Red Sox axe manager Bobby Valentine after 'season of agony'
The Boston Red Sox fired manager Bobby Valentine on Thursday after one season in which he failed to bring order to a clubhouse that disintegrated during the 2011 pennant race.
Valentine finished with a record of 69-93 on a team that was beset by injuries before management gave up on this season and traded some of its best players — and biggest salaries. Without Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, the Red Sox will save $250 million US in future salaries and have a chance to rebuild over the winter.
But that will be too late for Valentine.
A baseball savant who won the National League pennant with the New York Mets and won it all in Japan, Valentine was brought in after two-time World Series champion Terry Francona lost control of the clubhouse in 2011 during an unprecedented September collapse. But the players who had been coddled under Francona bristled under Valentine's abrasive style and, more importantly, didn't win for him, either.
"Our 2012 season was disappointing for many reasons," general manager Ben Cherington said. "No single issue is the reason, and no single individual is to blame. We've been making personnel changes since August, and we will continue to do so as we build a contending club. With an historic number of injuries, Bobby was dealt a difficult hand. He did the best he could under seriously adverse circumstances, and I am thankful to him."
The Red Sox used 56 players in 2012, the most in club history.
"This year's won-loss record reflects a season of agony," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said. "It begs for changes, some of which have already transpired. More will come. We are determined to fix that which is broken and return the Red Sox to the level of success we have experienced over the past decade.
"Difficult as it is to judge a manager amid a season that had an epidemic of injuries, we feel we need to make changes. Bobby leaves the Red Sox manager's office with our respect, gratitude, and affection. I have no doubt that he will continue to contribute to the game he loves so much and knows so well."
Swept by Yankees
Valentine's tenure ended at the hands of the Yankees, the American League East champions, who swept the Red Sox in a series that ended on Wednesday night in New York.
"This season was by far the worst we have experienced in over 10 years here. Ultimately, we are all collectively responsible for the team's performance," Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said. "We are going to be working tirelessly to reconstruct the ball club for 2013. We'll be back.
"We thank Bobby for the many contributions he made and for the energy he brought each day. He is a baseball man through and through."
Cherington, who replaced Theo Epstein last off-season, will headman the search for a replacement.
"In our meeting with Bobby, he handled everything with dignity and class, and it is deeply appreciated. Ultimately, we as owners are responsible for arming our organization with the resources — intellectual, physical, and financial — to return to the levels of competitiveness to which we aspire and to which our fans are accustomed," Red Sox owner John Henry said. "Our commitment to winning is unwavering. It is a commitment to this team, to this city, and to these fans who have supported us through thick and thin.
"We have confidence in Ben Cherington and the kind of baseball organization he is determined to build."
A year after a 7-20 September cost the Red Sox a chance at the post-season, the club went 7-22 in September and October to put a punctuation mark on its worst season in almost 50 years. But unlike 2011, when the team took a nine-game lead into the final month, Boston was never competitive under Valentine.
"I understand this decision," Valentine said. "This year in Boston has been an incredible experience for me, but I am as disappointed in the results as are ownership and the great fans of Red Sox Nation. It was a privilege to be part of the 100 year anniversary of Fenway Park and an honour to be in uniform with such great players and coaches. My best to the organization.
"I'm sure next year will be a turnaround year."
Although there were some loose ends to tie up — namely, the final three dozen meaningless games of the season — the year effectively ended on Aug. 24, when Gonzalez was scratched from the lineup of a game against the Kansas City Royals. The next day, the three high-priced but underperforming players were shipped to Los Angeles and Cherington explained, "It gives us an opportunity to build the next great Red Sox team."
Cherington's work can begin in earnest now that the regular season is over and the Red Sox have missed the playoffs for the third year in a row.
"Obviously it wasn't what I set out to do," Valentine said last week before the home finale at Fenway Park. "When you don't accomplish what you set out to do, you don't feel like you've done a good job. Simple."
