Saturday, August 25, 2012

Divorce in Haste, Repent at Leisure

By his own standards, Adrian Gonzalez is having a poor season at the plate, the worst of his career, in fact.

By the standards of the 2012 Red Sox, Gonzalez is/was the best hitter they had. Why he has become the baby that had to be thrown out with the roster's bathwater escapes me, or it would if we talking about baseball and not the Boston baseball franchise.

The Waiver Wire Purge of August is most assuredly not about baseball. It's about panic, a superstitious expiation of the Gods, or at least of the voices in the heads of Red Sox management/ownership who keep whispering "The customers might really mean it this time when they say they won't come back." It is the time-dishonored mistake made every sports season in these parts when a team goes bad -- mistaking the unhappiness, pettiness and miserable attitudes created by losing for the REASON there's losing.

"If we get rid of the guys fans bitch about, the fans will stop bitching." Uh-huh. Get rid of players fans bitch about, and fans don't stop bitching, they stop caring. Bums are never booed.

Why the Los Angeles Dodgers want $270 million worth of contracts to get one player (Gonzalez) worth having, one pitcher worth avoiding and a question mark who won't hit the field until 2014 escapes me too, but at least Dodger management has a pennant fever excuse. Wouldn't Tylenol have been a cheaper remedy?

But enough about the lesser losers of this trade. The Red Sox Purge is unique in that it's the people conducting the show trial who're making the groveling public confession, to wit; we don't know what the hell we're doing.

Give out hundreds of millions in contracts to acquire two players you say make you the best team in franchise history in March of 2011. Dump the very same players in August 2012. The business model here is extraordinarily reminiscent of high tech dying dinosaurs like Hewlett-Packard and Yahoo. When the core operation heads south, plunge headlong into whatever buzzword you heard last at a cost of millions. When that too heads south, repeat process until the stockholders throw your ass out of the corner office.

A fresh start. That's the line that'll be peddled from now until next Opening Day. It's sort of true. There will be new faces in the Boston dugout. But it's a funny thing. Stars are almost impossible to replace, even when they are stars who have been playing like bums, or at least like mediocrities.

The 2012 Josh Beckett will be easy to replace. The 2012 Carl Crawford wasn't even really ever here. The 2012 Adrian Gonzalez, struggles and all, not so much. Hundred-plus RBI guys seldom come on the market. Of course, there's always Josh Hamilton. Safe as the 10-year Treasury as an investment, right?

Now that Sox ownership/management is admitting, no, bragging that its three biggest personnel decisions of the last six years were horrible mistakes,  why should any fan have faith in the next personnel decisions that will be made to erase the mistakes? More relevantly, why should any potential free agent ever want to come to the nuthouse on Lansdowne St. to be the next redeemer without demanding super-top dollar for the privilege of working for guys who take Mike Felger and Dan Shaughnessy's complaints seriously? 

Oh, well, it's an ill wind, etc. At least that's what David Ortiz's agent is saying this morning. As the last power hitter standing in the Sox clubhouse, he'll likely be standing in it next spring, too -- on favorable terms. There's a long-range solution for you.

Gonzalez is gone because without dumping him, Beckett and Crawford could never have been removed except by outright release. He is gone because of a lack of perceived cheerfulness which caused rabble-rousers and rabble fans to blame him for much of the disaster that began last year about this time.

Trading your best hitter for public relations is not sound baseball. It is not even sound public relations. My guess is the 2013 Boston Red Sox will have a smaller section of the public to try and relate to.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Wealth Can Buy Privacy and Peace of Mind, But Only If You Let It

How many pies will John Henry have to throw directly in his own mush before he wises up and gives up on public relations as a hobby? After a decade, hasn't Henry noticed that his attempts at Red Sox damage control always result in more damage to the Red Sox?

The e-mail message Henry sent out in response to an article by Jeff Passan at Yahoo Sports this week is the ultimate case in point. Henry's description of the events in Passan's story put the Red Sox and Henry himself in a far worse light than Passan's reporting did.

Passan's version: Prominent Red Sox players met with Henry to complain that Bobby Valentine is a lousy manager. If so, this was a grievous violation of traditional baseball etiquette. Everybody knows ballplayers who hate their managers should only vent in off-the-record confessions to sportswriters.

