Firing the manager: An idea that never made much sense

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Grounds crew before the Red Sox’ 8-7 soggy win over the Yankees. Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.

At the end of the Red Sox’ disastrous 2011 season, Terry Francona—the greatest manager in team history—was fired (and kicked hard on his way out). The excuse: Well, you can’t fire the players. In fact, that’s exactly what they needed to do, and they did it the following year.

So now we come to John Farrell. As Nick Cafardo points out in the Boston Globe, calls that Farrell has to go are being stilled for the moment, but you can be sure they’ll be back as soon as the Sox start losing games again.

I don’t get it. I’ve never gotten it. If you have a manager who has the trust of the front office, why wouldn’t you keep him for as long as he wants to manage—five or 10 years, maybe more? Yes, there are some genuinely bad managers who have to go (Grady Little, Bobby Valentine). Same with general managers (Ben Cherington). For the most part, though, if you’ve got a good manager or GM, keep him.

Some of Farrell’s in-game moves are mystifying, but the team plays hard for him and he handles the pitching staff well—as you would expect, given that he was a very good pitching coach. The Red Sox were wrong to get rid of Francona, who may have needed a season off the field but should have stayed with the team; they’d be wrong to get rid of Farrell.

Firing the manager is usually a bad idea

Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles June 15, 2013
John Farrell in happier times — with David Ortiz in 2013.

The Fire John Farrell campaign is far enough along that Boston Globe columnist Christopher Gasper feels compelled to write about why the Red Sox shouldn’t fire him.

Personally, I’ve never understood the urge to fire managers. Sometimes you hire a really bad one and you have no choice. But when you’ve got a good one, you should keep him.

Lest we forget, after the 2011 collapse the Sox fired Terry Francona, the best manager they’d ever had, citing the truism that you can’t fire all the players. Less than a year later, they did fire all the players, more or less, leading to a World Series victory in 2013 under Farrell — a fine manager, but no Francona.

What bothers me about the 2015 Red Sox is that some of the problems were predictable — the lousy starting rotation in particular. But that’s on Ben Cherington and the front office, not Farrell. (No, I wouldn’t fire Cherington, either, but I assume he and the owners are engaged in some serious soul-searching.)

The Sox have plenty of problems, but Farrell isn’t one of them.

Photo (cc) by Keith Allison and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Some pressing questions for John Henry

Boston Globe InstagramThis commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post and at WGBH News .

The speculation had been building since Wednesday, when The Boston Globe reported that Red Sox principal owner John Henry had restructured his bid to buy the paper.

It reached a peak on Friday afternoon, when legendary baseball reporter Peter Gammons — himself a Globe alumnus — posted a one-line item on his new website, Gammons Daily: “A source says the New York Times Corporation has chosen John Henry as the new owner of the Boston Globe.”

Confirmation came early today, as the Globe and The New York Times each reported that Henry had purchased the Globe and its associated properties — most prominently Boston.com and the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester — for $70 million. The Globe’s story led page one, whereas the Times’ version apparently didn’t even make it into today’s print edition.

The sale price represents a huge comedown from 1993, when the Times Co. purchased the Globe for $1.1 billion, half the company’s stock-market valuation at that time. As if by way of justification, the Times’ report on the Henry deal runs through several other pennies-on-the-dollar sales of major metropolitan newspapers in recent years, including those of Philadelphia’s daily papers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, as well as The Tampa Tribune.

Henry’s winning bid also thwarts an attempted comeback by members of the Taylor family, who owned the Globe almost from its founding in 1872 until the 1993 sale.

Among the would-be buyers was a group that included Stephen Taylor, a former executive vice president of the Globe, and Benjamin Taylor, a former publisher. A lot of people in Boston were rooting for the Taylors. But the money they got for selling the paper 20 years ago was split among dozens of family members, and their bid to repurchase the Globe was widely viewed as undercapitalized. You have to assume that if they had the money, the Times Co. would have sold it to them already — or in 2009, when the Globe was first put up for sale.

The ascension of a wealthy local owner may represent the best possible outcome for the Globe. Nevertheless there are questions Henry will have to answer soon — starting with the fate of publisher Christopher Mayer and editor Brian McGrory, well-liked Globe veterans who generally get high marks for the way they’re running the paper. Will they stay? Or will Henry bring in his own people?

Here are a few other questions for Henry.

1. Will he seek to improve the Globe’s bottom line by investing — or by cutting? Unlike newspaper owners who’ve financed their acquisition by taking on debt that they then have to pay off by slashing the newsroom, Henry has the luxury of being able to do anything he wants.

