The Red Sox lost our trust a long, long time ago, and whether they can reclaim it is the story of the 2013 season. Terry Francona is now in Cleveland, and his depiction of the Boston organization cements every perception we have of a dysfunctional Red Sox hierarchy.
In the highest offices at 4 Yawkey Way, baseball and business have been mixed, seemingly with no regard for the toxicity. There has been no separation of church and state. Francona — and, for that matter, Theo Epstein — are both letting us know that Red Sox owners regard the team as merely some incarnation of “The Truman Show,” the principal players nothing more than pawns used to drive the almighty Nielsens.
“They told us we didn’t have any marketable players, that we needed some sizzle,” Epstein told Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy in Francona’s soon-to-be-released memoir on his Boston years. “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 removed from what we set out to be.”
So there it is. Damnation. Condemnation. Internal proof that the Red Sox were forcing business wants on their baseball needs purely in the name of greed.
We all know how this works by now, particularly in this day and age of professional sports, where the motto is the same from the NHL to the NFL to the turnstiles that now block Yawkey Way: sell, sell, sell. Sports are business and business is sports. But the idea is to market the product, not the other way around, and what the Red Sox did in the final years of Epstein and Francona is the baseball equivalent of tabloid journalism: They wrote the story only because someone came up with a catchy headline.
So welcome to Boston, Carl Crawford. Like Greg Brady, you are the new Johnny Bravo. Nobody cares whether you can really play or are worth the money. You look good on TV. The suit fits.
There are, of course, multiple layers to this story, some of which have more lasting effects than others on the Red Sox. Based on the excerpt of Francona’s book that appears in Sports Illustrated, there will be no hint of friction between Francona and Epstein, whose relationship had been strained by the time they left the Red Sox at the end of the 2011 season. Maybe Francona also treats Josh Beckett with kid gloves. Francona always wanted to manage again, after all, and jabbing his players or general manager would set a bad precedent if and when he worked with them again.
Francona knew this during his time in Boston and he surely knows it now, so let’s not be fooled. The owners alone did not make his final days in Boston tumultuous. But Francona regarded the clubhouse and baseball operation with a level of sanctity during his time with the Red Sox, and to break that trust now would hurt his standing in his current clubhouse and organization.
He has never been a fool.
Beyond that, if it is possible, Red Sox owners are losing even more credibility. In the wake of the 2011 disaster, owner John Henry made an unsolicited, impromptu appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub and said, in no uncertain terms, that Crawford, for one, was “a baseball signing” and not some transparent sham designed to boost television ratings. We all thought that to be disingenuous then, but there was something about Henry’s actions that made him more believable.
This wasn’t Henry sitting before a microphone in the dog-and-pony shows that press conferences have become. This wasn’t scripted or scheduled. This was Henry sitting in a room and addressing his fan base directly at a time when the Red Sox were vulnerable, a man speaking from his heart as much as that is possible for any team owner in this age.
Or so we thought.
So how are we supposed to believe Red Sox owners now when they tell us they have no intention of selling the team despite reports to the contrary?
After all, Epstein is telling us that the Red Sox lacked “sizzle,” that the team paid $100,000 for a marketing research study to determine why its television ratings had dropped 50 percent from 2007 to 2010. Francona is telling us that team chairman Tom Werner suggested the club win “in more exciting fashion.” Shaughnessy disclosed a portion of the marketing study indicating that women are “definitely more drawn to the ‘soap opera’ and ‘reality-TV’ aspects of the game,” the kind of sky-is-blue observation that makes one wonder how the Sox are blowing their money and exactly whom they are marketing to.
Score another one for the lady in the obnoxious pink hat.
Whether or not the Red Sox truly have realized the error of their ways is open to debate, though the early signs indicate they have. They cut bait with Adrian Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett last August, getting out from the anvil that was roughly $250 million for players who were unmotivated, unproductive, or both. There seemingly has been an emphasis on rebuilding the baseball operation from within.
The Red Sox are still trying to sell us, to be sure, but the marketing campaign does not seem to have corrupted the baseball decision-making, which is really the biggest issue.
Of course, the Sox have little choice at the moment. They won just 69 games last year.
The real test may come in a year or so, when they have crept back to mediocrity and their popularity is on the upswing, when owners see the potential for more rapid financial growth and the story does not fit the headline.
“Our owners in Boston, they’ve been owners for 10 years,” Francona said in his memoir. “They come in with all these ideas about baseball, but I don’t think they love baseball. I think they like baseball. It’s revenue, and I know that’s their right and their interest because they’re owners — and they’re good owners. But they don’t love the game.
“It’s still more of a toy or a hobby for them. It’s not their blood . . . It’s different for me. Baseball is my life.”
Maybe you are wearing a pink hat today. Maybe not.
Either way, ask yourself this:
What is baseball for you?