A Fan's Desperate Plea to Red Sox Owner John Henry - Rolling Stone
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A Fan’s Desperate Plea to Red Sox Owner John Henry

Why following your team has become emotionally impossible

John HenryJohn Henry

John Henry

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The Red Sox lost again last night. I didn’t watch. As a native of Boston I spent the better part of 25 summers obsessing over the results of Red Sox games – I found out ways to get Sox scores when I lived in places as far away as Uzbekistan and Mongolia – but I haven’t been able to watch the team for more than a few minutes at a time all year. No sports team has ever been more unlikable, not even that disgusting Washington Redskins team from years ago, when Dan Snyder tried to buy a Super Bowl with overpriced free agents like Bruce Smith and Deion Sanders and instead got the most expensive and depressing 8-8 team of all time.

These Red Sox are worse, and as a long-suffering Sox fan I feel like it’s my duty, in case the team’s squinting, four-faced owner John Henry happens to be Googling himself today, to explain why it is that once-obsessed fans like myself simply can’t watch his product anymore. I say this without meanness or hostility: it’s not that I won’t watch the games, it’s that I can’t watch them. I’ve tried. But the team’s owners have made the vibe around this team so miserable that watching even one game is a little bit like watching someone die of small-cell lung cancer.

A few months ago, there were three insurmountable negatives that made following this team emotionally impossible for die-hard fans like myself. Of those three things, only two are still true. But let’s list them anyway:

1) The 2012 Red Sox for most of the year were not only losing, but they were doomed to continue losing.

This was because the team’s budget was maxed out for the next 4-5 years with monster contracts to four players, three of whom were not only not performing like stars, but performing below waiver-wire/scrap heap level. Before he got traded, Carl Crawford’s $140 million contract was like an oozing, two-centimeter boil that you wake up one morning to discover has grown up right between your eyes. Sure, you can go to work that day, have lunch with a colleague, and if you had a date scheduled for that night, you might even still go to it. But forget about having a good time, because you’re thinking about that giant boil on your face all day.

To put that in baseball terms, you watched every single Red Sox game doing the math in your head, trying to compute exactly how much Crawford would need to improve before his ginormous contract stopped being a karmic anchor weighing down the fan experience to “This feels like watching someone die of cancer” levels. Then you would watch the game and see that Crawford couldn’t throw a ball to third base from short left field without hitting a cutoff man, or you watched him desperately try to avoid striking out against a lefthanded pitcher with an 89-mph fastball, and you realized that this poor guy had an epic journey in front of him just to get to the point where in a vacuum he would push someone like Daniel Nava for playing time. He might complete that journey within 18 months, assuming constant work and perhaps a successful surgery with proper rehab – but even in that best-case scenario, he’s getting back to a place where he’s worth paying one or two million bucks a year. And he’s making 20.

Then you start making more calculations, like: even if Crawford gets himself straightened out, and manages somehow to get back to being a productive major league outfielder, he’d still have work to do to catch up to A’s outfielder Brandon Moss, who’s probably the third-best productive dirt-cheap outfielder the Red Sox have traded away in recent years for minimal or negative return. A starting outfield of Moss, Josh Reddick, and David Murphy would slaughter the production of the current Red Sox outfield, and the collective return the Sox got for trading those guys is a half-year of a by-then-worthless Eric Gagne, an injured middle-of-the pack closer named Andrew Bailey, and a year-plus of Jason Bay back when he was pretty good.

Instead of having those three exciting young guys for peanuts, we got rid of all of them and spent $142 million on Crawford, who as mentioned previously will need a dramatic career turnaround before he can even be plausible as the distant fourth-most productive player on that list of outfielders.

That’s just Crawford. The Sox also had John Lackey, perhaps the most unlikeable player ever to wear the uniform, a guy with the personality of Kevin Brown and the body of Dwayne Schintzus; the Sox gave him $82 million to deliver an ERA of 6.41 and a WHIP of 1.619 before he blew out his arm. Again, you could put a steel bucket over your head and reach into a bag of names and pull out any AAA free agent pitcher at random, and he will beat the numbers Lackey’s put up in his Sox career. The Red Sox AAA team, the Pawtucket Red Sox, have a couple of journeyman pitchers named Billy Buckner (no relation) and Nelson Figueroa who could beat out Lackey for a spot in the rotation, and the Sox got those guys for like eight dollars apiece.