Although paid print circulation and advertising revenue have been dropping, the Globe is believed to be marginally profitable — a considerable improvement over 2009, when the Times Co. actually threatened to close the paper over mounting losses. The Globe today also has about 360 full-time editorial employees. That’s quite a drop from the 550 or so the Globe employed a dozen years ago, as my WGBH colleague Adam Reilly recently reported in Boston magazine, but it’s still enough to make the paper by far the largest news organization in Eastern Massachusetts. The Globe may no longer be the 800-pound gorilla, but a 600-pound gorilla can still accomplish a lot.

My guess (and hope) is that Henry will pursue a growth strategy, and that he has a healthy enough ego to believe he can succeed where others have failed. Perhaps he’ll emulate Aaron Kushner, the young greeting-card executive (and onetime Globe bidder) who’s attracted attention with his attempts to turn around the Orange County Register by hiring journalists and expanding coverage.

One aspect of Kushner’s stewardship I hope Henry doesn’t emulate is Kushner’s emphasis on print. The Globe has taken an innovative approach to the Internet with its two-website strategy (Boston.com, which is free, exists alongside the paid BostonGlobe.com site), a streaming music station, RadioBDC, and online coverage of Boston’s suburbs, neighborhoods and colleges through its Your Town and Your Campus sites. (Disclosure: Our students at Northeastern University contribute to Your Town and Your Campus as well as to other parts of the Globe.)

Henry could be a hero to the newspaper business if he can figure out new digital strategies. A print-first orientation would be a major step backwards.

2. What happens to the Globe’s Boston headquarters? The Globe occupies prime Dorchester real estate near the University of Massachusetts and the JFK Library, leading to considerable speculation that the next owner might want to sell the property and move the paper. Indeed, the Globe’s land and physical assets might be worth the $70 million purchase price all by themselves.

The challenge is that the Globe’s massive printing presses would have to be moved. And the paper has been able to build a nice business for itself by printing a number of other papers, including the city’s second daily, the Boston Herald, as well as some suburban papers.

Still, it would make all kinds of sense to move the presses to a low-cost exurban location and transfer the newsroom and business operations to a smaller space closer to the downtown.

3. How will the Globe cover the Red Sox? The jokes have already started (yes, I’ve done my best to help) about Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, a notoriously negative presence who wrote former Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s trash-and-burn memoir Francona: The Red Sox Years, which is highly critical of the Red Sox’ ownership.

In fact, the Globe and the Red Sox have been down this road before. Until a few years ago, the Times Co. was a part-owner of New England Sports Network (NESN), which broadcasts Red Sox and Bruins games and whose majority owner is the Red Sox. Henry’s sole ownership of the Globe, though, would represent full immersion in a way that the NESN deal did not.

The real issue is not how the Globe covers the Red Sox as a baseball team but rather how it manages the tricky task of reporting on a major business and civic organization that’s run by the paper’s new owner.

Earlier this year the Globe published a tough report on a sweetheart licensing deal the Red Sox have with the city to use the streets around Fenway Park before games — making “tens of millions of dollars” while “paying a tiny fraction in licensing fees.” (Further disclosure: Some of the Globe’s reporting was done in partnership with Northeastern’s Initiative for Investigative Reporting.)

I’d expect to see tough scrutiny of how the Globe covers the Red Sox in the months and years ahead. No doubt the Herald and other rival news organizations will pay close attention to the relationship. The problem isn’t so much that the Globe is likely to go into the tank for the Red Sox (it isn’t), but that it’s really in a no-win situation.

The answers to those and other questions will emerge in the weeks and months ahead. What matters today is that our largest and most important news organization has been purchased by a local businessman with deep pockets and a track record as a good corporate citizen. That’s good news not just for the Globe, but for all of us.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.

Thinking about the big Red Sox trade

Josh Beckett and Kevin Youkilis meet President Obama at the 2009 All-Star Game.

I used to write about the Red Sox quite a bit here, but I’ve found that Facebook and Twitter are generally more than sufficient to express a few opinions and get a discussion going. Still, with the Sox having pulled off perhaps the biggest trade in team history, I’ve got to say something.

So here’s something: I like it. I’m thrilled to see Josh Beckett leaving, of course. I like Carl Crawford, but his body’s been breaking down since he got here. And though there are going to be many days when we’d love to see Adrian Gonzalez in the middle of the Red Sox’ lineup, the fact is that Ben Cherington, Larry Lucchino and company didn’t have the financial flexibility to fix what’s killing them — a lack of starting pitching. Now they do.

Bobby Valentine? I don’t know. I’ve got no problem with Bobby V. He’s not as good a manager as Terry Francona, but he’s been maligned since he got here for reasons that I don’t understand. No one was going to win with this team, especially with all the injuries.

The role of the sports media in the Red Sox drama this year deserves deeper exploration. Thanks to the competition between sports-talk radio stations WEEI and WBZ-FM, the environment seems more toxic than it has in many years.

