The ballad of John Farrell’s execution

John Farrell---executed.

John Farrell—executed.

You can’t fire a third of the team, so it’s believed, so the Red Sox did the next best thing the day after they were shoved to one side by the Astros in a division series. They fired the manager who finally lost his way and control of the Red Sox clubhouse. Even if a lot of it wasn’t his fault.

A lot.

John Farrell was just too convenient a whipping boy for Red Sox Nation. To the point where enough believe he’d have been executed after 2015 if not for his courageous battle against cancer.

How else explain the summary execution of a manager who managed to coerce fifteen extra-inning wins out of his bullpen? Who got the most out of an offense distinctly lacking in long ball power while some of its best younger players had surprising regressions?

Farrell somehow held on despite his best starting pitcher vaporising going 9-6 down the stretch and his 2016 Cy Young Award winner turning up 4-11 at the All Star break and pitching only .500 ball after the break. He ran into a Houston buzzsaw at a time when the Red Sox were probably drained from winning an American League East they probably shouldn’t have won.

Which made him the first Red Sox manager in the divisional play era to win two straight American League Easts. Farrell this season did the best he could with what he wasn’t given after last season. On the other hand, he did let Chris Sale start one inning too many in Game Four of the division series.

Who knew the Red Sox would miss David Ortiz this much? You knew damn well they were going to miss his run production, but who figured—even with the Red Sox taking a division title without him—that nobody in the Red Sox clubhouse would pick up the leadership baton after Big Papi called it a career after last season?

There was no Ortiz in the clubhouse to tell David Price if he even thought about starting a battle of wits with an overqualified Hall of Fame pitcher named Dennis Eckersley he’d be sliced, diced, chopped, pureed, and baked in the same movement.

Dustin Pedroia, whom a lot of people figured would assume the baton upon Ortiz’s retirement, only proved he was even less comfortable being a team leader than he was when Ortiz was around to have his back. He also proved himself suited for anything but as well. Leading by example is one thing, but when the Red Sox needed a clubhouse cop Pedroia couldn’t walk the beat.

It was one thing for Pedroia to call out his foolish mates when they launched a pointless beanball war with the Orioles. But it was something else entirely for Pedroia to lift not one finger—other than to cheer right along with some of his teammates, it was said—when Price launched from his Eckersley attack toward what a lot of Red Sox observers say was turning the clubhouse into an us-versus-them clubhouse and unifying the team through negativity.

The Yankees and the Astros fortified their clubhouses with veterans who could play and who were solid character enhancers. The Cubs and the Dodgers already had such veterans. The Red Sox looked as though they thought character meant “characters” and decided they had quite enough of those.

Pedroia’s inability to lead—in hand with his season-long knee issues—really hit where it hurt. The Red Sox did have Mitch Moreland and Chris Young, but those two weren’t enough by themselves to police a clubhouse that wasn’t really sure how much policing it needed . . . and probably would have charged police brutality against anyone who tried.

General manager Dave Dombrowski, true to his history, mortgaged the farm to win now, but he forgot a few key elements. He punted on Edwin Encarnacion last winter while the Yankees welcomed Matt Holliday and Todd Frazier and the Astros re-welcomed Carlos Beltran. Encarnacion may not be Ortiz but he does have a jacket in big games, he would have provided power in the order, and he would have been a solid clubhouse presence.

Meanwhile, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts kept quiet in the clubhouse. They didn’t have great seasons, so you could understand to a certain point. Whether either or both turn into clubhouse leaders in due course is probably a matter of speculation. There doesn’t seem to be a large group ready to bet on either or both just yet.

But it was impossible to miss Betts, Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. regressing somewhat this year, after Farrell had been their primary mentor as they developed. Yes, it feels funny saying a player with 6.2 wins above replacement level this year regressed, but in Red Sox Nation Betts hitting a mere 24 home runs and driving in a mere 102 runs (in 2016: 31/113) is as good as taking a long walk off a short plank.

Farrell’s largest mistake in 2017 may have been how he didn’t handle Price’s attack on Eckersley. Practically every non-uniformed individual on the Red Sox payroll apologised to the Hall of Famer for Price’s absolutely unwarranted assault—because Eckersley had the audacity to point out on the air that Eduardo Rodriguez did indeed have a bad outing on rehab on the farm.

Farrell not only said publicly he hadn’t asked Price for that apology, he wouldn’t ask for it. It’s not that Eckersley was incapable of handling such juvenility—getting into a battle of wits with Dennis the Menace is something like bringing a butter knife to the Battle of the Bulge—but the skipper just fortified Price’s ability to rally the clubhouse in the wrong way.

Once upon a time, the Red Sox tangled with the Yankees in a season-ending game which meant the pennant for either team. After a wild argument over a play at the plate, young Yankee outfielder Cliff Mapes demanded to know how much the plate umpire had bet on the game—to the umpire’s face. Mapes was ordered to apologise post haste by manager Casey Stengel. The kid obeyed the order.

That was then, this is now. Not demanding Price apologise might have been the real reason Farrell lost his job at last, but Dombrowski isn’t saying just yet.

