It was rude and dismissive, and honest in a way too rarely heard. Given how scattershot John Henry’s words feel this offseason, it’s nice to remember when he nailed one like he knew what pitch was coming.
“We really don’t need to be popular. We need to win.”
Two years ago, the Red Sox brass had what we considered a really bad winter in a world before they traded Mookie Betts. They headed to Fort Myers off a 93-win season and a second straight AL East title, but a season insufficient enough that John Farrell (and just about his entire staff) was fired. That 2017 squad, the first post-David Ortiz, was the team of Dustin Pedroia’s “it’s not me, it’s them” in Baltimore. Of David Price and Dennis Eckersley on the team plane.
Betts said there was “tension” in the locker room and “pressing” during losing streaks. Talk radio was flooded all year with calls about how an out-of-touch Farrell needed to go, and how unlikable the whole enterprise was. We haven’t even mentioned Adam Jones and Yawkey Way and Apple Watches. NESN ratings were down 15 percent.
And so, when Henry and team chairman Tom Werner sat for their annual spring media chat at JetBlue Park, the mood was hardly jovial. Which sparked that all-timer from the soft-spoken owner (of both the Red Sox and Boston Globe Media Partners, including Boston.com).
“We really don’t need to be popular. We need to win.”
The line got attention, but was also quickly washed over. By day’s end, Boston finally made a deal with J.D. Martinez, and the greatest Red Sox team of our lifetime was off to a 22-9 spring, a 108-54 regular season, an 11-3 October, and a fourth World Series title in 15 years. Henry was proven entirely correct.
His reward was two whole years without a vocal groundswell wanting him to sell the team.
Has Henry earned his invective this winter? Sure, though I’m not super interested in the debate. Every time that chatter gets louder, his team wins another championship and it dissipates.
Because that’s how this works. For all the righteous indignation of the last few weeks, the tears about Betts and Brock Holt and everything else, we know that to be true, don’t we?
Henry and his lieutenants were never going to successfully sugarcoat trading Betts, but the perception they’re trying to gaslight people in this sliver of time when people remember what gaslighting is certainly isn’t it. Maybe getting under the luxury-tax threshold this season really wasn’t a leading factor in trading Betts, but I’m seconds from looking up Henry starting us on this road in September, CEO Sam Kennedy declaring keeping both Betts and Martinez for 2020 would be “difficult, given the nature and the agreements of the contracts that we have,” and plenty more.
They really don’t need to be popular. They need to win. It’s the ultimate sugarcoat, and Red Sox ownership knows that.
You know that. You were out on John Lackey, then he won a championship clincher. You were apoplectic about Hanley Ramirez, then beside yourself when he was cut. You wanted David Price traded for a basket of baseballs, roared when he held all the cards after the 2018 World Series, then relieved when Betts got him out of town.
Henry running into 98.5 to defend his honor feels like a million years ago when it was only nine.
This thing has been a two-decade rollercoaster, and perhaps the only constants are winning, and you being along for the ride because of it. Why’d they let the impossibly likable Brock Holt walk without a fight and replace him with Jose Peraza? Because they could. How’d they pull the trigger on trading Betts?
Because it’s their team and their decisions, not yours, no matter how many times you refer to them as “we” in conversation. Because as mad as you are right now …
They really don’t need to be popular. They need to win.
We were reminded again of that divide on Thursday when Ortiz took to the chat bench and declared former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers is “looking like a snitch” for going to The Athletic with the Houston sign-stealing bombshell, putting the scandal in the public eye and badly blackening baseball’s.
“I’m mad at this guy, the pitcher that came out talking about it, and let me tell you why. Oh, after you make your money, after you get your ring, you decide to talk about it? Why don’t you talk about it during the season, when it was going on? Why you didn’t say, ‘I don’t want to be no part of?’ Oh, now? So you looking like a snitch,” said Ortiz. “You know what I mean? Why you gotta talk about it after? It’s going to be a huge distraction for the game for a while, and you don’t want that. … I think it’s going to be a distraction the whole season. We need to avoid that.”
It’s a bad take, but it’s a very baseball one. Ortiz more than tipped it was coming, spending 10 minutes gushing about both MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, whom he declared has “been legit since Day 1” and who’s “going to do what’s best for the game,” and the young stars on the Astros.
“They are very talented. You’re not talking about a bunch of knuckleheads,” Ortiz said. “Their career is just brand new. … Your career basically just begin, and you have to face this monster, that who knows what it’s going to take to get people to forget about. It’s something that made me, I’m watching man, and it just doesn’t feel right.”
Ortiz not only loves the sport, he’s an employee of MLB rightsholder Fox in addition to his Red Sox work. He not only loves the sport Manfred runs, but Manfred downplayed Ortiz’s positive 2003 drug test late in Big Papi’s 2016 finale season. Ortiz is clearly a friend and admirer of several Astros, and spent much of the time before namelessly ripping Fiers wondering why no Houston player not in on the scheme said anything about it during the 2017 season. (Fiers told multiple teams, including the 2018 Red Sox via Martinez, before going public.)
“I just still don’t know how come nobody was like, ‘That is wrong.’ I just, I just don’t know how no one, you know, say something about it. During. Not after,” Ortiz said. “I was in the clubhouse for a long time, and never anything like that comes up, but now they’re going to have to deal with that for a long time.”
He knows why. He basically told you why. Right below the written rules in every clubhouse may as well be the sign I first came across behind the bar at my father’s Elks lodge: “What you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here!”
Few things are as aptly named as a Major League Baseball clubhouse. You’re either in it, or you’re not. Ortiz wasn’t ripping Fiers — heck, he wouldn’t even name him — so much as standing up for his friends in the club.
Which you’re not really in. You’re just riding the rollercoaster.
They don’t need to be popular in February. They just need to win in October.