No doubt there were and are problems with the clubhouse chemistry — Francona, Cherington and Valentine have all said that. And yes, more than four players certainly should have showed up for Johnny Pesky’s funeral. But is all the drama swirling about the team even remotely as important as the injuries and — beginning last September — the complete collapse of the starting pitching? (Insert obligatory reference to beer and chicken here.)

The craziness especially affected fans’ perception of Beckett. He seemed unwilling or unable to help himself in terms of public relations, and it strikes me as credible that his lack of physical conditioning is at least partly responsible for his miserable record this year.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if Beckett’s been concealing a significant injury — one the Dodgers presumably already knew about. Let’s not forget that another non-fan favorite, John Lackey, took the ball every fifth day last year despite having a torn ligament in his elbow. These guys want to compete. If it weren’t for Beckett, the Sox would never have won in 2007, and that should count for a lot.

The big loss was Gonzalez. Evidently the trade wouldn’t have happened without him. The fact that he was making way too much money and seemed a little soft when the game was on the line makes his departure more palatable. But the stories coming out about his supposed whining and lack of leadership should be taken for what they are until someone is willing to speak on the record.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

Beer facts about the Red Sox’ collapse

Boston Herald reporter John Tomase’s Sept. 30 article, in which he reported that some Red Sox pitchers were drinking beer in the clubhouse during games, is looking more and more like the story of this bitter off-season. “According to multiple sources,” Tomase wrote that day, “more than one pitcher drank beer in the clubhouse during games on the days he didn’t pitch.”

It’s been the talk of the town ever since, especially given that no one associated with the team has denied it. And today the Boston Globe’s Bob Hohler, in an all-known-facts takeout on the Sox’ historic collapse, names names: Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey. Lackey is no surprise, and neither is Beckett. For Lester to show up on that list is a little disappointing, given that he was thought to be close to Terry Francona. But, as Hohler notes, all three collapsed down the stretch, the single biggest factor in the Sox’ third-place finish.

Hohler offers some other details as well. It’s pretty clear now that it was time for Francona to leave, if only for the sake of his health. The acquisition of Carl Crawford is described as a Theo Epstein move, contradicting sports-radio chatter that Crawford must have been imposed on Theo by ownership. And it sounds like it’s long past time for Kevin Youkilis to apologize to Jacoby Ellsbury, privately and publicly.

Photo (cc) by Tim “Avatar” Bartel and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

It looks like Francona is leaving the Red Sox

Terry Francona

It looks like Terry Francona is leaving. And the most interesting take I’ve read this morning is by Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston, who makes it sound like Francona didn’t believe in some of the players that management saddled him with.

Edes writes that some of those in the executive suite believed the 2011 team “operated in a vacuum of clubhouse leadership. That in turn cultivated a climate lacking accountability, over which the manager presided with a curious sense of detachment, a marked departure from his previous approach, when he was fully engaged with his entire roster.”

OK, so that’s the case against Francona. But it begs a larger question: If this is true, why did he act that way? Did he simply not like this group? At least from a fan’s perspective, it didn’t seem that any of them were particularly loathsome except for John Lackey. And even Lackey is supposedly a much different presence among his teammates than when he’s throwing his hands up on the mound, lashing out at the media or filing for divorce from his seriously ill wife.

Certainly there have been suggestions that, after a certain point, Carl Crawford checked out. But who else? Nick Cafardo writes in the Boston Globe that the way the Sox babied Clay Buchholz was “nauseating,” which strikes me as a pretty weird thing to say about someone with cracked vertebrae in his spine. Then again, few in the media wanted to believe that Jacoby Ellsbury was really hurt in 2010. It’s safe to say Ellsbury proved them wrong, although some persist in the fantasy that Ellsbury simply got tougher mentally.

I’ve said it before, but my first choice would be for both Francona and Theo Epstein to stay with the team. My second choice would be for Francona to stay and Epstein to go. So I’m not happy about this.

I hope we’re going to hear a lot more about what was really going on in the clubhouse, especially during the disastrous September collapse. As for Francona, this is pure speculation, but I’ll bet he could have kept his job if he was willing to fight for it. Instead, it looks like he’ll end up with the White Sox, where he’ll be treated with the respect he’s earned as one of the best managers in baseball.

This just in: Red Sox fire Joe Morgan, express confidence that Butch Hobson will turn things around.

Photo (cc) 2009 by Keith Allison and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

This is the end

Our three-month-old HDTV was in the repair shop — and we’re a one-TV family. It sounded like the rain delay would be a long one. So I turned off the radio and went to bed. The Red Sox’ historic collapse came to its inevitable end without me.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Jonathan Papelbon had a terrific comeback year, so much so that the assumption he’d be gone after the season had recently turned into “they’ve got to sign him.” I don’t know. These things happen, but if Papelbon stays, I’m afraid he would forever be defined by what happened last night, reinforced by his meltdown in the 2009 playoffs against the Angels. Maybe it’s time to start over.

