, only [Dustin] Pedroia and a few other players appeared to remain fully committed to winning, according to team sources. They said the veterans who no longer actively exerted their leadership included the captain, Jason Varitek, who was saddled with injuries and ineffective on the field (he batted .077 in September)."

So the team captain, a guy who never complained even as his flagging production forced him from the lineup more and more over the years, was apparently despondent and not as vocal this year? I can't imagine why a 39-year old ballplayer at the end of his career who has been marginalized by his organization would fail to exhibit plucky, leader-like qualities. Baffling, I say.

BH - "Although [David] Ortiz once gathered his teammates in September to try to rally them, his most memorable act off the field in 2011 was bursting into a Francona news conference to profanely complain about a scorer’s decision that could have cost him credit for batting in a run.Weeks later, Ortiz committed another disrespectful act by suggesting Francona was hurting the team by failing to insert reliever Alfredo Aceves in the starting rotation."

I think we all agree that Big Papi's storming that press conference over a scoring notation that cost him an RBI was ill-advised and somewhat less than classy, and that his comments about Aceves probably should have been kept in-house. But that first sentence kills me. "Although Ortiz once gathered his teammates in September to try to rally them ..." So aside from that one time when Papi tried to be a leader and inspire his team, he was a poor excuse for a leader? OK, got it.

BH - "[Kevin] Youkilis, by nearly all accounts, grew more detached and short-tempered as he tried to play through his ailments. He also factored in a divisive clubhouse issue as the only player last year who publicly criticized Jacoby Ellsbury - several others privately chided the outfielder - when Ellsbury missed all but 18 games with rib injuries."

No, no, no. Youkilis has been, "by nearly all accounts," a consummate teammate. He routinely played hurt, at whatever defensive position and in whatever spot in the lineup he was needed. He never told tales out of school or did anything other than his job. Over the grind of yet another injury-marred season, his becoming "detached and short-tempered" doesn't make him less of a leader, it makes him a human being.

By the way, the supposed clubhouse ostracism of Ellsbury, is not a new tale at all, and it certainly seemed to have no ill effects on the Red Sox center-fielder this year. .321/.376.522. and "MVP!" chants at every home game. Yup, he was clearly unhappy.

BH - "The gift of leadership also eluded Adrian Gonzalez. On the field, Gonzalez’s overall production was superb, but he provided none of the energy or passion off the field that the Sox sorely needed. ... Blaming five stressful nights over a six-month season for a tough year smacked of the self-interest that is uncommon among leaders of championship-caliber teams."

Wait, the new guy from the small-market team didn't immediately become a Fearless Leader and Important Voice? Shame on him. Doesn't he know that a .338 average and 27 homers are meaningless without leadership? Was their some sort of "Intangibles Incentives Clause" in Gonzalez's contract that we don't know about that he failed to meet? Sheesh.

I should mention that throughout this entire section, Hohler paints every player with one of the most common brushes used by media people who wish to vilify someone: the "so-and-so refused to comment" ploy. They utilize this tactic to make the subject seem standoffish, petulant, or like they have something to hide. It's probably a lost closer to reality that the players were simply tired of rehashing what must have been a humiliating and difficult experience.

Getting back to Beckett, Lester, Lackey, (and occasionally Clay Buchholz)'s clubhouse rituals. Yes, it would have been much better if they had showed more solidarity and support by remaining in the dugout during games. Yes, fried chicken and beer are not a great diet for professional athletes. Yes, it probably does indicate a certain lack of total dedication. But blaming September on this is laughably inaccurate. It says, right there in the Globe article, that they "began the practice late in 2010." So this wasn't exactly a new habit. Which begs the question HOW DID SOMETHING YOUR PITCHERS HAVE BEEN DOING FOR OVER A YEAR SUDDENLY INSTIGATE WHAT HAPPENED IN SPETMEBER?!?!?!?! All that beer and chicken didn't stop the team from going 20-6 in July, right? Again, I think it was shoddy behavior and pretty unprofessional, but implicating chicken'n'biscuits'n'brew'n'X-Box as a major culprit in this year's collapse defies logic.

While we're talking starting pitching, I feel obligated to take a moment to defend Tim Wakefield from the allegations of being selfish.

BH - "Wakefield also was part of the problem. Amid a seemingly interminable quest for his 200th career victory, he went 1-2 with a 5.25 ERA in September, taxing the bullpen as the Sox lost four of his five starts."

Hohler makes it sound like Wakefield insisted he start games so that he could make 200 wins, and his insidious gunning for that milestone cost the Sox games when he failed to perform well in his outings. Uh, Bob, I'm fairly certain Tito was starting him because the needed a starter in the rotation and Wakefield was what they had. You can blame him for pitching poorly, but not for being sent to the mound.