But the idea a clubhouse agitating to get rid of a skipper is some kind of new low in player deportment is as hilarious as it is erroneous. Players have loathed their managers on big winners, let alone on the commonplace mediocrity that is the 2012 Sox.  And players have found many many ways to make their displeasure felt. For instance, when Bill Veeck fired Rogers Hornsby as manager of the St. Louis Browns in the early 1950s, the players gave Veeck a trophy. If Michael Felger had been a St. Louis talk show host, he'd have been dead for 60 years now from a Hall of Fame aneurysm.

Henry's version: Nothing to see here. None of the players complained about Valentine in what are irregularly scheduled informal meetings between players and management we've been holding almost as long as I've owned the Red Sox.

First, this explanation defies credulity. Strike that, it clubs credulity to death with the hybrid clubs Josh Beckett is probably using this very afternoon. A meeting between players and ownership and the manager never comes up as a subject? Sure.

Second, Henry's explanation makes him look like the most clueless boss this side of "Dilbert." Setting up a process as part of your business where employees can bypass the chain of command may sound like hands-on innovative mogulship, but all it accomplishes is to destroy said chain of command. If a player knows that he's bound to get an audience with the guy who signs the checks, why should said player bother to talk to and more relevantly listen to Valentine at all?

Henry's spin, in short, makes Henry look like a dope. Last November, his franchise's efforts to spin the team's late season collapse made Henry and his cohorts look like rats. Back when Grady Little got fired in 2003, management's contention they'd wanted to fire Little long before Game Seven of the ALCS made Henry look like a ditherer at best and a coward at worst.

Henry is not a dope. But like most of us, deep emotion makes him more prone to stupid decisions. When it comes to crisis communication and damage control, Henry is too strung out by criticism to follow the procedure recommended by every expert in those two fields.

It's simple advice. STFU.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tinsel on the Sports Curb

The last day of the Olympic Games, especially the closing ceremony, is exactly like taking down the Christmas tree and hauling it out to be picked up by the recycling contractors.

Right now, the water polo final is on. Unless you're from Italy or Croatia, and EXTREMELY patriotic, this is like taking each ornament and placing it neatly in its box. Modern pentathlon for women is like taking the lights off. This thing's over.

It's depressing. It makes one excruciatingly aware of the passage of time. Worst of all, it leaves one with late August sports, which is to sports what January is to life, a period to be endured then forgotten as quickly as possible.

And yet, at the same time, there's relief. Christmas and the Olympics really take it out of you if you throw yourself into them. (Trust me, for everybody who's part of the Games in any capacity, especially sportswriters, relief is the only emotion).  If Christmas never stopped, it wouldn't be any fun. We mock people who are slow to take down their outdoor decorations, and rightly so. Suffering the dark, cold and ice of January gives the nice months meaning. In the same process, without late August, there couldn't be the start of football, and baseball pennant races, and playing golf while leaves turn, and all the other things that make September and October the reset buttons on the sports experience.

I will miss the Games of London. By Labor Day, I'll be hard pressed to tell you what I miss about them.


As his own farewell column in today's Globe made clear, Bob Ryan's move to semi-retirement (no live events, no more deadlines, and I'll bet those promises are broken by and by) is his gain in a well-lived life, and our loss as readers.

I was a Bob Ryan reader, an enthusiastic one, before I was a Bob Ryan colleague and I hope friend, and then for the last seven years I've been a Bob Ryan reader again. This experience, I think, gave me a different slant on Ryan's writing, and why Boston will miss it. Simply put, reading Bob Ryan and knowing Bob Ryan were remarkably similar. The words in the Globe were indeed expressions of the man himself, and I can think of few higher compliments for any writer in any format, from newspapers to epic poetry.

The opinionated, knowledgeable, affable prose Bob wrote for over four decades was the product of an opinionated, knowledgeable, affable human being, one that loved sports with all his heart and soul, but also regarded them as antidote for solemnity, not a cause. He was (still is, just he gets to pick his companions now), a superlative companion with whom to attend a sports event, either as a colleague or as a virtual companion reading about the game the next day.

