Boston Red Sox Clubhouse: Benign Or Malignant Cancer?

Red Sox third baseman Mike Aviles

via John McDonnell/The Washington Post

The term clubhouse cancer is a saying that is sometimes thrown around the baseball community without understanding the weight of the connotations.  Outside of baseball, the mere mention of cancer will make some cringe.  Others will hold back tears.  Some will be indifferent.  It’s something that affects each of us, either directly or indirectly.  Using cancer as sports metaphor may seem insensitive to those who aren’t around it on a daily basis, but it can be allegorically accurate.  Hence its use throughout the bevies of beat reporters and bloggers.

If you didn’t already know, the Red Sox franchise is collapsing right before our eyes.  The demise of their legacy trickles down from the very top, all the way down to the 25th man.  Theo Esptein is on his way to Chicago.  Terry Francona is out.  The clubhouse is in shambles.  In regards to the way the team finished the season, Boston was two games up in the AL East and eight games up in the wildcard race at the end of August.  Things were looking good for Boston until September – that fateful September.  That September that culminated to a must win game on a Wednesday.  On August 31st, they were 83-52.  They went 7-19  in their last 26 games.  Things fell apart in a hurry.

You can do everything your nutritionist says to do: eat more leafy greens, drink more tea, exercise every day – but no one is safe from cancer.  It’s something that permeates the genetics of humanity, and society still struggles to battle the sickness.

Is Seattle safe from this disease?

My Oh Managers

I don’t think I’ve been more bummed about a manager getting outed by the big wigs than Tito did.  And he manages the Red Sox!  The same Boston Red Sox that we on the west coast all know and (sports)hate.  There really isn’t anything to hold against guy other than that he took the franchise to the World Series twice and won both times within four years.  In these situations the solution is always the same: sayonara to the manger! the powers-that-be proclaim.  Using Francona as a scapegoat for the failings of Boston sounds severe when said aloud, but it’s not an uncommon practice.  It fact, it feels like it’s becoming part of the coding of how franchises are built.  If a team performs poorly, then fire the manager.  You know, the one person who isn’t on the field playing the game.

That’s why the signing of Jack Zduriencik and the announcement of keeping coach continuity was such a vital victory for the future success of the Mariners.  As a franchise, the Mariners haven’t had a good track record in regards to retaining managers, sans Lou Pinella.  Within the decade we can look at the past managers: Bob Melvin, two years and out; Mike Hargrove, two a half years and out; John McLaren one-year-ish and out. Don Wakamatsu, two-years-ish and out.  Eric Wedge, we’ll have to wait and see.

I was nervous for Wedge because of the whole Wakamatsu/Ken Griffey Jr. debacle.  The Chone Figgins fight.  He was walking into a clubhouse that was more than divided – it was at war.  Temperaments like this rupture the core of the team.  In 2010, the Mariners went to bed angry, and it was Wedge that had to find out if they woke up still fuming from the season previous.  Now that the 2011 season is over, we can reflect on his decisions, both sound and poor, both on the field and off.

The best thing we can take away from this season is that the clubhouse remained intact.  There was always solidarity between players.  Even during the 17-game losing streak, multiple sources reported that the atmosphere of the clubhouse was not unlike that of a club who had just lost 17 in a row, but it was nowhere near as close as last years clubhouse.  One of those factors were the coupling of youth and veterans alike.  There were so many rookies, there was no way that their perspective of the things going on would be jaded at all.  The mix of veterans helped because most of them were just passing through.  Holding a place for the next Dustin Ackley or Kyle Seager to come up.

Wedge helped by keeping the continuity.  When he told Ichiro Suzuki he was going to sit, Ichiro sat.  Reports said that Ichiro still went through his daily routine like he was going to play.  Whether or not it was because he wanted to stay warm, or because he thought Wedge was bluffing, we’ll never know.  We do know that Ichiro thought he might have been used off of the bench, but he wasn’t.  Sidebar: that game was June 10th, and Charlie Furbush had an inning of relief against the Mariners.  And now the Tigers are battling the Rangers in the ALCS.  Oh, baseball, you tease!

