Mythology features the terrifying Hydra in different ways, but all point to the same conclusion: A multiheaded monster is typically bad news, something best slain. Yet for the second time this century, the Red Sox have entrusted the direction of their organization on an interim basis to just such a creature.
Since the (literally) unceremonial firing of Dave Dombrowski Sept. 8, four front office members have overseen the baseball operations department: assistant general managers Brian O’Halloran, Eddie Romero, and Zack Scott, and senior vice president Raquel Ferreira.
That structure serves as something of an echo, a reminder of one of the more unsettled and confusing times for the franchise during its four-championship run. In 2005, when then-GM Theo Epstein walked away from the Red Sox in a gorilla costume on Halloween, the front office operated over the next six weeks under the interim leadership of another committee until the appointment of Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington as co-GMs in mid-December, a prelude to Epstein’s official return in January 2006.
There are lessons — both promising and cautionary — to take from that unsettled period that seem relevant to the current one.
“Any experience you go through professionally helps you in future experiences,” said O’Halloran, a baseball operations assistant in that interim period after Epstein’s departure. “Of course, the situations are very, very different, and my role this time is different than it was in 2005.
“But I guess what I came out of that with is, one, you can make good decisions and you can function well during a period of transition with a multiheaded monster at the top.”
That doesn’t mean doing so is easy, and certainly little was easy about the period that followed Epstein’s departure, one in which job responsibilities were particularly messy. When Epstein resigned — shortly after assistant GM Josh Byrnes had been hired as Diamondbacks GM — the Sox initially identified a group of four leaders to helm their baseball operations: Cherington, Hoyer, Craig Shipley, and Peter Woodfork.
But by mid-November, veteran executive Bill Lajoie, who had resigned with Epstein, was rehired to join the Gang of Four, which presumably became a Gang of Five . . . at least until Woodfork left later that month to become assistant GM of the Diamondbacks.
Yet even then, it might have been more like a Gang of Five or Six or Seven or Eight, as several Red Sox officials — including Lajoie, Hoyer, Cherington, Shipley, Larry Lucchino, senior adviser Jeremy Kapstein, and O’Halloran — served as spokesmen for the organization.
All the while, the Red Sox were conducting interviews to replace Epstein, with Lajoie (a former Tigers GM who repeatedly said that he did not want to be considered a candidate) and Kapstein (who started a campaign to serve as GM) introducing those candidates in media sessions.
“It was a strange time,” Cherington once recalled. “Obviously, there was a bit of a power vacuum, a leadership vacuum, some sort of vacuum.”
It was the sort of vacuum that created (to borrow a phrase from presidential elections past) a “giant sucking sound,” and is remembered as something of a circus among those who were there. The structure and responsibilities tended to be fluid. And the efforts to communicate proved incredibly challenging.
Without a single leader through whom all decisions and conversations flowed, the group had to make a point of communicating internally on a daily basis about everything that had gone on in their orbit. Those developments subsequently had to be communicated up the food chain to Lucchino and the team’s owners.
“With four, it became very convoluted and very inefficient,” said Hoyer, now the GM of the Cubs. “I think everyone was working to make the Red Sox better and had the best intentions, but it’s very difficult to make decisions trying to get consensus among four people — and frankly, it might have been more than four. It might have been more like eight.”
Yet time and the baseball calendar don’t stop in deference to job searches, so while the Sox were trying to identify Epstein’s replacement, they still had to go about building for the future. In fact, they made some important deals during that time.
Over Thanksgiving, they built upon conversations that Shipley started with the Marlins at the GM Meetings in November, consummating a trade that landed Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell while sending Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez to the Marlins. Then at the Winter Meetings in December, the Sox made another deal, sending Edgar Renteria to the Braves for prospect Andy Marte. (The team later flipped Marte to Cleveland for Coco Crisp.)
Those deals offered multiple important takeaways. First, by empowering the baseball operations department during a time of transition, the Red Sox made dramatic changes that played a crucial role in forging a championship in 2007.
“We did make some important decisions,” said O’Halloran. “There were pros and cons, but we ended up winning a championship a couple years later. I use it as a point to illustrate that big decisions can be made. You don’t have to be stagnant while you’re waiting for the final solution at the top of the department.”
At the same time, the process was enormously challenging, particularly when the group was spread out over Thanksgiving, when a seemingly endless number of phone calls sabotaged the holiday.
“I think when you look back on it, the Red Sox probably don’t win the ’07 World Series without Beckett and Lowell,” said Hoyer. “The organization was put in a better place, but that process was far from streamlined or smooth.”
The current four-person steering committee is mindful of the need for outstanding communication — a task made easier, perhaps, by the long working relationship among them, with all having been in the organization for at least 13 years. O’Halloran called trust and communication “a real strength for this group.”
They’ve also proven mindful of the impact that can be made by pushing ahead rather than standing still. So far, the Red Sox have made changes to their coaching staff while committing to altering their pitching infrastructure. They’ve also made changes to their pro and amateur scouting departments.
As strange as it may seem that such decisions are occurring before the appointment of a new leader, the experience in 2005 suggests that an organization need not wait for a replacement to try to grow stronger. Needs don’t disappear simply because of the absence of a leader; nor do opportunities. The actions that occur during a transitional period do not come easily, yet they could nonetheless have a profound impact on the future of the Red Sox.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com.