2. We’re going to hear a lot of speculation as to whether Terry Francona should be fired. That’s natural, I suppose. What I don’t want to hear is Theo Epstein’s opinion on the matter. Epstein shouldn’t even have a say. If it were up to me, I’d keep Francona and Epstein, but if I could only keep one, it would be Francona — the greatest manager in Red Sox history and as good a manager as there is today. (OK, maybe not as good as Joe Maddon.) Epstein has done a good job here, but he’s had a dubious two years, and he’s got some explaining to do. If I were John Henry, I might ask Francona if Epstein should stay.

3. Can the Red Sox seriously contend next year? All of a sudden, these guys look really old, without much room for maneuvering. Last night could truly have been the end of an era that started in 2003.

Who’s to blame? None of the above.

I haven’t written much about the Red Sox this year — at least not here. I’ve found that Twitter’s 140-character limit is a pretty good match for my baseball knowledge.

But with the team in free fall, I’ve been listening to a lot of sports radio. The consensus seems to be that Terry Francona bears some of the blame, and Theo Epstein a great deal more. Both propositions strike me as wrong. I’d say Francona is largely blameless — not entirely, but no one is perfect. And though Epstein clearly has had a bad couple of years given the way guys like John Lackey and Carl Crawford turned out, I don’t think he deserves that much of a thrashing either.

I could go on and on, but Earl Weaver explained it perfectly: “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.” The Red Sox’ five-man rotation consists of three disasters and two aces, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, who haven’t been at their best during the collapse. Notice I stayed away from saying that “they haven’t stepped up” or “they haven’t risen to the occasion.” Do we not think they’re giving it a full effort, or that they feel terrible about their recent failures? As for the disasters — well, that’s where Epstein has to look in the mirror over the winter and figure out what to do. Only the loss of Clay Buchholz was completely unanticipated.

Two other observations. Francona’s getting a lot of heat for not doing anything when Lackey stared him down the other night. Not doing anything? Tito had come out to remove Lackey, and he did. Mission accomplished. Seriously? As for the sloppiness and errors that have crept in, I think you’d have to be a robot not to be affected by being down by five or six runs early in every game. You’d like to think they players could rise above it and maintain focus, but they’re not really any different from the rest of us.

If it turns out to be true that Epstein used Peter Gammons to deflect the blame onto Francona, well, shame on him. Francona is the best manager in Red Sox history, and Epstein is among the best general managers in the business. I hope they’re both still here after the Sox’ likely playoff run comes to what we all imagine will be a short and ugly conclusion.

Three must-reads from today’s Globe

Manager of the Year?

I usually make the New York Times my first Sunday read, but there’s so much local news going on that I reached for the Boston Globe instead. I’m glad I did.

1. Was it Hunter Thompson who coined the phrase “to make a jackal puke”? Whoever it was, it definitely applies to Todd Wallack’s story on Massachusetts CEOs who reward themselves with ever-larger compensation packages even as their revenues dip and they lay off workers. Special bonus: the poster boy for this bad behavior is Sean Healey, husband of former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, who paid himself $18 million in 2009 — a 73 percent increase over the previous year.

2. Red Sox  beat reporter Amalie Benjamin has a terrific overview of the disappointing season that ends today. She correctly observes that Terry Francona should get Manager of the Year for his skillful handling of a team decimated by injuries and underperformers. Then again, Francona should get Manager of the Year every year. While you’re at it, give a listen to general manager Theo Epstein’s interview with the “Sports Hub” (98.5 FM) — so interesting I found myself driving around on Friday so I could catch the whole thing.

3. I have no intention of seeing “The Town,” but I have little doubt that columnist Kevin Cullen’s profile of Charlestown lawyer Charlie Clifford, defender of small-time bank robbers, is a hell of a lot more enlightening — not to mention entertaining.

Photo (cc) by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

“P” is for Papelbon and panic

No, I didn’t see Jonathan Papelbon blow his sixth save of the season this afternoon. I was working. But I’d say he’s now officially become a problem. Wouldn’t you? If he’d blown, say, two saves up to this point, the Sox would be leading in the wild-card race.

You can’t hold that blown save against the Angels in the 2009 playoffs over his head. Those things happen. But even though his statistics have, for the most part, been very good, I think most of us would agree that he hasn’t looked right since the beginning of the ’09 season — even though he can still be dominating, as he was against the Yankees the other night.

It would be a panic move, and I doubt Terry Francona would ever do it. But I wonder if it might be time to make Daniel Bard the closer, give some key innings to Felix Doubront and Michael Bowden (what is he still doing in Pawtucket?) and use Papelbon in some non-key situations for a while.