Neither has Dombrowski said whether Farrell would have kept his job if the Red Sox had won the division series instead of the Astros. As Boston Herald columnist Ron Borges writes, Farrell came to believe his players’ feelings were more important than the team and its culture top to bottom.

The man who vapourised the toxins metastasised by the Bobby Valentine nightmare of 2012 to lead the Red Sox to a third World Series championship in eight seasons, then survived two straight cellars to win two straight divisions, lost something in the translation.

Farrell wasn’t exactly Francona as a communicator, either. He lacked Francona’s endearing self deprecation and willingness to explain even the most eye-rubbing moves in ways that suddenly made sense to the befuddled as well as the knowing. By the time Farrell found his way to make things make sense no matter how little sense they made at first, it was like finding the brake on a runaway train two seconds before the wreck.

So it’s being said around Red Sox Nation, anyway. Farrell wasn’t exactly the only one responsible for the Red Sox’s current state of disarray. Whatever they bring in to succeed the manager, though, it can’t be the Valentine type. And if the Red Sox don’t address their power and pitching issues this winter, Dombrowski and higher may have some splainin’ to do. As if they don’t already.

Just as it was after the 2011 collapse—for which Terry Francona basically quit before he could be executed after that season—the last thing the Red Sox need to vapourise the clubhouse toxins is another blowtorch.

2 thoughts on “The ballad of John Farrell’s execution

  1. Great article, well written, insightful, inside baseball.

    Leadership is a tenuous vocation, and the stuff it is made of – respect, affection, authority, confidence, vision – are easily lost.

    The Red Sox have no captain, because they have no leader. Pure and simple.

    Do not blame Pedroia for this; he’s a ball player, one among equals: on the field he is a star, but in the locker room he is one among equals. He is not the Captain. Since when is it his job to be locker room boss?

    Last captain they had was Varitek ~ who bungled it ~ things got tough, and he sold out Terry Francona.. When his manager needed him, he was silent, and his silence was disrespectful, humiliating, isolating; allowed the snot face punks to disrespect the Coach. Where in sports is this acceptable? Answer: Nowhere -
    except Red Sox Nation. Result? The Sox sank like a stone in September, blew a huge lead and Terry – a winner – was gone. Varitek is a Judas!

    Rather than support Francona, they leaned on The Boy Wonder, Theo Epstein, almost solely responsible for breaking The Curse, and ~ while we don’t know what happened behind closed doors ~ Theo’s weak support of the manager during the crisis showed he didn’t defend Terry either, and why not? Why would a GM ever NOT support his field manager? Probably because he was told so. So Terry had lost his “moral authority”, as he put it, “lost his voice”, so isolated and Management cut him loose. Its no coincidence that he went on to Victory in Cleveland, because he’s a winner. Its no coincidence that Theo went on to Victory in Chicago, because he’s a winner.

    The Red Sox management has made it clear they do not want a strong manager, they want a weak manager, one who cow tows to the players, which makes it clear they will side with the players instead of the manager. That’s ass-backwards; but that’s what management does, right? They forget, players come and go.

    Contrast that with The Patriots: Nobody, nothing interferes with the TEAM.
    The great Tom Brady says: We win as a team, we lose as a team.

    A strong coach tells the puke face boys to sit down, shut up and play ball – like Bobby Valentine did. His reward? Pilloried, skewered, tarred and feathered. And for what? Bobby is pure baseball, perhaps the best baseball mind in the country: people forget, he won Titles too. He made mistakes, we all do. But he never had a chance, walking into a snakes pit; and Pedroia admitted as much, when he came out with his famous “mea culpa” about Francona, and later Valentine.

    Instead of backing Bobby, management backed the players. same as they did Terry, same as they did to Farrell. All of them winners, all of them mistreated, all of them gone. Pedroia’s silence in the midst of those “crisis” is understandable: he is a professional baseball player, not a management consultant, a sports pundit, a priest ~ or even team captain. He showed more guts by keeping his mouth shut than by shooting it off, which is what spoiled brats do.

    The Red Sox track record is pretty clear.

    Whoever takes that job dares fate: the writing is on the wall.

    • Jim—Even if a team has no designated captain, there does need to be a player to step up and act like a clubhouse leader. Many thought Dustin Pedroia would be that player, but he wasn’t, and in a season when the Red Sox clubhouse needed the right kind of clubhouse leadership, Pedroia for whatever reasons couldn’t and didn’t provide it, and the Red Sox had nobody else, really, who could.

      Jason Varitek probably wasn’t the only clubhouse culprit during the September 2011 collapse, but you notice the Red Sox aren’t exactly in a big hurry to make him the manager.

      I’m convinced Theo Epstein didn’t defend Francona as he had in the past because Epstein suspected what indeed happened—he, Epstein, was given the shove shortly after Francona fell on his sword. Funny thing: the same September 2011, the Atlanta Braves collapsed . . . but nobody even thought of throwing an anchor to manager Fredi Gonzalez. A year later, he had the Braves in the wild card game. A year after that, the NLDS. Gonzalez had issues that weren’t exactly his fault—he lost Chipper Jones to retirement, he dealt often as not with injury-riddled rosters, he lost several of his best players and clubhouse leaders to trades when the Braves hit the re-build button (former GM Kevin Wren’s dubious trades didn’t help, either, leaving the Braves unable to afford some of those veterans and left with only one true veteran leader for 2016, Freddie Freeman)—but nobody ever had cause to accuse him of blowing up or losing his clubhouse.

