Friday, September 30, 2011

Save Terry

Do not get rid of Terry Francona. I repeat, do not get rid of Terry Francona. At least not yet.

The worst collapse in Major League history just came to its horrible conclusion less than 36 hours ago. The wound is still fresh. Gangrene hasn’t even set in yet. Of course, since this is Boston, a lot of idiot media members demand a scape goat. In order to fight through all the bull shit, they have to come up with sensational solutions. Whoever yells the loudest, or comes up with the stupidest shit will ultimately be the one to get the most notoriety.

Today that sensationalist is Jackie MacMullan of ESPN Boston, formerly of the Globe. What does she use to blast through the noise? Chemistry (stick to basketball Jackie, you are one of the best in that sport where, yes, chemistry matters). Yup. Whenever a “numbers” focused organization fails, it’s always because they forgot that all important, and immeasurable,  chemistry.

While the Rays were young, hungry and edgy, the Red Sox were arrogant, complacent and, worst of all, entitled.
They took their baseball gifts for granted, and when those gifts abandoned them, as they almost always do during a long baseball season, they were either too lazy or too cocksure to recognize what was required of them to maintain the consistency that is so vital in baseball...

People say we make too much of the value of good chemistry and camaraderie. They are wrong; it matters. When things get tough, teams with unified players step up. They rely on guys who believe in leadership and accountability -- and each other -- to turn things around.

So from May to August, when they were the best and scariest team in baseball, were they too lazy and cocksure then? When the team started 2-10 and they looked like massive failures, did they continue to play horribly because they had no resolve, no leadership, no accountability, no unity?

The worst part about the chemistry argument (besides any lack of proof whatsoever) is that it only comes out after the fact. You never see pre-season predictions highlighting chemistry. They talk about new players, returning players, off-season training, etc. You never read a report in spring training that one team is a bunch of arrogant jerks that wouldn’t piss on each other if they were on fire. You may hear about how well a team gets along, but if they come out of the gate poorly, I promise you that will be the one and only time you hear about this camaraderie.

I don’t want you to think that I think that baseball is just played on a computer. Positive attitudes and calm demeanors absolutely help players play better. We’ve seen players go through stressful family situations and have it negatively affect their production. But chemistry is a whole different issue. Chemistry implies the strength of a bond between teammates. To me, chemistry is really only important between pitchers and catchers and to some extent second basemen and shortstops. Otherwise, baseball is enough of an individual sport that it is in every player’s best interest to play their hardest. If I was batting leadoff and I hated the guy batting second behind me, what incentive would I have to not try and get on base just to screw him over? If I don’t try my hardest it only makes me look bad.

The truth of the matter is, if my best friend pitched and acted like John Lackey for a full season I would be pretty pissed at him too. If my close knit group of college friends caused me to lose 20 games in September, I don’t think I’d want to really see any of them for a long time. Hell, if I get a key question wrong in trivia, Sadie Sloe Gin can barely stand to be around me for the rest of the night. None of that means we have bad chemistry, it just means we are having normal human reactions to shitty situations.

The thing is, it is always easier to have great chemistry when you are coming from behind with low expectations. If your comeback falls short, well it’s ok because you gave it your all, together. But when you collapse, everybody is looking for someone to blame, mistakes start to cascade and people question themselves and those around them. Even the strongest willed people will start to point fingers when the shit rolls down the slope.

Say what you want about "The Idiots" of the 2004 champion Red Sox. They were loose cannons, irreverent, wild and unorthodox. ButKevin Millar and Johnny Damon and Derek Loweand the boys were tight. They had each other's backs. When they fell behind 3-0 to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, they vowed it wasn't over, even though nobody believed them. It was of little consequence that no one else thought it possible because the only ones who mattered -- them -- did.
I love this argument when people want to talk about chemistry as a reason for winning or losing. Damon, Millar and Lowe were all big parts of the 2004 Championship team and all members of the “Idiot” crew. You know what else they were part of? The 2003 team that blew an 8th inning lead in Game 7 of the ALCS to the Yankees. Damon and Millar were also part of the 2005 team that got swept in the first round of the playoffs. Where was the chemistry those years? Also, you know who the manager was of that 2004 team that had such great chemistry? Terry Fancona.

I personally do not think managers have a lot of influence over the success of a baseball team. I think really bad ones can definitely cost their team, but the great ones probably only add a win or two. In a game, the manager has control over lineup construction, pitching changes, and small ball strategies. With all three of these, managers do not differ too much on what they do and even those that do only save or cost their teams a couple runs over the course of the season. I don’t think Francoma (as X Dad calls him) is the best tactical manager by any means, but for the most part he doesn’t try to do too much and he lets his considerably talented teams do what they do best, unlike guys like Dusty Baker or Tony LaRussa. His failings in this part of the game are certainly not enough to cut bait on him and I am almost positive Theo Epstein would agree.

The other area managers have some control over is the mood of the team. This is where Francona has stood out in his 8 year tenure. He has always  seemed to be able to handle each of his players as they need to be handled. He was very close with Curt Schilling and is practically best friends with Dustin Pedroia. He defended David Ortiz and Mike Lowell when they were clearly slipping. He brought young players like Lester, Ellsbury and Pedroia into a very veteran clubhouse. He handled Manny Ramirez with the skill of the head doctor at a mental institution.

Until this September, nobody has ever questioned Francona’s ability to handle his clubhouse. On a team with a lot of well paid players, he was well liked and respected because of his ability to deflect criticism. When things got really bad this month, it appeared as if his hold on the clubhouse was slipping. Players started speaking out, word leaked out that there were issues, and Francona started getting extra testy with the media. All of a sudden, everybody outside the organization thought he had lost his players. After 8 seasons of relative harmony, he loses everybody in one month? Please.

So the team wants to get rid of the manager for one bad month and 52 good months? Ok smart guys, who do you want to replace him? John Farrell would have been a good option but he's gone. If Dusty Baker gets fired by the Reds they could look to him, but I may burn down Fenway if they hire him. Joe Torre is sitting comfortably in the commissioners office. Bobby Valentine is the Tom Selleck of managers (only good in Japan). All of the other big names hanging around are old school managers that would not get along with Epstein at all. And I don't think bringing a young, statistically-minded manager would be a good fit for the guys on this team. Nobody is able to straddle the line of being a relatable former ballplayer and forward thinking organizational soldier better than Francona. Joe Maddon is not walking through that door, and even if he did I'm not so sure his shit would work with this group of players.

This was an historic collapse. We have never seen anything like it in baseball history (of course the Braves nearly matched the feat this year). When the sensational happens it seems like people need to reach for the sensational to explain it away. This is how the mystical chemistry gets thrown in our face. This is how curses and bad karma get brought up. This is how otherwise good citizens get forced into hiding to escape overblown criticism (Buckner and Bartman). This is how an otherwise calm, steady, level-headed organization like the Boston Red Sox gets pressured by the panicky media to find a scape goat in the best manager in franchise history. The official announcement of his departure has not come yet. Red Sox, you still have a chance to make this right.

It appears (H/T to Hardballtalk) that after the meeting with Francona, the team is going to wait to make a decision. This is all I was really asking for in this post. If they take the time and decide that he is no longer a fit and they can find a better manager, then good for them, I hope they are right. My biggest issue was overreacting to an outlier of an event just 36 hours after it happened with such a huge change. The Red Sox prove again that they are smarter than the average local newspaper writer.

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