In the end, in the eyes of many, Dan Duquette came to symbolize most everything that was wrong with the old-guard Red Sox, from the perceived arrogance to the detachment to the spectacular failure. What we know now is that Duquette and Theo Epstein were not as far apart as many would like to believe, at least when it comes to matters of baseball.
Nine years later, Duquette is all but officially back, the announcement that he will be the next general manager of the Baltimore Orioles to come as soon as tomorrow. Duquette needs the Orioles as much (or more) as the Orioles need Duquette, both parties in need of rehabilitating their credibility and image in the wake of what has been a forgettable decade. And so maybe this is a match made for redemption, a team and its chief baseball executive both believing they have been given another chance.
Where Duquette most notably failed in Boston was in the area of public and media relations, blunders even he would acknowledge. He effectively did so, in fact, during the fall of 2007, shortly after the Red Sox won their second world title in four years under the watch of John Henry, Larry Lucchino, Tom Werner and, of course, Epstein.
“I’m confident I made mistakes with the Red Sox,” Duquette said at the time. “I made a personal inventory of what those mistakes were and how I could have made different choices. But you know, if you look at my body of work [in Boston], there were a couple of things we did. We turned them into playoff contenders and we rebuilt the farm system, and we made the Red Sox a more diverse international brand. Are there things I would have done differently? Sure. There’s a bunch of ‘em. But that’s water under the bridge at this point.”
Water under the bridge, it seems, for even the Orioles, who are clearly desperate for a general manager and have perhaps the worst organizational reputation in all of baseball. Toronto Blue Jays executive Tony Lacava was offered the job as Baltimore GM and turned the O’s down, which should tell you plenty. The Baltimore franchise of today is generally seen as a dysfunctional collection of bureaucratic buffoons, an image owner Peter Angelos has carefully carved for his franchise through continued meddling and ineptitude.
Duquette knows this, one must assume, but he’s hardly in a position to care. In the last nine years, he has all but vanished from the baseball landscape. Duquette’s image took such a beating in the wake of Red Sox failures from 2000 to 2002 that no one in baseball would go near him, which is both unfair and unfortunate. Anyone with half a brain could have told you that Duquette did a far better job in Boston than anyone has given him credit for, at least if you examine the facts.
When Duquette took over the Red Sox in late January 1994, the team was coming off two consecutive losing seasons and headed for a strike-shortened third. (The 1994 team was all but completely built when he assumed control.) The 1992-94 seasons remain the darkest and most backward time in modern Red Sox history, the Red Sox posting a .472 winning percentage that ranked 21st among what was then a 28-team structure.
The Red Sox weren’t just bad, folks. They were a mess.
Over the next eight seasons, from 1995 through 2002, the Red Sox posted a .544 winning percentage that was fifth-best in the game. They went to the playoffs three times. During that period of time, Duquette drafted or acquired Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield, Hanley Ramirez, Freddy Sanchez, David Eckstein, Shea Hillenbrand, and Johnny Damon. Manny Ramirez, whom Duquette signed during the winter of 2000-01, remains the greatest free acquisition in Red Sox history. Additionally, prospects in the Boston system at the time of Duquette’s departure comprised the majority of compensation in deals for Cliff Floyd, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell (the last two of whom came together in a the deal that sent Hanley Ramirez and pitcher Anibal Sanchez, another Duquette product, to the Florida Marlins).
When Duquette was fired, the Red Sox had gone from three straight losing seasons to a 93-win team. To their credit, Henry, Werner, Lucchino and Epstein built on that, bringing the Red Sox to the heights they achieved in 2004 and 2007. In the aftermath, all of the credit went to the new regime and virtually none to the old, largely because Duquette alienated the Red Sox fan base and media corps with a bunker mentality that made Bill Belichick look like Ronald Reagan.
Don’t misunderstand. Current Sox owners and administrators, including Epstein, have generally done a very good job with the franchise. But the perception that the Duquette years were a black hole is terribly biased. So Duquette didn’t win a championship. So what? (He has plenty of company there.) He also had roughly half the payroll of the existing Sox operation, which made it a little more difficult to build a rotation behind Martinez.
Maybe Duquette wasn’t the best general manager in the game or even in Red Sox history. But he wasn’t the worst, either, and his subsequent absence from the game had far more to do with the fact that he can be an introvert more than it did with professional ineptitude.
Shame on us. Shame on all of baseball. We put more stock in the wrapping paper than what was in the box. If Duquette had a personable assistant GM like say, JP Ricciardi, many of his problems might have been avoided. Instead, the resentment built, and the Duquette era was remembered and chronicled as a colossal failure when it was not.
In Baltimore, Duquette now will have the chance to rebuild his career with a franchise that has been among the worst in baseball over the last 14 years. Since the start of the 1998 season, only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals have a worse winning percentage than the Orioles. (It is worth noting that the Royals’ GM, Dayton Moore, was once regarded as one of baseball’s up-and-comers and was nearly hired by the Red Sox in the fall of 2005. He withdrew his name from consideration in Boston.) Baltimore is in such bad shape that executives turn down the Orioles, not the other way around.
Duquette, of course, was hardly in a position to say no.
During his time in Boston, Duquette emphasized many of the same things Epstein did, albeit in far less polished language. He spoke of rebuilding the Red Sox through the draft and player development. He talked of expanding the team’s interests in international free agency. Duquette even used sabermetric analysis, something not nearly as accepted then as it is now, though there certainly is a distinction to be drawn between the respected Bill James and Mike Gimbel, the latter an eccentric statistician whose public unveiling by Gordon Edes, then of the Globe, led to the notion that the Red Sox were consulting a crackpot.
As Epstein, Billy Beane and most any other modern baseball man would tell you, Duquette had the right idea with Gimbel. He just had the wrong guy.
That said, there remains one obvious difference between the Duquette and Epstein eras, at least as it pertains to baseball. Under Duquette, the Red Sox traded away many of their prospects for proven major leaguers. Under Epstein, the Sox better developed and cultivated them. The latter is something Duquette now must do a far better job of with the Orioles, once a fertile factory of young baseball talent and now a wasteland.
Baltimore, in some ways, is now what Boston was 17 years ago.
“The most important part of the philosophy was to expand our scouting network on an international basis and bring diversity to the ballclub,” Duquette said of taking over the Red Sox in 1994. “We got involved in the Dominican, in Venezuela, in Japan and in Korea. We put our emphasis on signing and developing young pitchers, even though we knew we would probably have to trade those players before they were ready because of the interest of our fans base and the need to field a competitive team year in and year out.”
In Baltimore, the objectives, for the moment, are simpler. The Orioles are a laughingstock. They are easily the weakest sisters of the challenging AL East. They have been beaten, rejected and all but spit on in recent years.
Dan Duquette can certainly relate to that.