The perception that Peter Gammons’s journalistic compass can go on the fritz when it comes to matters of the Red Sox is not a new one.
Most memorable was a moment in the immediate aftermath of the World Series-clinching victory in 2004. During a live interview on ESPN, outfielder Gabe Kapler gently kidded Gammons about how much the victory must have meant to him, saying something to the effect of, “Come on, Peter, we all know you’re a Red Sox fan.’’
Gammons smiled, wearing an expression that was equal parts bemusement and joy.
Last week, however, Gammons’s affiliation with or affinity for the franchise he first covered for the Globe in the 1970s - en route to an iconic, trend-setting career at this newspaper, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and now MLB Network and the Red Sox broadcast arm NESN - was not so amusing.
It led him in an irresponsible direction. His compass let him down.
During his weekly appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Felger and Massarotti’’ show last Wednesday, Gammons asserted that Globe reporter Bob Hohler should reveal the anonymous sources from his bombshell story last October on the factors contributing to the Red Sox’ historic collapse. Those factors, according to Hohler’s sources, included manager Terry Francona’s personal issues and a fractured clubhouse in which a clique of pitchers were drinking beer and eating chicken during games.
It was an absurd suggestion. Betraying the trust of a confidential source would be journalistic suicide. The use of such sources in Hohler’s story was essential to provide answers to the question that hovered over the end of the season: How in the world did this collapse happen? Anyone with legitimate first-person knowledge likely had something to lose by going on the record. Anonymous sources are never a reporter’s ideal approach, but sometimes a story - particularly one of this magnitude - cannot be told in full without them. This was one of those instances.
(Gammons also said Hohler called the medical staff and tried to get information from them by using columnist Dan Shaughnessy’s name. Hohler said that did not happen.)
It should be acknowledged that Gammons himself has been liberal with the use of anonymous sources. They have long contributed to the insider feel of his notebooks and columns.
A search of the Globe electronic archives shows that Gammons has used them at least as far back as November 1979, when he reported that the Red Sox were going to sign free agent first baseman Tony Perez.
During his appearance on “Felger and Massarotti’’ this Wednesday, he was asked by hosts Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti whether he really believed what he had said the week before, that Hohler should reveal his sources.
“No, he can’t,’’ Gammons said. “I thoroughly understand that. I just think it would be better for everybody if he did, but he can’t do that. And I understand that.
“Again, he is someone I think we all really respect. You almost wish, OK, if it was somebody in the front office, fine, admit it. If it was a player or a retired player, come out and say, ‘Yeah, I leaked some of this.’ You wish that would happen so that people aren’t kind of looking around corners at one another.’’
Later, he added, “I didn’t really understand why the story was necessary. Because they were in first place for 4 1/2 months when he [Francona] had his personal situation. I don’t think that’s the reason they collapsed in September.
“I think that maybe I just overreacted to that. I also wish there was a way to know who was the main link and move forward from there so you don’t have players whispering about other players.’’
With all due respect to Gammons - from someone who grew up devouring his work - that is something one would expect to hear from a disappointed fan, not a legendary Ford C. Frick Award winner.
Whether or not people are “looking around the corners at one another’’ or whether or not Josh Beckett spends his off-days dressed in camouflage conducting a full-scale clubhouse snitch hunt, the media should not care whether it stops. The duty is singular: to report on how it affects the team.
What happened to cause a team that roared to an 83-52 record to go 7-20 in September is a question that demanded an answer. Of course the story was necessary.
Gammons hasn’t come around to seeing it that way. In an e-mail Thursday afternoon, he elaborated on his viewpoint:
“In case you haven’t heard, the 2012 season has begun,’’ he wrote. “Now, I have never quite understood the journalistic relevance of Francona’s family relationship, and because it caused him so much harm - including essentially eliminating him from any chance at the Cardinals job - I wonder why those who spoke anonymously cannot step forward and say they were among the sources because they felt this was more significant to the finish than the starting pitching. To harp on it and further smudge Terry personally a season after it all happened is something I do not understand.’’
It’s unclear who is harping on it beyond the usual sports-radio caterwaulers, who get paid to harp on everything. But it was essential to the story, because according to Hohler’s sources, Francona’s personal life affected how he did his job while the season was crumbling around him.
Shouldn’t it be telling that Francona, who is writing a book with columnist Dan Shaughnessy and has been a pleasure to deal with from a media writer’s perspective, still maintains a good relationship with the Globe?
Part of Gammons’s charm is his genuine love for the game, which shines through in his writing, still, to generations of admirers. But in this case, his affection for the game and those who play it has overwhelmed or numbed his journalistic instincts.
It’s the fan who pleads for last September to be forgotten and for the team to start winning again. A journalist wants to know why the collapse happened, and uses every ethical tactic in his or her reportorial arsenal to find the answer.
That’s what Hohler did. If Gammons can’t agree with it, he should at least recognize it. Even if it means recalibrating that compass.