What was supposed to be a season of celebration for Fenway's 100th anniversary was instead the worst at the ballpark since 1965. And though injuries probably doomed the Red Sox anyway, Valentine's clumsy handling of his players — and it may have just been that he was honest when no one expected it — forced him into frequent apologies that undermined his authority in the clubhouse.
"We didn't have it. That's for sure," Valentine said. "I feel bad that we didn't have it."
The Red Sox had not had an extended string of failure since Henry bought the team in 2002, winning two World Series and making a two more trips to the AL Championship Series since then. They were poised for another playoff run in 2011, with the AL's best record on Sept. 1 before an unprecedented September collapse left them out of the post-season.
Francona, who led the Red Sox to Series titles in 2004 and again in 2007, was let go after admitting that he had lost his touch in the clubhouse. To replace him, the Red Sox picked Valentine, who took the New York Mets to the 2000 World Series and won a championship in Japan but hadn't managed in the majors in 10 years. Francona spent a year in the broadcast booth and will interview for the open managerial position with the Cleveland Indians on Friday.
Attempt to change culture
The move for Valentine was seen as an intentional and abrupt change from Francona's hands-off style, an attempt to change a culture that enabled pitchers to drink beer and eat fried chicken in the clubhouse during games on their off-nights.
On that, Valentine delivered immediately: He banned beer from the clubhouse, and didn't hesitate to criticize his own players publicly — something Francona took pains to avoid. But players bristled at the new accountability, with Kevin Youkilis objecting when Valentine said he wasn't as "into the game" as before and Dustin Pedroia coming to his teammate's defence, saying, "That's not the way we go about our stuff around here."
"He'll figure that out. The whole team is behind Youk. We have each other's backs here," Pedroia said. "Maybe that works in Japan."
Valentine spent seven seasons in Japan, winning the championship in 2005 with Chiba Lotte. But he had returned to the states and was working as an analyst for ESPN when the Red Sox went looking for a manager to shake up their complacent clubhouse.
Valentine said he was lured back into uniform by the chance to work with a star-laden roster and a payroll that virtually guaranteed that the Red Sox would be competitive.
But even before the season began, injuries began tearing that roster apart.
Crawford missed much of the season, joining pitchers John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka on the disabled list before opening day. Potential closers Andrew Bailey and Bobby Jenks had off-season surgery; Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Clay Buchholz, Pedroia, Beckett and Youkilis also spent time on the DL.
And Valentine managed to anger — if not alienate — many of those who remained.
'It's on the players'
He took issue with Beckett playing golf two days before he was scratched with shoulder stiffness. An unknown player ratted him out after he said, "Nice inning, kid," to Will Middlebrooks in what Valentine said was actually an attempt to cheer the rookie up after he committed two errors.
In July, ownership met with players to discuss Valentine but denied reports that players called for him to be fired. Two weeks later, Henry emailed reporters to say Valentine was not to blame for the team's record and said he would finish out the year; Pedroia agreed, saying, "It's on the players."
In August, management gave up on 2012 and unloaded several of the team's most burdensome salaries on the Dodgers. Los Angeles also missed the playoffs.
Although Cherington openly conceded the season, Valentine refused to do so. Asked during his weekly radio show if he had "checked out," Valentine jokingly said he should punch the host in the nose. (He showed up for their next interview with boxing gloves.)
In mid-September, with Boston's AAA team in the playoffs and reinforcements scarce, Valentine called the Red Sox "the weakest roster we've ever had in September in the history of baseball."
Again, he was forced to backtrack.
(But, again, he was probably right.)
Ultimately, Valentine will be judged on his record.
And it was dreadful.
The Red Sox started the season 4-10 and didn't reach .500 until after Memorial Day. By the time the contenders were setting their post-season rosters for the Aug. 31 deadline, Cherington knew the Red Sox were not among them and unloaded some of the more onerous contracts on the books.
In the final weeks, the Red Sox weren't even able to play spoiler, losing 12 of 13 against Tampa Bay, Baltimore and New York.