Close Reading Rainbow
The big Francona/Shaughnessy tell-some book on Tito’s tenure in Boston will be available for purchase in a week, so its juiciest sections are getting the usual pre-publication flogging on sports media. It looks like Sports Illustrated will be publishing longer excerpts soon, but a few bits have been made available already. (The best run-down is probably in Gordon Edes’ piece on ESPN Boston.) My reaction is mostly that if this is the worst that Shaughnessy could coax from Tito, then Tito is without doubt one of the better human beings ever to manage a baseball team. There’s very little dirt.
The funniest thing, really, is how the Edes article demonstrates the ridiculous focus and diligence of the Red Sox media management team, as well as the pliability of the Boston press. There’s a small, barely-a-story anecdote about Francona becoming angry at a comment Tom Werner made at a lunch meeting, a moment which Theo defused quietly. And yet, well, see:
As for chairman Tom Werner, the book describes how the manager nearly walked out of a lunch meeting he had with the owners in 2010 when, according to the excerpt, “Werner talked about slumping television ratings and whined, ‘We need to start winning in more exciting fashion.’
“Francona started to get up out of his chair, but Epstein grabbed his knee. ‘A good move by Theo,’ Francona said later. ‘When Tom started talking about ratings, Theo knew I was getting ready to flare.’”
Francona admits he may have been primed to react “aggressively” at that meeting. A person with knowledge of Werner’s comment said Tuesday that Werner was laughing when he said it, and the parties present, with the possible exception of Francona, understood it to be a joke.
This is a source who not only knows what was said at a private lunch meeting, but also can comment knowledgeably on the internal mental state of all the participants in the meeting. Basically, it has to be Epstein or one of Henry/Werner/Lucchino. And yet Edes grants him anonymity to rebut Francona’s memory of the events. It’s simply unethical to grant anonymity to an entirely self-serving source, and it’s entirely ridiculous that Red Sox ownership has a 24-hour rapid response team for non-stories like this. This isn’t something that matters, really - the pliability of the Boston sports media matters, but it’s hardly new - but it is silly.
For something that does seem like a real baseball story, there appears to be a claim by Francona/Shaughnessy that the Sox signed Gonzalez and Crawford for marketing reasons. (This honestly sounds a lot more like a claim by Shaughnessy that Francona signed off on than something Francona himself thought.) I don’t find it convincing, though there’s a core to the story that is meaningful and a bit troubling.
The fixation with declining TV ratings led to the club commissioning a $100,000 market research survey, the results of which were discussed in November 2010, a little more than a month after the Sox had failed to make the playoffs, primarily because of a devastating run of injuries. “The document distributed at the meeting listed several factors in the public’s falling interest in the team,” the excerpt reads. “Chief among them was the ‘no-name’ lineup the team was forced to use in 2010 because of injuries and the lack of major trades or signings the winter before. In a section on male-female demographics, the report stated, ‘[W]omen are definitely more drawn to the “soap opera” and “reality-TV” aspects of the game. … They are interested in good-looking stars and sex symbols (Pedroia).’”
At first read, Epstein offers one of the most damning indictments of the owners’ priorities in the excerpt, although the consultants—and this meeting was a first, and last, of its kind for the GM in his tenure in Boston—are clearly the target for much of his scorn “They told us we didn’t have any marketable players, that we needed some sizzle,” he recalled. “We need some sexy guys. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist comedy. We’d become too big. It was the farthest thing removed from what we set out to be.”
The book contends that Epstein was responding “to the pressure from his bosses and the sagging ratings” when he traded for Adrian Gonzalez and signed free agent Carl Crawford, eventually signing the pair for a combined total of 14 years and $296 million.
You get a strong sense here that Epstein disliked his bosses. This makes sense, given what we know of his tenure, the gorilla suit epoch, and all that. He disliked them precisely because they wanted to determine baseball decisions based on not-100% baseball reasons, because they had a vision of the Red Sox as something other than a ballclub, something much more and much less than a public trust.
At the same time, and as Edes points out toward the conclusion of the article, the argument that Theo and baseball ops were forced into the Gonzalez and Crawford acquisitions sounds entirely wrong to me. Coming out of 2010, the Red Sox had a core of under-30 talent that just needed a couple more pieces to project as World Series contenders for several years running. Big acquisitions made sense. Theo’s desire to acquire Adrian Gonzalez had been widely reported for years before the trade. Further, there was a statistical case for signing Crawford, and the reports of the internal discussions on Jersey St generally tell of a baseball ops team who believed in their defensive numbers, whose research into Crawford suggested a player who would fit in well in Boston and age well as a ballplayer. They convinced a skeptical ownership.
Now, it is likely that baseball ops were given a directive to add superstar talent and given leeway to add long-term payroll in order to do so. It is reasonable that baseball ops, given this directive, tended to rationalize away information that could have challenged the intelligence of the signings - Gonzalez’ shoulder surgery, Crawford’s elbow injury, doubts about defensive statistics, the internal debate over whether Crawford’s D would translate in Fenway. But those failings, again, are on baseball ops much more than they’re on ownership.
Francona’s allegation that ownership seem only partway focused on winning baseball is a bit troubling. Not terribly surprising, and easily downplayed if you want to, but given the current state of the Red Sox, it’s hard to be immediately optimistic. Rebuilding the Red Sox from the disaster of 2012 is not going to be easy, and I’d have more faith in ownership and management if I trusted they were focused properly on winning.