Epstein twists in the wind with Red Sox

BY Ken Rosenthal • October 3, 2011

When does it end? When do the Boston Red Sox, those celebrated beacons of rational thought, stop acting irrationally?

I’ll tell you when it should end — right now, with yet another news conference, this one to announce a contract extension for general manager Theo Epstein.

It’s bad enough that the Red Sox already have run off manager Terry Francona. But the uncertainty over Epstein’s status is even more baffling.

The Sox haven’t publicly said that they will deny Epstein permission to leave for the Cubs. And Epstein hasn’t publicly ruled out his interest in the Cubs’ GM opening.

As a rival GM said, when Sox management is in the middle of a nervous breakdown — and make no mistake, that’s exactly what this is — “all bets are off.”

A few weeks ago, Epstein was the subject of a glowing Sports Illustrated profile that portrayed the Red Sox as the leading practitioners of the new Moneyball.

Now, after one month of horrid baseball, culminating in a historic collapse, the entire operation needs to be torpedoed?


Ownership needs to end its hissy fit, the sequel to a tantrum that prompted Epstein to walk away in a gorilla suit after the 2005 season, only to return and lead the team to a second World Series title.

Epstein, who is not in the strongest position to exert leverage, needs to realize that the grass would not be greener elsewhere. He should clean up his own mess.

In short, the Red Sox need to act more like the Braves, who endured just as devastating a collapse in the NL but responded by firing only hitting coach Larry Parrish.

The expectations of the two teams were different. The markets are different. The clubhouse problems, if you actually believe they played a major role in the Red Sox’s demise — as opposed to, say, the team’s astonishing lack of starting-pitching depth — were different, too.

Another important distinction: Francona, after eight seasons, perhaps had run his course with the Red Sox, while Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was in his first season as the replacement for Bobby Cox.

Still, what the Red Sox won’t say is that their failure to grant Francona an extension beyond this season left him without the necessary authority to clamp down on any perceived clubhouse issues.

What they also won’t say is that Francona was essentially blameless strategically — as opposed to Gonzalez, who wore down his bullpen and made questionable lineup decisions to the end.

The talk in the Braves’ clubhouse toward the end of the season was that their collapse never would have occurred under Cox — who, in truth, also was hard on his bullpens.

Whatever, you see none of the over-reaction from Atlanta’s management that you do from Boston’s.

“When you look at everything, going into September, we had one of the five best records in baseball,” Braves GM Frank Wren said. “We didn’t get it done, but at the same time, it’s hard to lay blame on any one area.

“I had concerns even before September what was going on with our hitting. That change, if we were in the playoffs right now, very well could have happened, anyway. Larry is a good baseball man and has a lot of knowledge about hitting. But for whatever reason, it just couldn’t get through to our hitters.”

OK, so Parrish had to go. That’s baseball — teams routinely fire coaches. They do not routinely part with managers who win two World Series and reach the postseason five times in eight years.

But the Red Sox, for all their brainpower, have a far less stable culture than the Braves — or even the current Phillies, for that matter.

The Braves are no strangers to disappointment — they won only one World Series during their incredible run of 14 straight division titles. But John Schuerholz, the team’s GM at the time and now its club president, said he never once considered firing Cox.

Neither Schuerholz nor Wren was willing to draw a direct comparison between the Braves and Red Sox. But Schuerholz takes justifiable pride in what he and Cox accomplished — with the support of ownership, first Ted Turner and then Time Warner. (The team is now owned by Liberty Media.)

“We had a plan,” Schuerholz said. “We changed our course in 1991 (when the Braves began their streak of division titles). We set sail and we never wavered. The waters got rough. The winds picked up. We got battered a couple of times. But we stayed the course.”

Staying the course. What a concept.

The Red Sox should have told Francona: “Terry, you are part of the solution. We want you to take control of the clubhouse. We want you to lead us to another World Series title. And we’re willing to show our commitment with a three-year deal.”

As for Epstein, ownership had better realize that — as the Yankees’ Brian Cashman and others can attest — GMs of high-revenue clubs occasionally blow it with their free-agent signings. It’s the nature of the beast.

The message to Epstein should be: “Theo, everyone makes mistakes. Let’s fix ours. Clean out the players who are bad teammates or poor fits in Boston. We want you here for three more years and, hopefully, beyond.”

The Red Sox already have lost one critical piece. Shame on them if they lose another.

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