The Players

Although it happens far more than it should, the manager shouldn’t be the one held solely accountable for poor performance.  The 25 men on the field play a huge role, obviously, and it’s too bad that the manager turns into a scapegoat.  Luckily, for us Mariners fans, we didn’t have that problem this year.  Even if there were disagreements, none were as dysfunctional as Boston’s strife.  Imagine a clubhouse where Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas and Blake Beavan stayed in the clubhouse during  a game, drinking beers and playing PS3.  I don’t think Furbush would’ve appreciated that.  I don’t think any of the position players would appreciate that.  Wedge sure was hell wouldn’t have had any of that business going on.

The great thing about the Mariners clubhouse is that the players celebrated wins with each other like great teams should.  They have secret high-fives, they had special moments.  They laughed and smiled.  The better thing about the Mariners is that they reflected on losses like a losing team should.  They were quiet.  They thought about what went wrong.  They picked each other up when they were down.  I still remember a post-game interview with Michael Pineda after he had gotten shelled for the first time, and Felix had a conversation with him.  Told him what to learn from the experience.  Told him what to look for next time.  And I imagine that he told him that there would be a next time.

Dustin Pedroia seemed to be the only player with Boston that really wanted to win.  He seems like a stand-up guy, so it makes sense.  What I see in him is what I see in so many of the players on the Mariners: the desire to win.  Brendan Ryan may not ever be a superstar.  He may not ever hit .300 in a single season.  The thing that he always has is the desire to win.  We at home can see it on his face, by the bombs he drops.  It rubs off.  It has to rub off.  Going into next year, the club will have a desire to win.  There were great examples set for them.  Ryan is exactly what Boston was missing: a clubhouse guy.  A guy who wanted nothing else but to win, and he would do everything he could to protect that.  David Pauley took the loss against the Nationals really bad.  He gave up two runs in the ninth, and he blew it.  He blew it for himself and he blew it for his team.  Afterwards, it was reported that Pauley went somewhere in the clubhouse to be alone, and Ryan stood outside that door with a bat.  He was going to let his teammate have his private moment.  No one was going to get through.  Not a reporter, not a teammate, not a manager.

One of the trainers was quoted, saying that “It’ s hard for a guy making $80,000 to tell a $15 million pitcher he needs to get off his butt and do some work”.  I don’t buy it.  Why not?  Why can’t that happen?  I remember Jason Ellison standing up for Ichiro.  Does anyone remember Jason Ellison?  The only reason I do is because when Joe Blanton shoved Ichiro to get to a ball in play, Ellison immediately got fired up and went after him.  The 25th man standing up for the 1st man (Sidebar: at the time).  There’s something to be said for that.  There’s something to be said for a player who is willing to do anything and everything to win, and to protect his teammates.  Going forward, the Mariners have a great clubhouse situation.

The Puppetmaster

I never have had any reason to hold a grudge against Theo Epstein.  As far as I know, he’s a character guy.  He’s a young guy, but he still has character.  But it all comes down to the man in charge – the person putting together the clubhouse.  His acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez was heralded as one of the greatest moves the Boston franchise ever pulled off.  Gonzalez was a silent leader.  He is the Ichiro type.  He let’s his bat do the talking, not his mouth.  He didn’t have that passion that Pedroia had.  He doesn’t have the flare that Ryan has.  How was Epstein supposed to know his clubhouse would develop multiple cancers?  There was no indication.  There was no way to predict it.

John Lackey is now looking like one of the worst signings in a long time, and not only that, he is one of the catalysts for the poor atmosphere in the clubhouse.  How was Epstein supposed to know that his three top pitchers were going to turn into beer-guzzling, video-game addicting snobs?  The problem is that he should be held accountable.  He has to be.  Jack Zduriencik took a risk with Milton Bradley.  It didn’t work out.  He took a risk with Chone Figgins.  It isn’t working out.  Baseball is a complete crapshoot.  You never know what would happen the next year.

Thing is – it goes both ways.  Dustin Ackley was a risk.  Michael Pineda breaking camp was a risk.  The GMs job is to take risks, and fortunately enough, many of panned out positively for the Mariners franchise.

We can learn many things from the collapse of the Red Sox.  There are so many variables: the manger, the players, the GM.  The Mariners are in a good situation, no matter what people think.  We have a great front office that has decided to keep continuity in the coaching staff.  It’s so important.  It’s important to the players to have familiar faces around year after year, rather than a rotating door of new-hires.  It’s important to have the same people keeping you accountable, players and staff alike.  It’s important to want to win.

In a city that needs to win, the Red Sox ignored that imperative.  In a city that longs to win, Seattle is set up to do just that.

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