BOSTON (CBS) — And so now it looks like infighting, like the beginnings of an insurrection, regardless of whether that is actually true. John Farrell is smart enough to know that. He has spent a lifetime in baseball. And he knows that in the dugout and on the field, as everywhere else, perception is reality, and the perception is that the Red Sox are again spiraling out of control.
Fresh off a three-game sweep of the Oakland A’s, the Red Sox returned to form in the last 72 hours and were swept by the Baltimore Orioles this week, culminating in a 6-5 defeat at Camden Yards last night. In the middle of the game, Farrell yanked ineffective pitcher Wade Miley, who then engaged Farrell in a heated exchange in the dugout before the manager guided the confrontation down the runway and out of sight.
After the game, Farrell said the right things, played it cool, suggested he respected Miley’s competitiveness. But he knows how this will play. The perception will be that Farrell is losing control of his team, that the Red Sox are in a flat spin in the clubhouse, too, that all bets and gloves are off as the Red Sox do what, historically, they have done better than most anyone else in baseball.
Turn on themselves.
“He’s a competitor,” Farrell told reporters. “You work four days for your start. He doesn’t want to come out of the ballgame, and I fully respect that. I thought he had good stuff overall, but where we were on the scoreboard … felt we needed a change in contrast, a change in style, and took him out.”
Countered Miley: “Between me and John. It is what it is.”
It is what it is. A fitting choice of words, don’t you think? Baseball and football are two entirely different sports, of course, but we all know how the average fan’s mind works. This week, we learned that Patriots coach Bill Belichick put the hammer down on Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, effectively banning him from team activity for missing a flight. Now a veteran Red Sox pitcher is showing up his manager in the dugout, on television, and New England waits with anticipation to see how Farrell responds.
The truth? These are apples and oranges. Comparing sports is almost always a foolish endeavor. But what we can compare is how Farrell handles this in comparison to, say, Terry Francona, who had his share of brushfires during his stint as manager of the Red Sox and generally handled them with aplomb.
Forget Manny Ramirez. When Francona and Manny coexisted, the Red Sox generally won. And we all know Manny was, as one Sox official once put it, “a turd.” But Francona also had other incidents during his time in Boston, with proven veteran players, and how he handled them further tightened Francona’s grasp on the club. Francona ultimately was fired, of course – all managers eventually meet their maker – but managerial seasons in Boston are like dog years, and Francona made it through an incredible eight full seasons.
Think about it: In 2005, outfielder Jay Payton confronted Francona in the dugout and was soon thereafter traded. A year later, at the conclusion of a three-game series sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees, David Wells threw his hands up in the dugout after the bullpen blew a lead, concluding a homestand during which relievers had previously pointed fingers at the hitters.
So what did Francona do? After the team traveled to the West Coast, he called a team meeting. He said that if the Red Sox were going to lose, they were going to lose with dignity. He put an end to the finger-pointing. He told his players to button up.
The Red Sox went 17-21 over the balance of that season, finishing 86-76 and out of the playoffs. They made some roster changes and additions after the season, began promoting a handful of players from the minor leagues. In 2007, they won their second title in a four-year span.
All of this brings us back to Farrell, who has been under fire for weeks now, overseeing a wildly underachieving Red Sox team that continues to plummet in the standings. The Sox don’t hit well, don’t pitch well and don’t play especially good defense – and they run bases as if their pants are on fire. With a $200 million payroll that is the richest in club history, we all know they have the talent to do better. Nobody ever said this Red Sox club was championship-caliber when it left spring training, but there’s simply no way they should have the second-worst record in the American League.
A few weeks ago, Farrell called veteran players David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Mike Napoli and Dustin Pedroia into his office in Texas. The message was that the veteran Sox needed to lead. This week, that translated into Ortiz telling reporters to effectively ask the manager why Ortiz wasn’t in the lineup on Wednesday night, regardless of whether Ortiz said so in an angry tone (which he didn’t) or a placid one (which he reportedly did). A leader in that situation might have said something like, “Given the way I’m performing against left-handers, I wouldn’t play me, either,” but Ortiz is obviously as frustrated as anyone else.
So on the very next night, what did Miley do? On a night when he allowed nine hits and three homers while recording just 12 outs, he didn’t merely lash out at someone else. He lashed out at his manager. In the dugout. In front of everyone. For the world to see. The Red Sox appear to be in what Maverick and Goose might have referred to as a flat spin, whipping out to sea as if on some kind of Disney ride.
Tonight, at Fenway Park, the Sox host a Toronto Blue Jays team that has won eight games in a row. The Red Sox feel as if they are coming unglued. John Farrell is now being put to the test like at no other time in his tenure as manager of the Red Sox, and win or lose, the challenge is obvious.
Farrell doesn’t need to right the ship – it may be too late for that – but he at least needs to steady it.