Then there was Josh Beckett, a once-great pitcher the Sox gave a $68 million extension to in 2010, which happened to be the precise moment when he started losing about a yard per year off his fastball. As a fan, you could do the math and look forward to the last year of the deal, when Beckett would make $17 million a year to throw an 88 mph fastball.

Finally, there was Adrian Gonzalez, a great player whom we gave over $150 million to, in the hopes that he would be a 40-homer hitter at first base. He came to Boston and after a year forgot how to hit home runs, making him a slightly better version of Tino Martinez. During and since the acquisition of Gonzalez, the Sox got rid of their three top first base prospects: Anthony Rizzo, Miles Head, and Lars Anderson. Rizzo, earning basically nothing, is currently hitting .293 with 12 homers for the Cubs. Gonzalez, earning over $20 million, hit .300 for the Sox with 15 homers in about twice the at-bats.

It’s impossible not to think about these things when you watch the Red Sox. A team that sucks is hard to watch. But a team that’s unbelievably expensive and sucks, that’s just soul-crushing.

Obviously, much of this problem has been alleviated since Sox GM Ben Cherington snookered the L.A. Dodgers into taking on Crawford, Beckett, and Gonzalez in what may eventually go down as the greatest trade of all time. But the people who made those signings are still in place, which leads me to point #2:

2) The Red Sox owners are the biggest jerks in sports.

I can pinpoint to the day when I stopped being able to care about the Red Sox. It was October 12th of last year. That was the day Boston Globe reporter Bob Hohler ran a piece called “Inside the Collapse” that quoted anonymous team sources pointing to manager Terry Francona’s marital problems and (reported) addiction to painkillers as a reason for the team’s failures down the stretch.

Terry Francona was the most likeable Red Sox manager of my lifetime. He was like New England’s Dad. I can’t say how good he was at managing a bullpen (the supposed strength of the owners’ new favorite Bobby Valentine), but Francona was great at what really matters in managing baseball, and especially managing baseball in Boston: he kept the clubhouse happy and focused, and he took every bullet every member of the rapacious Boston sports media tried to fire at his players. He was a stand-up guy who put up with a lot. He even defended lunatics like Manny Ramirez. And then on the way out of town, the team trashed him, anonymously, as a pill-popping head case with marital problems.

How can you root for anyone who does that?

Sandbagging outgoing personnel through the Globe and other friendly media outlets has been the modus operandi of Henry, Larry Lucchino, and Tom Werner ever since they took control of the team. Someone in the club has overtly or covertly trashed every star who ever left or was pushed out of the Sox. Nomar Garciaparra looked like a cross of Lindsay Lohan and John Wayne Gacy by the time certain owner-friendly stooges in the Boston media were finished trashing him after his trade out of town in 2004. Manny, probably more deservedly, was also a star of many ugly media leaks after his trade. Without a doubt, this winter will be full of sordid Behind the Music-type tales about Gonzalez, Beckett, and Crawford, and they will all come from anonymous sources inside the team.

When players know the owners will stab them in the back the instant things go wrong, they tend not to want to play for the club – unless they’re only about the money. So what the Sox will inevitably get, and have been getting, is guys who are all about the money. So you hate the owners for being double-dealing cowards who fight their interpersonal battles through newspapers, and then you hate the team because it’s made up of guys who’ll take extra money to put up with the miserable atmosphere they created.

Then there’s the third and last problem:

3) To run their unlikeable team, the unlikeable owners hired an even more unlikeable manager.

One of the greatest moments in recent Red Sox history came after Jon Lester’s no-hitter in 2008. Francona, who loved the kid and was visibly upset when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, rushed the field, hugged Lester, and then leaned back to look at him, beaming like a proud Dad. Moments like that are what make sports worth watching. When you’re forced all the time to remember it’s a billion-dollar business and the guys playing it are mercenaries, it spoils the suspension of disbelief. The coolest times are when all the money and merchandising melts away and it gets back to being a kid’s game where you’re rooting like hell for young guys to grow up before your eyes.

It is hard to imagine Bobby Valentine showing that kind of emotion toward any one of his players. In fact – and I’m not joking – it’s easier to imagine Valentine tearfully hugging Yankee announcer Michael Kay than it is to imagine him doing that with anyone on the Red Sox. Moreover he manages the team like a fan, not a manager. Two weeks into this season, when the Sox were sucking hard already and the fan base and the media both were screaming for blood, Valentine started tossing guys to the wolves. He went after Kevin Youkilis – a key player on the 2007 World Series-winning team, and a guy who, on the field anyway, exemplified the high-effort, overachieving, pain-in-the-ass, foul-off-six-pitches-to-work-a-walk hitting style that was the team’s trademark for years – casually telling reporters that he didn’t think Youkilis was “physically or emotionally as into the game” as he used to be.

