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Dan Duquette's shot at redemption

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 15, 2011 06:28 AM

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Knowing now what we didn't know then, how much would you have paid to eavesdrop on this conversation between Manny Ramirez and Dan Duquette on a very important day on Red Sox history? A brief transcript, re-imagined:

Manny: "Just to be clear, man. It's $160 million, right? Plus my own Skee-Ball machine? Moorad said you promised the Skee-Ball machine. He said he could get you to agree to anything. Then he laughed and laughed, kind of like the bad guy always does in the cartoons."

Duquette: "Yes, $160 million. Plus Skee-Ball. Correct. Now please, if you could, stop asking if you can bring Tavarez with you from Cleveland. I told you Julian is not a free agent, and besides, he frightens me. John Hart told me small animals won't even look him in the eye."

Manny: "No worries, man. For $160 million, Manny will hit many, many baseballs over this green wall. [Looks up.] Say, you know what you should do? Put some seats up there. A couple of rows. Make them exclusive, man. Fans will love them."

Duquette: "Eh, glorified bleachers. Plus, I don't want any drunks toppling over and falling on your head. Stick to hitting and counting your millions. I'll handle the public relations around here. Repeat after me: More days in first place ..."

Manny: "Hey, man, know what else you should do? Put a bathroom inside that wall! Man, I've got all kinds of ideas for this place . . ."

* * *

Well, that's how it could have gone, though I suppose we'll never know. What we do know for sure is that signing Ramirez to that eight-year, $160 million contract a week before Christmas 2000 was one of the best moves in franchise history. The first thought that crossed my mind when news broke of Duquette's hiring -- or return from exile, depending upon your perspective -- as the general manager of the Orioles was this: Wonder who his new Manny will be as he tries to make a splash in Baltimore. Albert Pujols? Or Prince Fielder? He's says neither. Once he surveys the landscape, I bet it's one or the other.

As important as it was, the Manny deal ranks just third among Duquette's savviest transactions during his complicated and controversial eight-year stewardship (1994-2001) as the Red Sox general manager. Sending flammable closer Heathcliff Slocumb to the Seattle Mariners for a couple of minor leaguers named Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe at the July 1997 trade deadline might be the biggest 2-for-1 heist in baseball history, and it matters not at all that Duquette reportedly preferred pitcher Ken Cloude to Lowe. And any trade for Pedro Martinez is automatically a brilliant one -- especially one in which the featured prospect heading in the other direction is future punchline Carl Pavano.

pedroexposfinn1114.jpg(To think the November 1997 trade with the Expos was the second time he had traded for Pedro. During Duquette's acclaimed stint as Montreal's general manager, he swiped the most electrifying pitcher of this and possibly any generation in November 1993 from the Dodgers in exchange for second baseman Delino DeShields. The deal was initially but very briefly perceived as a jackpot for Los Angeles since Tommy Lasorda told anyone with a notepad that Martinez was too small to survive as a starter. I don't believe Lasorda rehashes that particular interpretation much anymore, at least not without a couple dozen expletives mixed in.)

Signing Johnny Damon before the 2002 also proved funds well-spent, both in terms of on-field production and off-field image. Duquette even found a future superstar with the first draft choice of his tenure in Boston: With the No. 13 selection in the 1994 draft, he chose a skinny Georgia Tech shortstop with an unusual first name. I imagine it didn't take long for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who used the No. 12 pick on a shortstop named Mark Farris, to regret passing on Nomar Garciaparra.

Duquette's greatest accomplishment with the Red Sox had nothing to do with the three playoff berths (1995, '98, '99) and one American League East title won during his tenure, and it was only tangentially related to his collecting of the right superstars. For the first time in Red Sox history, the roster was a true melting pot. With Mo Vaughn crushing homers and emerging as the vocal leader, Pedro anchoring the pitching staff, Nomar emerging as the imitated idol of a generation of Little Leaguers, and the end of the bench no longer the exclusive domain of the scrappy white guy, the race issues that had lingered over the franchise long after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier were finally in the past. The Red Sox may have had other color blind executives prior to Duquette, but none of their rosters reflected an absolute lack of prejudice like his did. Forever and always, he should be commended for that.

* * *

Thumbnail image for duquetteeverett.jpgMy issue with the perception of the Duquette era is that recently, he's been commended for a little too much. Specifically, his role in putting together the 2004 Red Sox' World Championship team, which I've been told was the franchise's first in 86 years. In the greasy aftermath of the 2011 Red Sox' historic September collapse, there seemed to be a rush to revise history in his favor while discrediting his departing successor, Theo Epstein. To suggest that Duquette's smart trades and signings -- Pedro, Manny, Damon, Varitek, Lowe -- built the foundation for the core of that special team is fair. But any notion that he was more responsible for it than Epstein goes beyond a case of selective memory and suggests either a lack of context or an outright agenda.

