ANAHEIM — The Red Sox wrapped up their weekend in California with a 3-2 loss to the Angels Sunday and flew from John Wayne Airport to Seattle.
Here’s hoping the flight went smoothly, that none of the players were offended by anything Mike Timlin (a NESN fill-in on this trip) said during the Red Sox-Angels games. We wouldn’t want to get to Seattle and find out there was another ugly scene on a Sox team charter.
I’ve been covering professional sports teams for 40 years. Orioles. Celtics. Red Sox. In the first 15 years of my career, beat reporters often flew on team charters. My first trip to Seattle was on a Baltimore Orioles team charter and somewhere over Montana, I was the target of some alcohol-fueled hostility from one of the Orioles relief pitchers. I was 24 and it was one of the first flights of my life. The pitcher was not much older than I was, and we’d barely met. This had nothing to do with anything I’d written. When he lit into me, his teammates tried to calm him down and defuse the situation. I remember first baseman Tony Muser playfully hollering, “Put a seatbelt on that mouth!’’
The next day the pitcher pulled me aside in the Kingdome’s visitors’ locker room and fumbled through an apology. I was later told that Brooks Robinson — then in the final days of a 23-year career — had suggested the apology, telling his teammate, “That’s not what we do here.’’ Nevertheless, the pitcher was sincerely sorry and embarrassed and none of us spoke of it again.
I was reminded of this when I heard the unfortunate tale of David Price verbally blasting Dennis Eckersley on a Sox charter when the Sox flew from Boston to Toronto at the end of last month. The 2017 Red Sox look poised for a playoff run, and perhaps an “us-against-the-world” mind-set will serve them well, but it’s nonetheless fascinating that highly paid professionals can be so easily chapped by commentary that is far from harsh or scathing.
While in California, I spoke with six people who witnessed the Price-Eckersley incident and another handful of folks close to the situation. Few would agree to be quoted — Eckersley and Price would not comment — but here’s the narrative of what went down:
Sportswriters stopped flying with ballclubs a quarter-century ago, but 10 ancillary team employees (two WEEI broadcasters and eight members of NESN) still fly with the Red Sox. NESN’s longtime color commentator Jerry Remy is recovering from cancer surgery and has not been with the team since June 21. Steve Lyons typically fills in for Remy on the road, but he has curiously disappeared from all NESN broadcasts, citing a “personal situation.’’
Eckersley does not like to travel with the team. He’s a recovering alcoholic and seeks to avoid the trappings of the road. He’s also aware that many Sox players dislike his blunt, sometimes critical style. One would think that his Hall of Fame resume and 24 major league seasons (which included two divorces, getting released, career-threatening injuries, and being a stand-up guy after epic failures) would insulate him from the anger of today’s players. That would be incorrect.
Toronto Blue Jays scout Jim Beattie, a World Champ with the 1978 Yankees and a former GM of the Orioles and Expos, said, “If I was a ballplayer and got criticized by Dennis Eckersley, I think I’d go back to the hotel and look in the mirror.’’
Jackie Bradley Jr. would disagree. Two years ago, when the Sox were in Detroit, Bradley set up Eckersley. After going 2 for 3 with a homer in an August 2015 victory, Bradley asked Sox publicist Kevin Gregg if he would arrange for a photo with Eckersley. Gregg made the request for Bradley. Eckersley thought it was odd, but posed with JBJ on the tarmac before boarding.
Once on board, Bradley sent out a tweet which read, “Huge thanks to @Eck43 for saying all the things I “can’t” do these past few days. People like you is what drives me :)”
The tweet was accompanied by the photo of Eckersley and Bradley, standing and smiling. In the photo, Bradley has his right arm around Eckersley’s back.
When Eckersley was shown the tweet, he confronted Gregg, who expressed surprise.
“I had no idea, none at all,’’ said Gregg.
Price was not a member of the Red Sox when that went down, but the stunt discouraged Eckersley from working road games or spending much time in the Sox clubhouse. Sox players have noticed. Remy and Jim Rice — both far less candid or critical of players — are in the Sox clubhouse regularly. Eckersley is not. Which is why Price chose the charter for his outburst.
Players being sensitive about commentary is not unique to the Red Sox. Friends and wives of ballplayers often relay remarks heard on television. At Fenway, there has been clubhouse disgruntlement about Eckersley’s style for some time.
For Price, the tipping point came when he learned Eckersley said “Yuck” when Eduardo Rodriguez’s poor stats were flashed on the NESN screen after a rehab start in Pawtucket June 29.
On the day of the episode, Price was standing near the middle of the team aircraft, surrounded by fellow players, waiting for Eckersley. When Eckersley approached, on his way to the back of the plane (Sox broadcasters traditionally sit in the rear of the aircraft), a grandstanding Price stood in front of Eckersley and shouted, “Here he is — the greatest pitcher who ever lived! This game is easy for him!’’
When a stunned Eckersley tried to speak, Price shot back with, “Get the [expletive] out of here!’’
Many players applauded.
Eckersley made his way to the back of the plane as players in the middle of the plane started their card games. In the middle of the short flight, Eckersley got up and walked toward the front where Sox boss Dave Dombrowski was seated. When Eckersley passed through the card-playing section in the middle, Price went at him again, shouting, “Get the [expletive] out of here!’’
When Price was asked about it the next day, he said only, “Some people just don’t understand how hard this game is.’’
After his next start, Price said, “I stand up for my teammates. Whatever crap I catch for that, I’m fine with it.’’
Did the Red Sox know they were getting such a thin-skinned player when they signed Price for $217 million? What has been the response from the Sox front office?
“We handled it internally in Toronto,’’ said Sox CEO Sam Kennedy. “David met with Dave Dombrowski and John Farrell. It was dealt with at that level.’’
During the recent homestand against Toronto, Red Sox owner John Henry visited privately with Eckersley (off air) for a half-inning. Sox chairman Tom Werner, Dombrowski, and Kennedy also have reached out to Eckersley in an effort to smooth things over. According to three people close to Eckersley, there has been no apology from Price or Farrell.
When asked about the lack of apologies from anyone in uniform, Farrell would say only, “We have moved on and our focus is on winning games.’’
Eckersley is not on the current road trip and is unlikely to travel with the team any time soon. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have a new boarding policy for their broadcast media. In an effort to minimize potential conflict, folks from WEEI and NESN board first and go to the rear of the aircraft before the players board.
Price, who suffered a 7-3 loss to the Angels Saturday night, is still angry and believes he has the support of his teammates.
Swell. But where’s Brooks Robinson when you need him?