In “Francona, the Red Sox Years,” Terry Francona, with the aid of Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, has given us his version of his eight years in Boston. They were very successful years for the team — two World Series victories, six trips to the playoffs. Presumably, Francona should get at least some of the credit for this success, though it is not clear how much.
The problem for Francona is that it all ended with the September swoon in 2011 and many seem to blame him. Francona, after all, reportedly had a wild year — a marital separation, a painkiller problem, and then the incident reported by Bob Hohler in the Globe of Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Josh Beckett drinking beer, eating fried chicken, and playing video games in the clubhouse during games. The inevitable, and seemingly reasonable, inference was that Francona had lost control of the team.
“Francona, the Red Sox Years’’ appears to be the manager’s roundabout effort at self-vindication. The narrative is that the world was collapsing around him. John Henry and Tom Werner with the Fenway Sports Group had bought Liverpool FC, the legendary franchise in the English Premier League. They got distracted and, besides, they didn’t really love baseball anyway, nor understand the intricacies of the game. They did naughty things like commission a 100-page marketing study to better understand why NESN ratings were falling and then, picking up on one thought in the study that suggested it might help if the Red Sox had sexier players on the team, went out and signed Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. (Please raise your hand if you find either of those men sexy.)
This narrative is as unconvincing, as it is, at points, nasty, petty, inaccurate, and unfair. Let’s begin with the question of why Francona was able to work so productively with these deficient owners who didn’t love or understand baseball for the first seven years. Did something dramatic suddenly change in 2011? The one obvious suspect is Liverpool. But think about it: Why would Liverpool distract the owners, but not the purchase of 50 percent of Rousch Racing, or John Henry’s hedge fund, or Tom Werner’s television production company? The answer is that all these things can distract owners, but that good and bad owners throughout professional sports have outside business interests. The key for owners is not to spend every moment at Fenway Park or Anfield (Liverpool’s home stadium); it is rather to hire effective front-office personnel to run the team on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis, and to set long-term team strategy as well as make the major financial decisions. Owners who are at the ballpark 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year face ridicule for being meddlesome and counterproductive.
The notion that Henry and Werner don’t love baseball is a head-scratcher. Why did Henry own a minor league team and two major league teams before owning the Red Sox? Why did Werner own a major league team before the Red Sox? Why do they stay riveted at Fenway for every play, watch all games on TV when they are out of town, and lose sleep when the Sox lose?
Francona’s concern about the marketing study is equally curious. Team owners need to understand their fan base and are prudent to react to falling TV ratings, or any sign of waning consumer interest.
Francona is a baseball guy, not a businessman, so perhaps he can be forgiven his basic misapprehension of baseball economics. When revenues fall, there is less money available for players.
In fact, the Sox owners have plowed all profits back into the team since 2002. There have been no profit distributions to the partners. The team payroll has been the second highest in baseball in recent years, despite the team being in Major League Baseball’s 21st largest TV territory and ranking approximately 10th in overall market size. The owners have invested nearly $300 million of their own money to preserve and renovate Fenway Park, rather than tearing it down and spending hundreds of millions of public dollars on a new ballpark, as the previous owners wanted.
Finally, any smart owner cares first about how a player performs on the field, but he or she must also care about how they play off the field. Charismatic players who are involved in community affairs are important for any team.
To be sure, there are other problems with Francona’s account, but the important point is this: The last two years have been dreary for Red Sox Nation, but the previous eight were grand. Although not without its faults, the Henry/Werner/Lucchino team has earned our praise, not our scorn.
Andrew Zimbalist is a sports economist and professor of economics at Smith College.