The Boston Red Sox were mathematically eliminated from the playoff on Sunday after suffering a 5-0 defeat at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays. The loss was Boston’s 80th of the season already.
The big story coming out of the game was Bobby Valentine’s decision to use Daniel Nava to pinch hit in the seventh inning of a scoreless game. No big deal, until you consider that Nava was sent to the dish with a 2-2 count. Not exactly putting your players in a position to succeed, but many would argue that Valentine’s been submarining the Red Sox efforts all season long.
To hear the players say it, Valentine’s been the problem from Day One. When Valentine publicly called out Kevin Youkilis for not being “emotionally” into the games, several Sox players came to their teammates’ defense including former MVP Dustin Pedroia, who famously told Valentine (through the Boston media, of course) that this wasn’t they way they do things in Boston. It wasn’t long before Youkilis was dealt away for a middling pitching prospect and a utilityman who was DFA’d shortly thereafter.
These Red Sox have seemingly never recovered from a disastrous September collapse in 2011 and the fallout of the “chicken and beer” stories involving members of the starting rotation. If Terry Francona was fired for losing the clubhouse, Valentine never had a chance to win them over. By the middle of the season, there were reports of several players meeting with team ownership to attempt to ouster their manager. Clearly, the players have not been in favor of their new boss.
But the front office has stood behind their man. Valentine favored the younger Will Middlebrooks as his third baseman, so Youkilis was expendable. Kelly Shoppach was traded away so Ryan Lavarnway, another favorite of Valentine’s, could see big league at bats. Meanwhile, veterans like Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez were jettisoned. Yes, GM Ben Cherington was able to get out from under an incredible amount of money with that trade, but he also gave up on an incredible amount of talent. It’s hard to imagine he makes that deal if Cherington thinks the blame lies entirely, or even mostly, with Valentine.
There is no question that things have been a disaster this season at Fenway Park and one can only wonder how differently the season might have gone had Cherington hired Gene Lamont as the manager instead of Valentine. Lamont, a former AL Manager of the Year with the White Sox, also has experience guiding the ship in Pittsburgh, and has been serving as third base coach and right-hand man of Jim Leyland’s Detroit Tigers since 2006. Reportedly, Lamont was the runner-up for the job awarded to Valentine last winter.
The general wisdom behind the hiring of Valentine was that Francona had been too easy on the players and allowed the inmates to run the asylum, so to speak. Lamont, like Francona, is a laid-back guy with a reputation as a player’s manager. Valentine is a noted authoritarian, but one with such a bristly personality that he often offends pretty much everyone he comes into contact with. Further, Valentine was been noted for going weeks or even months with speaking to members of his own coaching staff, much less some of his players. Those are not only reports coming out of Boston in 2012, but the same stories followed his time as manager of the Mets and Rangers over a decade ago.
So it wasn’t just that the Red Sox hired a guy who was a bit more of a disciplinarian than the players would have preferred, it was that they hired the biggest jerk they could possibly find; the polar opposite of everything Francona was about. In trying to distance themselves from the sins of last September, however, the Sox have set their franchise into a full-fledged re-build.
It didn’t have to be this way.
If Boston had the foresight to pass on Valentine, just as Milwaukee, Miami, and Seattle did before he was hired by the Red Sox, and instead gone with Lamont, perhaps things would have gone better in 2012. The Red Sox began the year with one of baseball’s most talented, and expensive, rosters. Injuries early cost them their closer, Andrew Bailey, along with Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury. While those things cannot be blamed on Valentine, would the club have been better able to overcome adversity with a manager they actually liked and presumably respected? In all likelihood, the answer is yes.
If Lamont was in charge, there is no need for Pedroia to bash his manager in the press, because Lamont wouldn’t have said what Valentine said about Youkilis, even if it were true. There probably wouldn’t have been a mid-season attempted mutiny, there probably wouldn’t have even been a need to trade away Crawford, Beckett, and Gonzalez.
Of course, I can’t know for sure how things would have played out. I don’t know that Boston would have had any better record than they do today with Lamont in the manager’s office instead of Valentine, but I do know that Boston’s clubhouse has been one full of tension and distrust since the day Valentine took over and a clubhouse that is so locked in turmoil cannot possibly perform up to their lofty capabilities.
Bobby Valentine may be able to scare younger players into performing above expectations, but a veteran group such as this one needed a manager that would foster a comfortable environment, while also not being named Terry Francona. Lamont’s presence would have assuredly resulted in an atmosphere more conducive to camaraderie, and ultimately, to winning.
My guess is that without all the drama, an extremely talented roster would have been better able to allow that talent to shine through.