The reasons Duquette has not until now had a real shot at a GM job in the nine years after he was fired by the Red Sox ownership fall into two categories: Personal and personnel. The latter is less severe, so Iet's address that first with this question: What is a more difficult task for a general manager? Signing and trading for established stars, or constructing a deep team around those stars, whether by finding the right veteran role player in free agency or having talented low-cost help arrive from the farm system?

Duquette acquired the stars that were at the core of the 2004 team. Epstein finished the job with sizable helpings of both preparation and luck, signing Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Mike Timlin, Todd Walker and Mark Bellhorn among others in that 2003-04 window. I think you know where I stand on the Epstein-Duquette debate: leaving behind roughly half the pieces for a World Series champ doesn't make you the architect. Someone else had to use their own blueprint to complete the unfinished job.

That's not to suggest their strategies were mutually exclusive through their respective tenures. Epstein traded for Curt Schilling and signed Keith Foulke, both established stars. He paid high prices for established or coveted players who underachieved or outright flopped (Daisuke Matsuzaka, Edgar Renteria, and Carl Crawford, Year 1). He saw something in Julio Lugo that does not exist. He made the biggest mistake on either general managers resume by giving a B-level pitcher and an F-level personality A-list money when he awarded John Lackey $82.5 million dollars following the 2009 season. He had his flops, his flaws. And Duquette put together some likable Sox teams -- particularly in '98, when Mo was still in the neighborhood, Flash Gordon was untouchable in the ninth inning, and The Eck was in his final season -- by finding dependable secondary players such as Tim Wakefield, Troy O'Leary, Rich Garces, and Brian Daubach at other teams' consignment sales.

Ultimately, though, those were Duquette's chief attributes as a general manager: He picked the right superstars to pursue. And he could find an occasional bargain that had staying power. That is not nearly enough to suggest he's superior general manager to Epstein, who may have been spotty in his targeting of high-priced talent, but who was far superior in other important aspects of franchise-building. He built more complete rosters with more organizational depth (though it must be said that Cherington faces a similar task to the one Epstein faced in his first season), character was a factor worthy of serious consideration, and most importantly, he lived up to the vow he made on the day he was introduced as the Red Sox general manager, to build a "player development machine.''

* * *

hanleyfinn1114.jpgJacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, and Clay Buchholz were drafted and signed by the Red Sox during Epstein's time, and all but Buchholz contributed significantly to the 2007 World Champions. Epstein did benefit from having a few morsels Duquette left behind in the otherwise bare cupboard -- Kevin Youkilis, who was the organization's 29th-ranked prospect in 2002, or 18-year-old Hanley Ramirez. But neither of those players had played above Single A when Duquette was fired; they were developed by the next regime.

Given Duquette's belief that big-market teams should use prospects to acquire established players, you bet it's fair to wonder how many of the ones who eventually made it -- Youk, Hanley, Anibal Sanchez, Freddy Sanchez -- would have developed here had he somehow been spared once the new ownership took over, and how many would have gone the way of Steve Lomasney and Donnie Sadler, straight to obscurity save for a pit stop in the Northern League. Not many developed in the 1999-2001 range when the Red Sox were widely perceived to have one of the most barren farm systems in baseball. Duquette couldn't have neglected it more if he ordered Ben Mondor to disband the Pawtucket franchise. According Baseball America, the top three prospects he left behind in the Red Sox organization in 2002 were Seung Song, Tony Blanco, and Rene Miniel. Fair to say you won't be paying for your kids' college education with proceeds from selling their rookie cards.

Duquette hit it big early in the amateur draft in '94 with Nomar. His top selections the following seasons weren't quite so successful. (Note: I had previously credited him with drafting Lester in 2002, but as kindly reader Mike M. points out, Duquette was dismissed in March of that year. Mike Port was the interim GM and David Chadd the scouting director when Lester was selected.)

1995: P Andy Yount (two picks before the Blue Jays took Roy Halladay).

1996: P John Garrett.

1997: P John Curtice (a pick after the Astros selected Lance Berkman).

1998: SS Adam Everett (traded for Carl Everett; no relation).

1999: OF Rick Asadoorian (first pick of the second round: Carl Crawford).

2000: P Phil Dumatrait (eight picks before the Braves chose Adam Wainwright).

2001: C Kelly Shoppach.

There's a good-field, no-hit shortstop and a decent backup catcher in there -- it could be worse, but it's not nearly the draft proficiency Epstein and his player development staff showed. But then Duquette's priority was not the draft, but his forward-thinking but horribly executed idea of pursuing talent in foreign markets. Tomo Ohka was a so-so back-of-the-rotation starter, but Jin Ho Cho, Sang-hoon Lee, Sun-Woo Kim and Robinson Checo totaled five wins and 11 losses in 65 career appearances with the Red Sox. Those Pacific Rim expenses might have been better off earmarked for their 1998 ninth-round selection, a slugging Baltimore-area high school first baseman named Mark Teixeira. Teixeira and his family were famously put off by the tenor of their negotiations with the Sox, and that botched negotiation stands as a prime example of the fatal flaw of the Duquette regime: personal and institutional arrogance that led to the alienation of so many outsiders who had to deal with the organization. A malignant side effect to that approach was the sense of entitlement that pervaded the final, hideous team of Duquette's reign.