And then there's this : "The 45-year-old knuckleballer then appeared more interested in himself than the team when he asserted in the final days of the season that the Sox should bring him back in 2012 to pursue the franchise’s all-time record for wins (shared by Roger Clemens and Cy Young at 192)."

He's 45 for Pete's sake!!! He's looking for any reason to sustain his career. Not wanting to hang up his cleats is not synonymous with being selfish.

And now we come to the crux of this whole mess, the Red Sox owners and management, (hilariously, transparently referred to in the piece as "sources" or "anonymous team officials") who either straight-up paid the Globe to run this joke of an article or threatened to cut off all future media access if they didn't.

Throughout this mess of drivel, the owners are continually portrayed as sympathetic, well-meaning characters. We're apparently supposed to think of them as parents whose teenage kid has started breaking into the liquor cabinet and dealing drugs out of his room; concerned in general but largely ignorant of the details. "You've ... you changed. I just don't know what to do." Here's my favorite (i.e. most reprehensible) bit:

"As Hurricane Irene barreled toward Boston in late August, management proposed moving up the Sunday finale of a weekend series against Oakland so the teams could play a day-night doubleheader either Friday, Aug. 26, or Saturday, Aug. 27. The reasoning seemed sound: the teams would avoid a Sunday rainout and the dilemma of finding a mutual makeup date for teams separated by 2,700 miles.

But numerous Sox players angrily protested. They returned early that Friday from Texas after a demanding stretch in which they had played 14 of 17 games on the road, with additional stops in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Kansas City. The players accused management of caring more about making money than winning, which marked the first time the team’s top executives sensed serious trouble brewing in the clubhouse.

As it turned out, the Sox swept the Saturday doubleheader, but that stormy day marked the beginning of the end for the 2011 team. It was the last time the team would win two games in a row. After getting two days off, the Sox spent the rest of the season playing uninspired, subpar baseball, losing 21 of their final 29 games.

Sox owners soon suspected the team’s poor play was related to lingering resentment over the scheduling dispute, sources said. The owners responded by giving all the players $300 headphones and inviting them to enjoy a players-only night on principal owner John W. Henry’s yacht after they returned from a road trip Sept. 11.

But the gestures made no difference. The hapless Sox became the laughingstocks of baseball as they went from holding a two-game divisional lead over the Yankees after the Aug. 27 doubleheader - and a nine-game advantage in the wild-card race over the Rays - to finishing a humiliating third in the AL East."

Wow. I agree that trying to sneak in a game to avoid future scheduling problems from a hurricane was a prudent idea, but that's the only sane thing in these paragraphs. Of course players were upset that after "they had played 14 of 17 games on the road, with additional stops in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Kansas City," they were being preemptively made to play a doubleheader because the weather might require a game cancellation. Had they been forced to make up the game later on due to a hurricane, they would have been unhappy about that, but it would have unavoidable. Being forced into playing a doubleheader on the heels of a brutal road trip because of a "maybe" understandably ticked them off.

A note to Hohler: accusing management of being more concerned with revenue than with its players is practically a time-honored tradition of team bonding (pardon the alliteration). It does not constitute a reason why "the team's top executives sensed serious trouble was brewing in the clubhouse." In your rush to detail all the dissent and fractured loyalty of the team, you accidentally included one of the few displays of unity and solidarity. Whoops.

Except I can't blame you for including this particular incident or even the spin you put on it, because as I noted, like everything else you wrote, it's at the behest of the Sox management.

The management whose solution to the players' anger over that scheduling gaffe (so wait, now that's the reason they fell apart? I'm confused.) was to give them some pricey headphones and a pricey night on a pricey boat? You do know those are professional athletes, right? The minimum salary for a Major League Baseball player in 2011 was $414,000. That means even the lowliest man on your roster could afford several pairs of expensive cans and several nights on a fancy yacht. (I meant "lowliest" in an explicitly fiscal sense, obviously. The Sox actual lowliest player was probably Jed Lowrie.)

"But the gestures made no difference." Well, you did all you could. Jerks.

Look, I'm not a Red Sox fan. I had no vested interest in writing this rant other than how furious the original article made me as someone who writes about sports and tries to do so well. This blog is a hobby, but I'd love to make it a career. If all it takes is regurgitating what a front office tells me while completely failing to contribute meaningfully to the game, then I'm clearly trying too hard. Just answer me this: will I be unfairly chastised for eating fried chicken and drinking beer when I'm writing for the Boston Globe in a few years? Because I'm a southerner, and I couldn't live like that.

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