Dealing with the Red Sox Starting Pitchers
More details keep emerging about the hijinks of the top three pitchers in the 2011 Boston Red Sox starting rotation. Just when fans think it can’t get any worse, it does. Although the 2012 season is a ways off, it feels impossible to think right now about how the Red Sox can handle this situation without completely decimating their team, specifically their starting pitching staff.
From what can be pieced together from media reports and the recent interview of Jon Lester, is that he, along with Josh Beckett and John Lackey, were a triumvirate of gluttonous behavior. By all accounts the leader of the group was Beckett, but what doesn’t seem to be in dispute is that this threesome often were in the clubhouse during games they did not pitch, drinking, playing video games, and occasionally indulging in Popeye’s chicken. The most recent development is that these three apparently even brought back beer in paper cups to the dugouts during games because they were bored with simply supporting their teammates. Beckett and Lester have denied that this last allegation is true, but several unnamed team sources insist that it is.
If one thing is taken away by a youngster from their Little League experience, it is that no matter how well you or your team is playing, one must always support teammates at all times. This apparently is not an element of baseball etiquette held dear by the Red Sox pitchers.
A number of people, including the players themselves, insist that the drinking and other motley behavior did not cause the Red Sox to miss the postseason. While I am fairly convinced that it did not directly affect any particular loss, I do believe wholeheartedly that any team divided is never at its strongest. The total lack of respect the clubhouse represented to Terry Francona, and his inability to rein it in, made the team rudderless as soon as it began. It may be true that the 2004 Red Sox drank before or during games, but the biggest difference was that they did it together, and because of that they were the definition of a tightly knit team.
Between these three pitchers, the Red Sox committed 180.5 million dollars worth of contract money. I have a hard time writing, let alone believing that the simple act of sitting on a bench for three hours a game was too much for these players to endure. It is just another example of the curtain being drawn back to expose professional athletes for what they often are, less than perfect, and sometimes downright unlikeable.
It feels like the Red Sox must do something drastic to address the breach in team unity that has been like a public pantsing in front of their fans and the rest of the baseball world. But what is there to do? It is not feasible or practical for the team to jettison their three best and most highly paid starting pitchers. Especially in the cases of Lester and Beckett, pitchers like that don’t just grow on trees. Nor is it practical to shed players involved in behavioral issues. It can be said safely that baseball fans would be shocked if they knew of half the things that never make it out of the dugout or clubhouse.
Lackey has been the easiest target of vitriol from Red Sox fans because of his putrid performance, poor attitude, and his name surfacing in all the reports of clubhouse extracurricular activities. As much for him, as for the Red Sox, Lackey cannot be allowed to return next year. He has about as much chance of ending his tenure with the Red Sox and their fans on amicable terms as Bucky Dent does of being elected the mayor of Boston. Although he is still owed a substantial amount of money over the next three years, the team must find a way to cut ties, regardless of what they have to do to make that happen. Sometimes mistakes just have to be acknowledged, even if that means eating the remainder of his contract. It’s not unreasonable to believe that Lackey’s production could bounce back, but there is little he could do to ever re-gain the standing he has lost in Boston. For as fair or unfair as somebody might say it is, dispatching Lackey would send an unmistakable message to the players and the fans, and also rid the team of its most dispensable piece in all this mess.
Josh Beckett is the frustrating one in the bunch. Even though he has enjoyed a lot of success during his career, there always seems to be the nagging sense that his results have never quite lived up to his talent. The recent media reports portray him as an overgrown kid, always looking for his next caper. He will probably never be an effective leader, but when he pitches it seems very clear that he cares. With the exception of his last two starts, he had a very good season and was a workhorse for the team. Obviously he will remain in Boston next season. They can’t replace him and he has proven he can pitch competitively in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the American League East.
The player in the clubhouse controversy that I am most disappointed in is Jon Lester. Despite his talent he has always had a whiff of the underdog about him, no doubt influenced by his courageous bout with cancer that he won. He has developed into one of the top young pitchers in baseball, and seemed grateful for the chance to get his dreams back after having them seriously in doubt.
Lester is talented and he is pretty underpaid compared to other pitchers of his caliber. If there is one truly salvageable player in this whole deal, I believe it is Lester. He is young enough and has faced enough adversity, to emerge a better person, player, and leader. The first glimmer of this possibility was by him being the first of the “fried chicken three” to step forward and address the accusations. Although he downplayed some aspects and was surprisingly unsupportive of Terry Francona, his public statements showed that he cares. It is too early to tell, but maybe the Red Sox will eventually gain a new leader in Lester out of the unlikeliest of situations.
Lest anyone think I am identifying beer and chicken as the cause of all the Red Sox ills, I will state emphatically that I am not. They are symbolic of what was wrong with the Red Sox this year- a non-unified team that lacked true leadership from the players or the coaching staff- and represent an opportunity to be used as the launching point for a whole new team attitude. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and when your baseball team gives you fried chicken and beer, use it as self reflection and don’t allow it to endure as a negative.
I am anxious to see what the Red Sox will do, but there are several months until spring training starts, so anything can happen. Here’s hoping that whatever that may be, it is better than what happened this past September. Winning teams learn from their mistakes and experience growth where it is needed. It’s time to see if the core of the Red Sox is indeed capable of being a winning team.
Andrew Martin is the founder of “The Baseball Historian” blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a regular basis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach him on Twitter at @RedSoxFanNum1.