I got to do both, for which I am profoundly grateful. Bob and myself buttonholing total strangers in a frantic effort to learn the rules and scoring rules of judo at the Sydney Olympics is one of those hilarious memories which are increasingly what I cherish from my former trade as the memories of other people's championships fade away.

As a writer, Bob is without artifice. He said what he had to say in a conversational style that, was, well, Bob Ryan conversing. Was it effective? Oh, my yes. For evidence, I submit Ryan's lede to his Cincinnati Reds sidebar following Game Six of the 1975 World Series.

"Too bad baseball is such a dull game, eh, gang?"

That's as close to a perfect lede as you'll ever get. And, trust me, writing ledes is the ultimate daily journalism skill.

One last trait in Bob's journalism deserves mention. It's the one sportswriting as a profession will miss more than his readers will. Total honesty. The largest section of the sports commentating industry today consists of men and women (many of whom are former peers I know and like) who make up opinions for the purpose of jerking around the always excitable sports fan audience. That's a cynical and awful enterprise. It's urinating on the hand that feeds you.

Nobody can ever say that Ryan had to make up a deeply held opinion, or an opinion of any kind. He's just too direct a person for that. And whether or not fans liked what he had to say, I don't think many Boston fans doubted Ryan was one of them, or at least someone who respected them.

Bob was direct, honest and courageous enough to admit in his farewell column that one of the reasons he's throttling down was his belief that his current work wasn't as good as his work of the past, that maybe he was running out of things to say, or worse, the belief anything to be said. Every writer from Homer on down has lived with the fear that was happening to him or her. The ones with the guts to admit it to their readers can probably be counted without using up all one's fingers and toes.

Believe it or not, column writing for a daily paper, if you want to do it right, is a grind. I look forward to what Bob has to say when the grind's not part of the package for him. I will look forward a lot less to the Globe sports section most days. It's not the fault of the people who're left there. But when a trusted companion moves away, the neighborhood just isn't what it used to be.

A Trip on the Final Hurdle

Sebastian Coe, head of the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, has worked very hard to preside over a very successful Olympic Games.  Then he blew he own lap of honor.

For reasons unknown, today's Olympic men's marathon was not, as is the happy custom, the last event of the Games. It did not end at the Olympic Stadium with the winner finishing on the track with a lap taken in front of a packed and shrieking stadium that has come for the closing ceremonies. Instead, the marathon took place in midday, and finished in the streets of London, in front of picturesque but otherwise non-sports related Buckingham Palace.

As far as stagecraft goes, this decision is roughly akin to having James Brown as a warmup act for Katy Perry.  Those 400 meters and roughly 90-100 seconds are, to me anyway and I think many others, the supreme Olympic experience. The one ectomorph finishing the marathon's ordeal in glory is the representative of every participant in a Games, of every participant of every Games there have ever been. He is Jim Thorpe and Jesse Owens, Olga Korbut and Larry Bird, Michael Johnson, Michael, Usain Bolt and the USA women's soccer team. The peculiar spectacle of a huge crowd cheering for a relatively unknown human being completing an extraordinarily testing and let's face it, extraordinarily odd athletic endeavor is really the Olympics, no, all of sports, boiled down to its essence.

That lap is supposed to end the Olympics in one last shout of exultation and exhaustion. For everybody, from the marathoners to the fans, to most of all, the thousands of persons who worked their posteriors off to put on the show. It's THEIR encore, their flashbulb moment.

And they didn't get it. Strangest of all, Coe is one of the greatest track athletes in history. He is as aware of his (often ignored in his own country) sport's tradition as a man can be. Yet he chose to sign off on erasing one of its sweetest, fiercest moments of joy.

It's sad and incomprehensible. A British stiff upper lip is all very well. But showmanship is as much a part of sports as sweat. Coe and his committee helped create many memories that'll last a lifetime. Yet they blew the one that should've been THEIR lifetime memory.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Another Olympic Gold for Great Britain, or Maybe Denmark

Sports journalism is a creature of habit. So when something new comes along in my old racket, I sit up straight and pay attention.

Imagine how I feel about journalism that's not only new, it's more adorable than baby chicks at Eastertime.

The Website of the distinguished British newspaper The Guardian ( if you're scoring at home) has a series of computer animated video recreations of great moments in the 2012 Olympic Games of London.

They're done entirely in Legos.