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An angry detour for Sox owner John Henry

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / October 15, 2011

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Red Sox owner John W. Henry was cruising through town in his Volvo SUV yesterday listening to sports talk radio - shouldn’t he know better? - when he heard some caustic claims about him and his Sox that he simply could not let go unchallenged.

So Henry, a dispassionate man with a quiet voice, motored off to the Brighton studios of 98.5 The Sports Hub and angrily demanded to be heard on air.

“When you’re misleading the public, you should be challenged,’’ Henry told cohosts Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti.

The hosts, who have been critical of the team in the wake of its stunning September collapse, were only too happy to accommodate their uninvited guest. In the wide-ranging 70-minute interview that followed, a combative Henry had his say, answering questions that surely had his employees back at Fenway Park squirming.

Henry said he did all he could to keep general manager Theo Epstein from leaving the team, a fight he ultimately lost when Epstein agreed on a five-year deal to run the Chicago Cubs earlier this week. The owner also said he opposed the landmark $142 million contract given to free agent outfielder Carl Crawford last winter.

In what turned into a feisty exchange, Henry denied the team was in chaos and said it would be “great’’ next season. The owner did not back down when challenged, displaying a combative side of his personality the public rarely sees.

“I’m here to give you facts,’’ said Henry, who usually speaks to the media accompanied by team president Larry Lucchino or other team officials.

Epstein has not yet officially left the Red Sox as the sides are negotiating compensation in return for his not fulfilling the final year remaining on his contract. But Henry essentially acknowledged that Epstein would not be back.

“I’d love to have Theo back,’’ he said. “I would have loved for Theo to have been our general manager for the next 20 years. That was my hope. That would have been my hope. But you don’t always get what you want.’’

The Red Sox are expected to name Ben Cherington to replace Epstein once the compensation talks are complete.

“It would be unfair of me and to the Cubs, who I don’t care that much about, but certainly to the Red Sox, Theo, and the people involved to comment on what’s going on until there’s something to announce,’’ Henry said.

Lucchino will be staying on, according to Henry. His contract runs out at the end of the year, but he and Henry have discussed a multiyear extension.

“He hasn’t slowed down a bit over the last 10 years,’’ Henry said. “He hasn’t set a time or a date. Theo sort of did at one point. He never saw the general manager’s role as longer than 10 years for himself. After a few years, he knew that the stress of this job was too much. But in Larry’s case, he thrives on it.’’

Henry did not criticize the play of Crawford, who hit .255 with only 11 home runs in his first season with the Sox, but admitted for the first time that he opposed the signing.

“Anyone involved in the process, anybody involved in upper management with the Red Sox, will tell you that I personally opposed that,’’ said Henry, who thought the team didn’t need another left-handed hitter. “They all know that. I’ll just tell you that at the time I opposed the deal, but I don’t meddle to the point of making decisions for our baseball people. Theo will tell you this was driven by our baseball people.’’ Henry said it was “preposterous’’ to think that the Sox traded for Adrian Gonzalez and signed Crawford in an effort to improve the ratings on New England Sports Network, the team-owned cable station. “It wasn’t a PR move,’’ he said.

Crawford’s agent, Brian Peters, had no comment other than to say the player was determined to improve in 2012.

“Carl is the first to admit he didn’t have a good season,’’ Peters said. “But it was one season.’’

Henry came to the defense of pitcher Josh Beckett, who has been accused of drinking beer in the clubhouse during games, by calling him one of the most competitive athletes he has known. The Red Sox, he said, fell apart because of poor starting pitching down the stretch and not necessarily a lack of leadership.

Also, in a darker tangent, Henry said that his wife, Linda Pizzutti Henry, would not own the team in the event of his death.

“I wouldn’t wish that on anybody I loved,’’ he said.

Henry also clarified some of the issues involved in the departure of manager Terry Francona.

Under the terms of Francona’s contract, his two-year, $9 million option could not be picked up until after the season. That was discussed during the season, but the decision was made to wait.

When the season ended, Francona elected to leave before a decision could be made.

Henry also disputed the notion that the team was in disarray.

“I think the chaos that’s going on is much more external than internal,’’ Henry told Felger. “There’s this feeling, I think you said that we’re in ashes, that the Red Sox are in ashes. That’s not how we feel about it.

“If fans hang in there, I’m going to hang in there. We’re going to be back as an organization. We’re going to have a top-class manager and general manager, and we’re going to have a great team next year. People are forgetting that this was a great team before September.

“I love this team, and I’m going to do everything I can to get it back to where it needs to be.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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