The Red Sox and the Curse of Bad Management

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Then the roof fell in. And the room, filled with Red Sox management and Major League Baseball personnel, went terribly still. By the time Buckner had booted Mookie Wilson's ground ball and the winning run had crossed the plate, forcing the seventh game, everyone in that room knew, completely and certainly, that the Red Sox would not win the 1986 World Series. The team was, in William Faulkner's memorable phrase, "doomed and knew it." The seventh game was a foregone conclusion. And so it was.

    Part of being a Red Sox fan, supposedly, is appreciating this eerie sense of doom that looms at every critical juncture and, at times, with every turn at bat. Red Sox fans and aficionados enter a fantasy world when they ponder what it all means. They talk of the "Curse of the Bambino," the voodoo hex that in Bosox mythology was placed on the franchise when it traded away Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. They talk about the Biblical Red Sox (a vengeful God), the Puritan Red Sox (suffering breeds character), the Greek Mythology Red Sox (Fates at work) or the Mystical Red Sox (bad karma, man).

    It is amazing that so many otherwise intelligent people engage in such nonsense. The truth of the matter is that the Red Sox always lose because they aren't built to win. They're built to fail, even when they're loaded with talent. The curse under which Red Sox players and fans live is not the Curse of the Bambino or bad karma or the gods' displeasure, but the Curse of Bad Management.

    This has been especially true in the post-World War II era, when Red Sox management decided that the team would have a quota of nonwhite players. It was clear to everyone else in baseball that the best up-and-coming players in the world were black and Latino. Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and a bunch of others proved that beyond any reasonable doubt. It is hardly a coincidence that the great teams of the post-World War II era all featured African-American and/or Latino stars.

    Tom Yawkey, the South Carolina cracker who owned the Red Sox, would have none of it. The teams he put on the field, until well into the 1970s, were either all or overwhelmingly white. This was the functional equivalent of running an investment banking firm and disallowing the employment of business school graduates. It wasn't the bigotry that was astonishing, so much as it was the idiocy of the bigotry.

    But then, Tom Yawkey never had much interest in winning. He was interested in making money, which is a different calculation. Winning cost money. Making money is cheaper. And Tom Yawkey was nothing if not cheap.


    The key to winning baseball teams has always been great personnel throughout the ranks, and lots of them. You need good scouts to scour the Dominican Republic and Central America and good coaches at every level of the farm system. You need to sign twice as many players as you can gainfully employ and then barter them collectively for even better players. You need strong leadership at all levels to instill a distinct culture, so that anyone from the system is hard-wired to fit into the grand scheme.

    Tom Yawkey had a different approach. He built the Red Sox around poor pitching, weak defense and plenty of home runs. All three components led to longer games, which meant more time to sell concessions at the park. All three led to massive mood swings during the course of a game, which ensured more consumption of food and beer as fans rode the emotional roller coaster. And all three ensured that every game was at least theoretically close, since no lead was safe and since it was possible that anyone in a Red Sox uniform could launch one over the Green Monster (just 310 feet away) in leftfield to bring the team back into the game.

    Fenway Park was a big part of the Yawkey marketing package, with the short leftfield fence and the tight foul lines down first and third. Yawkey built his teams around right-handed power hitters who could get it over the wall. That's what he really cared about: having home runs be a big part of every game. Home runs didn't just clear the bases, they instilled an appreciation for the magic solution, in which the direction of human endeavor might be changed with a wand.

    It almost goes without saying that to win in Fenway Park, consistently and over time, power-hitting is inessential. The keys to winning in that bandbox of a facility are pitching, speed, defense and more pitching. And it is in these three areas that Yawkey and the management that succeeded him always underinvested and continue to underinvest. The Red Sox have ranked last or next to last in team stolen bases for as long as anyone can remember. The Red Sox are famous for their sluggish defense and weak fundamentals. And the Red Sox have never employed more than two good pitchers at a time.

    If you think back to the great teams of the last 50 years, the Yankees of every decade, the Dodgers and the Cardinals of the 1960s, the Reds and the Orioles of the 1970s, the Braves of the 1990s, they were all neck-deep in pitching talent. The two years that the New York Mets won the World Series, they had nothing on the field except great pitchers. Once you reach the playoffs in Major League Baseball, the games quickly boil down to whose pitching staff is deeper, smarter and more capable under pressure.

    The Red Sox of 1986 lost the World Series that year because they had one great pitcher?Roger Clemens?and no one else. The Red Sox lost the 1975 World Series because they had one great pitcher?Louis Tiant?and only Bill Lee in a supporting role. (And he was as crazy as a hoot owl.) The Red Sox lost the 1967 World Series because they had one great pitcher?Jim Lonborg?and rats, cats and dogs on the depth chart below him. This year is no different. Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher in baseball. Everyone else on the pitching staff is mediocre at best.

    Indeed, the defining moment of the season occurred during the All-Star break. The New York Yankees signed up the Cincinnati Reds ace lefthander, Denny Neagle, for four minor leaguers and some cash. The Red Sox, desperate for pitching, didn't even get in on the bidding. Which team do you think is going to be playing in the postseason? The one that consistently snaps up the best available pitching talent or the one that doesn't even try?

    Red Sox management made no apology for not getting in on the bidding. They were too busy trying to fleece the citizens of Massachusetts for a $275 million subsidy to help build a new stadium. In return, under the Red Sox proposed terms, the Commonwealth gets no board representation, no piece of team ownership, no return on an investment of over one quarter of a billion dollars. What is gained is the privilege of "keeping" the Red Sox in Boston. The most amazing thing is that the deal will probably go through, as is and without modification.

    What Red Sox fans desperately need is for the team to be sold to new management, management that is serious about winning. The good news is that the new economy has generated extraordinary wealth in Massachusetts, so there just may be someone out there who might make the Yawkey Family Trust an offer it can't refuse. It cannot happen soon enough.