The Boston Red Sox Media Circus: Has Ben Cherington Lost Control?

By Matt Sullivan

Maybe the best compensation Boston Red Sox GM Ben Cherington could get for Theo Epstein would be Theo’s old gorilla costume. The way the past few days have gone, he might need to find a way to slip past the media unnoticed all the time this season.

The atmosphere around the Boston Red Sox is always something of a media circus. The town obsesses over the team and the media is more than happy to feed that obsession with an endless stream of stories and speculation. However, under Theo Epstein and Terry Francona, the internal operations of the front office and the clubhouse were kept out of the spotlight as much as possible given the environment. In fact, there was speculation that the “gorilla suit incident” and Epstein’s contract battle was partly related to his desire to exercise greater control over the team’s communications with the media, including those of ownership, a desire that may have stemmed from CEO Larry Lucchino’s comments in the wake of the Alex Rodriquez deal falling through. Whether that was the case or not the Red Sox managed to work with little leaking out from the front office, surprising even baseball insiders with the signing of players like John Lackey and Carl Crawford.

These days, there is nothing but controversy coming out of the owner’s suite and the clubhouse. Yesterday, Bobby Valentine questioned Kevin Youkilis’ physical and emotional” involvement in the game. Valentine apologized, but star second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who stood up for Youkilis, seemed to be warning the new manager with some of his comments “That’s really not the way we go about our stuff here,” he said. Pedroia also told the media, “We feel we have a good team and we just got to get each other’s backs and play together, because if we don’t do that, I don’t care what sport you’re playing, you’re not going to win.” Pedey has spoken with Valentine and says “everything is fine,” so hopefully the team will be putting this behind them. However, it is clear that Bobby Valentine will need to pick his words more carefully.

While the current manager is badmouthing his players, the former manager has an axe to grind as well. Terry Francona will not be in attendance when the Red Sox celebrate the 100 year anniversary ofFenwayPark this weekend. The man who managed the team to two World Series championships is still extremely hurt by the allegations that his failing marriage and a substance abuse problem caused him to overlook the lax attitude of some players and contributed to the team’s September swoon. The hurt feelings have apparently led to an argument with CEO Larry Lucchino over his attendance this weekend. This drama will likely flare up again, as Francona is also writing a book on his time as manager with Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe.

In isolation, neither of these issues would be much more than another overhyped plot line in the long Red Sox season. However, with the bad taste of last season’s collapse lingering and the subsequent changes in the front office it is fair to ask if these events are symptoms of a larger issue. The formerly quiet and efficient front office has devolved into an environment where disagreements get played out on the front page of the Boston Globe instead in the team offices. Some issues, like the stories leaked to the Globe that upset Francona, happened while Theo Epstein was still at the helm, but the majority of these issues have developed on Ben Cherington’s watch.

First, there was the protracted search for a manager to replace Terry Francona. The slow moving Bostonfront office lost out on one top choice, Dale Sveum because they did not move quickly enough. Then when the possibility that Boston would hire Bobby Valentine arose, the popular narrative was that CEO Larry Lucchino was forcing his choiceon his new GM. Cherington denied this, but it difficult to see why the organization would pick Valentine in light of the other more conservative candidates, all who seemed to have a stronger connection to the statically oriented approach that had ruled under Epstein.

In fact, I wrote this in reaction to the news of Valentine’s hiring:  “In a town where extreme scrutiny is norm, hiring Valentine seems like a wild gamble, full of almost unlimited risk and very marginal reward.” On a day where Valentine has caused the team trouble in the media and undermined a great starting pitching performance from Daniel Bard by overextending the newly minted starter, that statement seems prophetic.

There was also the comment owner John Henry made about opposing the signing of Carl Crawford. There is nothing wrong with any member of the team’s front office or upper management opposing the acquisition of a player, but once the player is signed it can’t possibly do any good to talk about those internal discussions in the media. Given that Crawford’s first season was a disaster, the comments came off as an “I told you so” to the rest of the organization.

Throughout Spring Training, there was speculation that Cherington and Valentine were at odds on a vast number of roster issues. Valentine blasted the rumors as lazy journalism and Cherington denied the reports as well. In the end, everyone seemed to be on the same page and it was easy to write such talk off.

None of these issues are enough to worry Red Sox fans by themselves, but there is a pattern developing that is something fans should worry about. Ben Cherington is not doing a good job controlling his owners or his manager and careless talk and rumors of discord have become shockingly routine. No GM can completely control their owners and manager. The owners are in charge and they can do and say what they want, but a GM can impress on them the importance of presenting a unified message and make it easy for them to do so. The manager has to speak to the media a great deal and a GM can’t feed him lines constantly. However, the manager can be made to understand there are consequences to going off message and he only makes it easier for the team to replace him when he stirs up controversies.

Under Theo Epstein, the Red Sox became an organization that got the PR and media relations side of baseball right. Thus far, Cherington and Co. have been terrible at it. I think Cherington has done a good job on the baseball operations side, but running a team goes beyond just finding players. Whether or not stories like Lucchino forcing Valentine on him or he and his manger fighting over player assignments are true, the fact that such stories continue to come out is a problem in and of itself. Bobby Valentine is a mistake, in my opinion, for baseball reasons and for PR reasons. Ditching him could help the situation but it won’t fix it completely. Regardless though, the issue that could have the biggest long term impact is not with the manager but with the GM. If Ben Cherington cannot exercise better control over what comes out of his team’s offices, the Red Sox are going continue to deal with unnecessary distractions and the image of the franchise will ultimately suffer

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