Who the hell was Bobby Valentine, a guy who never won anything at all anywhere, to publicly dress down a player who won a World Series for the city of Boston* – and two weeks into the season, no less? Valentine was a player and he should know: hitting a baseball is hard. Even the best guys lose it for months at a time. But Valentine couldn’t handle taking the blame for two weeks of bad baseball, and immediately started pointing fingers at his own troops.

Francona, meanwhile, saved the careers of several Boston stars by doing exactly the opposite: sticking up for players who started seasons in prolonged slumps. When Dustin Pedroia started his rookie year hitting .182 in his first month, and Boston sports fans were calling for the immortal Alex Cora to take his place, Francona stuck up for him, and the kid ended up being rookie of the year. David Ortiz finished April under the Mendoza line three years in a row, from 2008-2010; in 2009 he had one home run in his first 150 at-bats. And Francona stuck by him, even when Ortiz himself started flipping out.

Everything about Valentine looks fake. His tan may be real for all I know, but it looks sprayed on. He constantly does things to call attention to himself and show up his players, whether it’s threatening to punch out a radio host, batting Scott Podsednik (he of the 42 home runs in 4307 career plate appearances) in the power-hitting third spot as an implicit indictment of his usual middle-of-the-order guys, or leaving Jon Lester in a game to watch his ERA explode even after giving up nine runs in two innings. It’s just unbelievably depressing to watch. The players look at Valentine the way prisoners look at the trusty who snitched his way to the cozy library job. Dustin Pedroia, a guy the city once loved beyond all reason (and he seemed to love it back), looks like he would fall to his knees weeping in gratitude if he were traded to the Rockies, the Diamondbacks, the Seibu Lions, anyone – during games, you can almost see him looking up at the owners’ box expectantly, like he’s waiting for the good news.

If this were war, the players would have murdered Valentine in the foxhole months ago. In fact they apparently tried to do just that, at least once, but were rebuffed by management, which either out of cheapness or stubborness or both is apparently determined to let Bobby V ride out the season – and maybe keep him for next year, too.

Anyway, Mr. Henry, if you are reading this, here’s the thing. I want to watch the Red Sox, I really do. But I simply can’t do it as long as Valentine is managing the team. I have a number of friends from Boston who feel the same way. We try to get through a half-inning and we’re switching to anything, from white noise to the Lifetime channel’s “Tainted Love Tuesdays,” just to erase the violent depression that comes from watching this miserable club.

Many of us would feel even better if you and Lucchino found new jobs, too – we were excited by Charlie Gasparino’s report this week that you’re selling the team – but that’s not absolutely necessary. Just please hire some harmlessly likeable baseball lifer (how about gving Demarlo Hale a shot? Or Jason Varitek?) to man the bench, and then please, for a few years at least, stop trading exciting young players for expensive veterans on short contracts. You remember Justin Masterson? He used to play for the Red Sox. Then you traded him for Victor Martinez, a catcher who can’t play catcher, whom you let go after the 2009 season because he didn’t have a position.

Just please, whatever it is you’ve been doing, stop doing it. You’re killing us! It hurts!

Editor’s note: Some readers have pointed out that Valentine won a championship in Japan, therefore it’s incorrect to say he’s “never won anything.” By “never won anything” I meant the major leagues. Another reader points out that Valentine won a pennant with the Mets, which last time I checked meant that he lost the World Series.

Valentine’s latest caper was to announce yesterday that he’s got “weakest roster… in the history of baseball.” So now he’s thrown not just his entire roster of players, but also his general manager under the bus. Amazing stuff. You’ve got two potentially important young prospects on the team — shortstop Jose Iglesias and catcher Ryan Lavarnway — who are clearly struggling with their confidence. These last games before the end of the season are critical for kids like this, you have to use this time to unfreak them out, get them settled in and ready for next year. And your manager comes out and tells reporters that they’re part of the weakest group of players in the history of baseball? Poor Iglesias is probably ready to go back to Cuba by now.

*Technically I think you got a ring for 2004, too.


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