FORT MYERS, Fla. - Red Sox owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner, and president Larry Lucchino met with reporters for 20 minutes yesterday, sitting side by side on a green bench outside the clubhouse under cloudy skies.
It was uncomfortable at times as Henry made little jokes that only Werner and Lucchino laughed at. Lucchino also proved adept at deflecting questions by rejecting their premise. Other replies were defensive.
But the trio did acknowledge what has become obvious, that their once-glittering franchise has fallen on difficult times and must find a way to rise again.
“We feel individually and collectively that we have something to prove in 2012,’’ Lucchino said. “Players feel that way. I think our managers and coaches feel that way. We have something to prove.
“It’s a new chapter beginning today.’’
The Red Sox have not won a playoff series since 2008 and have missed the postseason entirely for two straight seasons. On pace to win 99 games last season, they suffered a historic September collapse that left the team in third place.
Manager Terry Francona quit two days later before he could be fired and general manager Theo Epstein resigned a few weeks later.
In its 11th season, the ownership group is facing a new challenge after years of unprecedented success.
“We accept our share of the responsibility for perhaps not having a more open-door policy,’’ Werner said. “I think we’ll be more present this year.’’
Despite the playoff drought and questions surrounding the behavior and attitude of veteran players, Henry said he is “not concerned’’ with the direction of the team.
“I sort of feel like this is the next chapter,’’ he said. “There’s a real excitement here at camp. It’s palpable. I’m extremely happy with the leadership of the organization and with the product that we’re going to have on the playing field.’’
Lucchino defended the financial commitment of the owners, saying the quiet offseason was not the result of budgetary constraints.
“In terms of 2012, it’s only February,’’ he said. “We’re not done. There are things you do during the season that are possibilities . . . there’s still that option as well.’’
Lucchino said the payroll, by his account, would reach $190 million and that the Red Sox again would pay baseball’s competitive balance tax despite the increased penalties in the new collective bargaining agreement.
“We recognize it’s the cost of doing business,’’ he said.
Said Henry: “The discussion seems to be centering around that we’re not spending money. We have the second-highest payroll in baseball. This year, 2012, we have the second-highest payroll. Does that mean we’re not spending?’’
However, Lucchino conceded that the trade of starting shortstop Marco Scutaro to the Rockies last month was, in part, a salary dump.
“It was a baseball move initiated by baseball operations,’’ he said. “The suggestion was, as good a player as Marco was, the same level of production could be obtained in a different manner and that the money could be redeployed successfully in other ways.’’
Werner and Lucchino addressed the team before the first full-squad workout of spring training; Henry did not.
Manager Bobby Valentine and general manager Ben Cherington also spoke, along with other team officials.
One surprise speaker was designated hitter David Ortiz, who decided only yesterday to express himself. Speaking without notes, he thanked the owners for their commitment to the team.
“They did a hell of a job last year putting a good team together. And after that it’s not on them, it’s on us,’’ Ortiz said. “Everybody always wants to call them out, Mr. Henry, Larry Lucchino, and Tom Werner. At the end of the day there is nothing else that they can do.’’
Ortiz also urged his teammates to represent the Red Sox the right way and to have pride in the organization.
“Hopefully everybody takes that personal,’’ he said. “Me, in my situation, I’m the older guy here. I know a lot of people are looking at me to see how I do things. That’s my leadership right there. That’s how you lead people. I’m a proud person wearing the Red Sox jersey.’’
Ortiz received an ovation when he was done speaking.
“I just did it myself,’’ he said. “It was time to get that monkey off the shoulders of our owners.’’
During a rare meeting with reporters, Henry also addressed the compensation talks with the Cubs for Epstein. The Sox believed they had an agreement to get “significant’’ compensation. But after four months of haggling, they received only a Triple A reliever, Chris Carpenter.
“If it’s a tough negotiation, both sides generally are a little unhappy,’’ Henry said. “The Cubs probably aren’t happy with it. We probably aren’t happy with it. Given the amount of time that was spent on it, it probably was the appropriate result.
“We probably had a misunderstanding, at least as far as expectation. That was no real agreement. We probably had different expectations based on the first conversation.’’
The meeting with the players lasted 50 minutes. After a 20-minute news conference, Henry and Werner appeared on NESN.
When they stepped off a stage, a fan from Cranston, R.I., named Jean Brooks was waiting for them. She held a sign saying, “All we ask is that you make us proud again to be a Red Sox fan.’’
Both Henry and Werner acknowledged her.
“We’re working on it,’’ Henry said.
Henry then slid into a waiting golf cart and was driven away.