* * *

Thumbnail image for izzyalcantarafinn.jpgThink the 2011 Red Sox was the most unlikable Red Sox team in recent history? You must be too young to remember the Red Sox of a decade prior, or you've simply eliminated any recollection of that feral pack of .258-hitting egomaniacs from memory. Good for you if it's the latter. Carl Everett, Dante Bichette, Jose Offerman, Mike Lansing (who enjoyed ripping up the lineup card when his name wasn't on it), Shea Hillenbrand ... what a world-class collection of miserable, self-absorbed jerks. No wonder Manny wanted to stay in Pawtucket once his rehab stint was up. No wonder Pedro ripped off his jersey after toady manager Joe Kerrigan -- who took over for Jimy Williams after he was fired in part for feuding with the despicable Everett -- tried to make him pitch through a shoulder injury that all but put his arm slot down in Dan Quisenberry territory. John Lackey would have seemed a charming rogue on that team.

Duquette's worst personnel mistakes through the years -- believing Wil Cordero could play second base, believing Kevin Mitchell could play right field, sacrificing continuity to run other teams' failed Rated Rookies (Arquimedez Pozo, Rudy Pemberton, Dwayne Hosey) in and out, believing in minor league journeymen with long-revealed flaws (Morgan Burkhart, Izzy Alcantara, Dwayne Hosey), signing burned-out Steve Avery, scrambling for Steve Ontiveros, trading Jamie Moyer for Darren Bragg (OK, understandable at the time), firing Johnny Cumberland after the epic Mussina-Cone matchup against the Yankees, never finding a No. 2 starter behind Pedro who wasn't a rehab project, alienating Mo (OK, he was right about Roger), naming Kerrigan manager -- might have been easier to overcome had he recognized the benefits of accountability and character both publicly and privately. A lot of people wanted to see him fail, he brought the enmity upon himself, and ultimately the prolonged hiatus tells you all you need to know about how he treated people when he wielded power.

Hearing Duquette's words as he was introduced in Baltimore last week, it didn't seem as if he'd had a particular moment of epiphany -- "Damn, why didn't I just let Jimy tase Everett like he wanted to?" -- but he acknowledged that he had plenty of time to think about what he would and should have done differently. He said he'd be kinder and gentler this time around, and you got the sense he honestly learned from his mistakes in the interim.

* * *

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It's possible he realized his mistake the very day he lost his dream job. He was the local boy who made good as the home team's general manager before any of us had heard of Theo Epstein, and his awkward and tearful press conference in Ft. Myers when he was fired -- he really was the last to know -- was a reminder of how much he cared about the Red Sox. He elaborated on those feelings during a June 2002 interview with the Globe's Stan Grossfeld: "How would you feel? It's like if you spent a lot of your time building up an antique car and making it nice and then, you know, you don't have a chance to drive this to be part of all the work you've done. It leaves a real empty feeling, so . . ."

So . . . maybe fulfillment comes in Baltimore, though it won't be easy. The joke is that their mantra is "more days in last place" thanks to meddling owner Peter Angelos, and they play in a division with the Boston and New York financial superpowers as well as the Rays and Jays, the former baseball's best-run franchise and the latter showing signs of similar organizational intelligence. He's going to need to find his Manny (Pedro, of course, cannot be duplicated) while avoiding the Checos and building a real farm system. It's a tall order, which is one reason he's getting this chance in the first place; candidates with more recent accomplishments and brighter prospects surveyed the situation and bowed out, which says a lot. It's tempting to suggest the Orioles and Duquette settled for each other, but the sharper point is that they both needed each other under the circumstances. Call it a marriage of convenience. But it's a marriage that could work if Duquette still has his old knack for signing the right stars and making clever trades while having the wisdom to avoid repeating his past mistakes.

It's going to be fascinating to see whether or not he reverts to old habits. I do believe him when he says he'll be more personable, that he's changed his abrasive ways. I was amused a few weeks ago, right around the time Epstein started hanging around a Starbucks near Wrigley Field, when I was bickering with some patrons on the internet sports bar known as Twitter about Duquette's accomplishments and failings here. After five or six references to Steve Avery and the dustbowl of a farm system and Checo and his other faults and blunders, I received a simple message from the handle @danduquette: Thanks :) Hey, an emoticon would have been an unthinkable expression of emotion for the old Duquette. Of course, last time he had a GM job, Twitter and emoticons and such didn't yet exist. The times have changed. Here's hoping Duquette has too.

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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