The Red Sox need to receive, not send messages

Rafael Devers

Rafael Devers’s 4-for-6 Sunday—including a two-run single and another RBI single—helped the Red Sox bury the Royals. Where were days like these from others when the Red Sox needed them most?

When the Orioles sent Trey Mancini to the Astros in a three-way deal at the trade deadline, it looked like general manager Mike Elias pushed the plunger on the season despite the team rising back from the dead. No less than Baseball Prospectus described the popular Mancini as “the heart and soul of a franchise long depleted of either.”

Well, Mancini’s now guaranteed a trip to the postseason with the Astros having clinched a postseason berth at minimum (wrapping up the American League West is just a formality waiting to happen for them) . . . and the Orioles remain within sight of a wild card entry, a mere four games back of the Mariners for the league’s fourth wild card.

Nobody really wanted to see Mancini leave Baltimore, not even Elias despite his word-salad explanation of the deal. Not in the Oriole clubhouse, not in the Camden Yards stands. But candor requires us to own up and admit the Mancini deal wasn’t popular but neither did it prove disastrous. It’s been how long since the Orioles finished seasons with winning records?

The Orioles may end up falling short, but they put on a show of self-revival that portends well for their 2023 and shows what teams can do despite losing well loved members to the business’s actualities. There are teams who would do very well to pay attention, listen, and learn.

The team in Boston, for example.

It sent the Red Sox clubhouse into a wrench when backup catcher Kevin Plawecki was designated for assignment late last Friday night and released officially Monday. On Sunday, after the mostly moribund Red Sox ironed up and smothered the Royals 13-3, the players bathed the joint with Plawecki’s walk-up song, “Dancing on My Own.” That’d send the message, right?

What message? The message that it’s not nice to send a popular clubhouse guy packing? The message that it’s not nice to cut a guy loose who kept the club loose amid disaster and started the laundry-cart dugout ride for home runs with them even if he didn’t get to take the ride himself too often? The message that the front office just doesn’t get it?

How about whether the Red Sox didn’t need to be sending but receiving messages? Such messages as yes, the front office Lucys got some splainin’ to do but so do the players. They got some splainin’ to do about what NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase calls “this undercurrent of victimization and grievance that has left the clubhouse feeling like it plays no part in the results on the field.”

We saw it in the mopey reaction to the trade of catcher Christian Vazquez, whose replacement, Reese McGuire, has significantly outperformed him, it must be noted. We saw it a year earlier when trade deadline reinforcements didn’t arrive quickly enough, even though Kyle Schwarber ended up keying a run to the American League Championship Series. And we’re seeing it now with Plawecki, a fine backup and veteran presence who isn’t the issue here.

The issue is the reaction of players who seem unwilling to accept responsibility for their role in this disappointing campaign. When right-hander Nathan Eovaldi tells WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford the clubhouse misses presences like Schwarber, Plawecki, and Hunter Renfroe, it comes off as a direct dig at Bloom’s priorities. But how about Eovaldi fills that gap? We’re still talking about a veteran-laden roster, after all. From Xander Bogaerts to J.D. Martinez to Rafael Devers to Kiké Hernández to Nick Pivetta to the dearly departed Vazquez, the Red Sox did not lack for experienced, winning players.

So where were they when the season started going south in July? They never stanched the bleeding, even though within their very own division, the Rays survived the loss of burgeoning superstar Wander Franco, Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, All-Star catcher Mike Zunino, ace relievers Andrew Kittredge and J.P. Feyereisen, and potential future ace Shane Baz, among others. They currently trail the Blue Jays by only half a game for the first wild card.

The Rays didn’t give up when injuries hit, but the Red Sox did, rendering the final eight weeks of the season meaningless.

It might now seem an Eighth Amendment violation to remind the Olde Towne Team now. It wasn’t that long ago when their age-old rivals from the south Bronx went to back-to-back postseasons despite being hit with injury bugs so pronounced you’d have thought their games were episodes of Bones, Grey’s Anatomy, and House, and that The New England Journal of Medicine was really the Yankee yearbook.

