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Perspective on Red Sox' picture of disarray

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 19, 2011 12:21 PM

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Perspective comes with time and knowledge. I apologize for leading off the inning with an aphorism, but "hell yeah, I like beer" was already taken. Come to think of it, saying that perspective comes with time, knowledge, and beer is probably even more fitting, especially when the 2011 Red Sox are the subject.

But we'll keep the beverages out of this particular clubhouse today, because time and knowledge are doing the trick just fine when it comes to figuring out why it all went wrong last season -- and why optimism for the season to come isn't exclusively the territory of a blind fool.

It's been three weeks since the season officially slipped away, Jonathan Papelbon walking off the mound in Baltimore mere moments before Evan Longoria sent the Rays walking off with an opposite set of emotions in St. Petersburg.

It was a crash that managed to be both agonizingly prolonged and shocking in its finality, a once-secure 9 1/2 game lead in the wild-card race evaporating until all that remained was an offseason stacked with insecurities.

The maelstrom hasn't stopped since. Popular manager Terry Francona parted in a mutual decision that didn't feel mutual at all, and only Monday did one of the players who betrayed his trust begin to offer some explanation, though Jon Lester's words stopped somewhere short of apologetic.

General manager Theo Epstein, the son of Brookline, has decided that Chicago is his kind of town. He will take the Cubbies' helm and take on their brand of tortured history just as soon as Larry Lucchino can extract Trey McNutt -- a decent prospect and a future Fenway favorite based on name alone -- as compensation.

Whirling around it all were the reports of a dysfunctional, borderline insubordinate clubhouse almost began to make the wretched 2001 Red Sox look like a merry band of misunderstood gamers. At least those clowns were sober.

OK, it didn't quite get so miserable as to make Carl Everett sympathetic, but for a Red Sox fan, it's been an awful October marked by fallout and finger-pointing, an outcome that might have seemed unfathomable as recently as August. The lasting image we carry into the offseason is one of the season's final play, when a ball Carl Crawford should have caught eluded him as the winning run scored, leaving the outfielder with a dazed look that became all too familiar during his first season in Boston.

But with that missed catch . . . there's a catch. Because the farther away we get from the ending, the more time that passes and knowledge we accumulate, the clearer the big picture becomes, not only in terms of what happened, but what's ahead.

It's with that thought and the evolving perspective that I submit a different picture, the one above, as a suggestion if not outright evidence that it was pretty damn good around here this summer. And despite the still-smoldering wreckage of the 2011 season, there's an excellent chance it will be pretty damn good next summer, too.

Just look at that photo. It's the final scene of a May 1 victory over the Mariners, when the best days of the season was commencing. There's Crawford fitting in perfectly and delivering the winning hit. There's David Ortiz, in full, jovial Big Papi mode, leading the celebratory charge rather than lamenting the "drama" and kidding himself that there would actually be less of it in the Bronx. There's Adrian Gonzalez, who at his very worst was very good, and Jacoby Ellsbury, who's no loner in this image, and Dustin Pedroia, who like Ellsbury never allowed his effort to waver, and . . . is that Jon Lester? Can that be him? One of The Popeyes Three was actually in the dugout in case a celebration ensued?

This must be from a different season. And in a way it was. But it's also a telling snapshot of what the 2011 Red Sox were like at their best -- they went 72-39 from that victory until September 1 -- and what they can be again in 2012. Once the voids have been filled and the necessary alterations made.

And one alteration is more necessary than the others.

* * *

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Ninety-wins never felt so miserable, but the final total is remarkable given that just seven of them came in September. I know, small consolation, especially when confronted with this particular photo of three pitchers offering a spring training preview of what they would do in September: turn their collective backs on the rest of the team.

But look at it this way: Barring the extreme unlikelihood of similar catastrophe next season, the Red Sox should get back into that 95-victory range with relative ease.

As I documented in last week's gallery of 20 offseason predictions, the recipe for a redemptive 2012 season is pretty simple. It's a matter of keeping the superb Gonzalez-Ellsbury-Pedroia-Lester core healthy, re-signing Jonathan Papelbon and David Ortiz, filling in the holes in right field and the bullpen, and, yes, making sure whoever remains from the Tres Pollo Amigos lay off the beer and gravy during that four-hour window when they're on the clock. It'll be difficult -- from what I hear, there's no detox quite as torturous as the "chicken shakes'' -- but they must stop treating the clubhouse as their personal playroom.

The expectations are all reasonable. But to ensure that the ghosts of 2011 don't linger beyond the first few February days in Ft. Myers, there is one thing owner John Henry must do: He load fill the dinghy on his yacht with one John Derran Lackey, $45 million, a handful of Roush Racing Hot Wheels to keep him occupied and a Liverpool jersey to keep him warm, then drop the whole damn thing overboard, have Larry Lucchino give it an extra shove, and wave bon voyage. And he needs to do it as soon as possible.