      If the Red Sox wanted a weak manager who kowtowed to the players, they had one in John Farrell this year. A truly strong manager would have told David Price he owed Dennis Eckersley an apology like yesterday. A truly strong manager would have held Price accountable for uniting the Red Sox clubhouse in the wrong way this season. A truly strong manager would have suggested Pedroia needed to at least try to do more than lead by example (which he always did). Pedroia wouldn’t have had to shoot his mouth off publicly to make a stand in the clubhouse. Which, as I noted, was a big reason why the Red Sox missed David Ortiz’s presence even more than his bat. Ortiz would, I repeat, slice, dice, and puree a Price who thought it was smart to jump an Eckersley for doing nothing worse than observe on the air what was exactly true at the time, that Eduardo Rodriguez had a rough rehab assignment outing. (I’m pretty sure I don’t have to remind people that Eckersley is a Hall of Famer and Price a good pitcher who has a reputation for not winning the big ones . . .)

      You misinterpret Bobby Valentine’s kind of “strength.” The Red Sox clubhouse was toxic enough entering spring training 2012; Valentine lost the clubhouse that spring according to numerous reports around the team from that time. Valentine’s track record was too well known to the Red Sox brass—particularly his penchant for a) throwing popular players under the proverbial bus (he did it when he managed the Mets); and, b) blaming any and everyone else for problems he either creates or metastasises. (You might remember Valentine even throwing his Red Sox coaches under that bus.) Valentine could have pulled the Red Sox clubhouse together if he chose; he could, without kowtowing to anyone, have made it clear that 2011 was history and wipe the slate clean for 2012, start fresh, and he didn’t. He could have restored a few fundamentals without kowtowing to this or that player or turning spring camp into an eggshell walk, and he didn’t. He even threw Ortiz—one of his very few defenders, or at least one of the few not measuring Valentine for a necktie party—under the bus by calling him a quitter publicly . . . when Ortiz tried coming back from an Achilles injury that wasn’t fully healed and then had to be shut down for the season as a result.

      Valentine didn’t create the toxins in the Red Sox clubhouse entering 2012, and in absolute fairness the 2012 Red Sox also had a fair number on the disabled list at various times, but he lit a depth charge rather than try to contain and erode the toxins. It wasn’t only players who found Valentine trying. Coaches he’s worked with in most of his managing jobs found him difficult, if not impossible. Consider this from his bench coach on the Red Sox, Tim Bogar:

      You don’t know how many times these guys would come and talk to me about stuff. The last couple of times I’ve read stuff about that there was no communication or the communication was bad — the only bad communication was between Bobby and everyone. The rest of the communication was great. I talked to the players daily about stuff. We talked about everything. The coaches talked about everything. Now, whenever I get called for another job, the first thing they ask is, ‘So what’s the deal with what happened between you and Bobby and why would he say you undermined him?’ So I have to explain myself. I don’t think my reputation and what I’ve done in this game is being fairly justified by what has gone on here the last year.

      Bogar, for the record, ended up with the Rangers, managing them to a 14-8 finish in 2014 after manager Ron Washington’s unexpected resignation, then joined the Angels front office until Seattle GM Jerry DiPoto—who left the Angels in June 2015 but subsequently joined the Mariners—hired him as Scott Servais’s bench coach. The Mariners have made two runs toward the postseason under Servais and Bogar, though they fell short enough, but nobody’s complaining that I know of about life in the Seattle clubhouse.

      Bobby Valentine has a strong baseball mind (it’s an exaggeration to day he has the best baseball mind in the country) but he’s suited better to analysis and player development, really. Strong baseball minds are not always leaders of men. If I wanted a man to evaluate my farm system and tell me who the real prospects are and who’s just filling out the team, and who could be made into my major leaguers and who could be flipped for solid major leaguers successfully, I’d hire Valentine in the proverbial New York minute. But if I had a major league team who’d just been through a nasty pennant race collapse and uncertainty in the clubhouse? No.

      The Red Sox administration isn’t exactly the smartest when it comes to hiring and firing and reading the signals up from the clubhouse. There have been those team administrations who would have avoided the Valentine disaster or ended it long enough before it finally ended. The 1978 Yankees are a classic example: when Billy Martin went several bridges too far at last (the “one’s a born liar and the other’s convicted was just the match that exploded the powder keg), the Yankees brought aboard Bob Lemon . . . and he won the World Series with them. The Red Sox could have used a Lemon type for 2012. (One forgotten solid that Lemon had: he was very good with the younger Yankees on that team.) It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring one aboard now, particularly with the Red Sox’s youthful nucleus in need of a revival for 2018.

      Now, if only the front office could address a) their missing middle-of-the-order power, and b) some of the pitching holes . . .

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