I get it. Plawecki wasn’t a world beater at the plate or behind it; his usual role seemed to have been as the catcher of choice for starting pitchers Eovaldi and Michael Wacha, their two best starters when they’re not injured. Above and beyond that, Plawecki was one of the cast of Show characters who play roles unseen on the field.

“The Plaweckis of the world,” writes the Boston Globe‘s Jon Couture, “get teams through the grind, help rookies adjust, and are beloved for their conscientiousness and camaraderie. They’re needed. Thus, the pointed reaction for an end-of-the-roster guy.” (Thus, too, the likeliest reason the Rangers are interested in the now-free Plawecki and might even sign him today.)

Tomase gets it, too, but only to a particular valid extent. “Recognizing the temperature of the locker room is a necessary management skill,” he writes, “and at times the Red Sox could do a better job of communicating decisions to the rank and file.”

But we often go too far in castigating this move or that as harmful to the delicate clubhouse ecosystem.

Sometimes the players just need to man up and admit that management doesn’t owe them anything, because they did not honor their half of the bargain. Sometimes their performance leaves the boss no choice but to cut their buddy because he’s not part of the future. Sometimes next year matters more than this one.

Castigate Bloom as you wish for this unmade move or that unmade move or the other move that backfired. Fair enough. But when Tomase says the Red Sox players left Bloom little enough choice this year but to play wait-till-next-year, too (or wait-till-last-year, considering their reinforced run to the ALCS), he’s not just writing through his chapeau.

Lucky for the Red Sox they’ve got more 21st Century World Series rings than anyone else in the Show so far. Before that, a season such as this would have been written off as just another entry in the long log of rotten Red Sox malfortune. Who would have thought that the Orioles of all people would end up better off and with more respect approaching the finish line?

Could Fuld be the next Red Sox manager?

Sam Fuld, who fought the walls only too often as an outfielder, may have an immediate future as a manager—where he doesn’t have to bang his head on walls to make points.

Don’t look now, but someone is making a better impression upon the Boston Red Sox’s brass in the team’s managerial search than you might have thought. His name isn’t Alex Cora, either.

Sure, Cora’s still in the running to reclaim the job his Astrogate shenanigans cost him last winter. Sure, his squeeze-out happened even before we saw affirmed that his Rogue Sox turned out to be cheaters of a slightly less nefarious variety en route their own 2018 World Series conquest.

Like former Astros manager A.J. Hinch, Cora deserves another chance after having served the sentence that ended the moment the World Series did. But notice that Hinch is getting his in Detroit, not Houston. No matter how popular he was among his Red Sox players, Cora’s second chance cannot come in Boston.

You have to ask? Maybe Cora did or didn’t order, abet, or merely encourage his 2018 and maybe 2019 Rogue Sox to steal signs off the feeds in their video replay room. You don’t applaud cheating qua cheating when you say the Rogue Sox can be seen as led into temptation by MLB itself providing the apparatus. (Behind both dugouts in all parks, by the way)

But you don’t absolve Cora or his troops for giving in. Just because Mom and Dad left the keys to the hooch hutch lying around open before going out for the evening it doesn’t mean their short-of-legal-age kids have the license to get themselves swacked.

Let’s give the benefit of the doubt a moment and assume Cora didn’t order, abet, or merely encourage. No matter. The first responsibility of leadership is that you take responsibility for what your subordinates do. Or, undo. Hinch learned the hard way, too. He was a lot more forthcoming in the aftermath while he was at it. When he spoke of wishing for a second chance, he never exactly said it ought to be with the Astros.

To those Red Sox fans who were just as outraged over the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring as Astro fans outraged over the Astro Intelligence Agency, take heart. If Red Sox general manager Chaim Bloom gets his way, you might see a white knight riding in from Philadelphia soon enough.

MLB Network’s Jon Heyman says former outfielder turned Phillies coordinator for player information Sam Fuld has “a real chance” at landing the Red Sox bridge. “Fuld, who is from (New Hampshire) and is well regarded,” Heyman says, “can’t be ruled out here as Bloom is said to love him going back to their [Tampa Bay] Rays days.”