Someone needs to take the hit for what happened this September, and a declining pitcher with an ugly 6.41 ERA and an even uglier attitude is a fine place to start. Lackey simply cannot return to the Red Sox next season. Because he is the embodiment of everything that went wrong with this one.

Josh Beckett once said during the summer that Lackey is his hero. At the time, that seemed a generous gesture, his way of praising his teammate for continuing to take his turn every fifth day despite the weight of some heavy personal problems. Now, you have to wonder whether Lackey is his hero for no other reason than he's held the high score on their skeet-shooting game on xBox for a really long time. He's clubhouse poison disguised as a batting-practice pitcher. If Henry wants to prove that what happened in September will never occur again on his watch, swallowing the rest of Lackey's contract is imperative.

I have previously suggested shopping Beckett, and Peter Abraham has written a thoughtful post on why the Red Sox should not trade him. I do not think they will -- it's difficult if not impossible to get equal value or replace him in the rotation at this point -- but as an injury-prone pitcher who will be 32 in May and seems more likely to go to the cooler than the treadmill, I can't help but wonder how much longer he'll be a top starter.

And not for a second do I believe that "I cannot let this allegation go without response; enough is enough" -- his words from the Red Sox' statement denying that players drank in the dugout -- came from his mouth. For one, there's not a single curse in there, and I'm pretty sure "allegation" isn't among his favorite words. I believe the theory of one of my co-workers is spot-on: The Red Sox issued that release because major league baseball told them to get their house in order before the World Series began.

Please, spare me the comparisons between the 2004 Idiots and the sips of Jack and these 2011 Bud Light-swilling sloths. The intent in imbibing seven years ago was unity, a symbol of the us-against-the-doubters mentality that was absolutely necessary to overcome the franchise history thrown in their faces after every tough loss. This was a clique, a faction, and it was a clique and a faction that fell on his engorged faces when the team needed the players involved to deliver. It's not the same thing; it's the opposite.

No, I don't buy any of the words attributed to Beckett and Lackey in last night's press release. As for Jon Lester, his comments about the issue were admirable in their accountability but dotted with rationalizations; at least there seems to be recognition on his part that what went down this season wasn't right and that amends next season are necessary.

It's a good start, and isn't that something we haven't said about any of these guys for far too long?

* * *

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One more photo to consider, one more reminder that the best manager the Red Sox have ever had has moved on and the general manager who put together two champions is right behind him, fleeing his hometown.

The exodus is still a bummer. But perspective has come with the details that have emerged in the past three weeks, and I am beginning to understand the argument that it was time for Francona to cede the manager's office to someone else, even if I'm not quite ready to nod in agreement.

The realization that Lester, who used to refer to Francona as his second dad, no longer had the manager's back was both disappointing and telling. But it's apparent now that he was among a vast majority who tuned out Francona this season -- et tu, Tek? -- and the dots between the manager's personal issues and the players' willingness to take advantage of their distracted boss should be easily connected.

Those like Lester who said this year's Red Sox lacked leaders -- really, are we supposed to believe you've been reduced to pining for Alex Cora? -- apparently have a character flaw that prevented them from being leaders. I can't help but wonder whether the epilogue might have been different had John Farrell and Brad Mills still been around. But ultimately the disarray reflects on Francona. He's gone, and that stinks, but maybe it had to be.

In bidding farewell to Epstein, it's appropriate to remember what he delivered before considering any problems he left behind. But the disappointment of his departure is tempered by the belief that the front office is in capable hands, whether or not he smuggles Carmine out with him.

While I like to imagine Lucchino is currently trying to help the organization save some face by extracting genuine value from the Cubs ("RANDY BUSH? IT'S ME, LUCCHINO. LISTEN TO ME, YOU POOR EXCUSE FOR A GENE LARKIN. GIVE ME #*#*#* * MCNUTT AND JACKSON OR I'LL HAVE BOY WONDER PUSHING A HOT DOG CART UNTIL THE LAST #*#*# SECOND OF HIS CONTRACT. I BROUGHT EPSTEIN INTO THIS WORLD AND I CAN TAKE HIM OUT OF IT!! [Click]"), it is Epstein's successor that serves as a source of optimism when it comes to the franchise's direction.

The transition to bright, prepared Ben Cherington, who joined the organization in 1998, a year after Jason Varitek, should be seamless. I trust that his philosophy in building a roster, farm system -- an organization -- doesn't deviate far from his predecessor's. Coincidentally, his immediate task is similar to what Epstein had to do after taking over for Dan Duquette (with a one-year Mike Port interlude): Supplement a roster rich in star-caliber talent with some high-quality role players.

The debates about the merits of Josh Willingham and Michael Cuddyer can't commence soon enough; here's hoping it gets back to baseball soon, that the personal issues give way to chatter about personnel issues.

I presume that's a perspective all of us share at the moment, none more so than those who have worked through the disarray at 4 Yawkey Way.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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