It’s not that Bloom’s unaware that previous Red Sox GMs found their ultimate managerial choices overruled by Red Sox ownership. Just ask now-Pittsburgh Pirates GM Ben Cherington. His choice after the infamous 2011 collapse, and Terry Francona walking subsequently before he could be booted, was anybody but Bobby Valentine.

Valentine wandered into a clubhouse already toxic from the 2011 collapse and played with matches. Even the 27 disabled-list trips Red Sox players made in 2012 weren’t half as detrimental as Valentine’s divide-and-conquer style. Questioning popular but aging Kevin Youkilis’s heart in hand with his physical health lost the skipper his clubhouse too early that season.

Valentine threw so many people under buses in Boston that Cherington probably sang “Happy Days Are Here Again” to himself when he got to fire Valentine after that season ended. The last thing Bloom should want now is to get an ownership boot in the backside by way of a forced hire he might have to can after 2021.

“Bloom may want a fresh start as he rebuilds this team from the ground up—in which case Fuld sounds like the man for the job,” writes Yahoo! Sports’s Darren Hartwell.

“The new chief baseball officer deserves his own hire, and Cora made his life miserable when he threw a managerial search on top of trading a franchise player last winter,” writes NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase. Bloom’s public statements about Cora have been cool at best, suggesting the former skipper needed to undertake some serious soul searching and image rehabilitation following his central role in Houston’s cheating scandal. If Bloom wants to start fresh, why interview Cora at all?”

Why indeed. But Red Sox brass traveled to Cora’s home in Puerto Rico to talk to him. You might think that’s an exercise in futility, considering Cora isn’t exactly an unknown quantity to the Red Sox. You’d also think the Red Sox wouldn’t need to know anything—other than, perhaps, the depth of his contrition for his Astrogate role and Soxgate allowance—that they didn’t know already.

Fuld was a hustling outfielder who rarely met a wall or fence he didn’t think he could conquer on the run. His frequent spells on the disabled list reminded him there were more than a few walls and fences that didn’t suffer fools or outfielders gladly. If he studied baseball history formally, the one day he ditched was probably the day they taught the sad story of Pistol Pete Reiser.

He defied the still-lingering prejudice against players who weren’t six foot-plus galoots, yet he didn’t make his first team right out of spring training until he was 29. He was also a solid contact hitter who could extort his way on base and whose injuries—especially one to his wrist ligaments—probably eroded those skills far sooner than they should have.

Fuld was also as analytically-inclined as a player as he was the type who dared the outfield to blow him to Kingdom Come. When the Phillies hired him following his 2017 retirement, Fuld became so well respected that he was on the short list for several managerial openings including four last fall. The Cubs, the Mets, the Pirates, and the Giants gave him serious looks before Fuld turned them down to stay in his Phillies job.

But with the Phillies canning GM Matt Klentak and their next GM likely to look for his own people, Fuld is probably very available now. He’s not exactly alien to New England, either. He’s the son of a longtime University of New Hampshire dean and a former New Hampshire state senator, and he grew up an avid Red Sox fan, keeping posters of Nomar Garciaparra on his bedroom wall and visiting Fenway Park as often as he could.

Fuld once made a big day of his own at Fenway while playing for the Rays. On 11 April 2011, he went 4-for-6 and might have hit for the cycle except for his final plate appearance, where he needed a single to finish the cycle but hit the ball far enough down the line that he knew he had a shot at the clean double and had to take it.

Consummating the cycle would have made headlines, highlighted SportsCenter, and thrilled his visiting family even more. But baseball’s more than great theater, and Fuld knew it. “I never thought about stopping at first,” he told ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian post-game. “That’s not the right way to play the game. If you can advance to the next base, you advance. That’s the only way to play baseball.”

A guy who surrenders a cycle to play the game right is a guy who’ll take his marriage of right play and right analysis and get whatever rebuilding Red Sox are handed to him to play the game right. Assuming Bloom is allowed his head rather than unexpectedly bereft of it, Fuld should be more than just a little green dot on the Red Sox radar.