The perception is that the greasy-fingered dysfunction of the Red Sox clubhouse represented a black hole from which hope could not escape.
In the aftermath of a historic September collapse, the narrative of the 2011 Red Sox season is now one in which the team could not win because the atmosphere around it had become poisoned. And with more toxins being pumped into the air by after-the-fact revelations, there is a growing sense that the culture of the club must change in order for the team to have any hope going forward.
Now, inevitably, calls for that cultural change will lead to calls for personnel changes. A shift in the team’s veteran leadership -- a phrase that seems almost oxymoronic based on what transpired -- seem unavoidable.
Departures by some of the team’s veteran free agents seem inevitable. While returns cannot be ruled out completely, it would also not be a surprise if longtime organizational pillars such as Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield (both of whom will be free agents) have played their last games in Boston.
Likewise, the return of David Ortiz (a far more productive and central contributor on the field) may have become somewhat less likely due to the year-ending circumstances. Indeed, the DH himself is now publicly questioning whether he wants to return to the Sox.
But with the team becoming ever less likable with each new revelation of transgressions, the call for change will go further. In particular, with the starting pitchers wearing a bull's-eye for their slothful indifference to their team's collapse, the question will emerge as to whether the team needs to cut bait with players such as Josh Beckett and John Lackey who remain under contract for years to come. Calls to trade others will invariably come as well.
Yet in a sense, the extremity of the chorus is the product of a distorted view of reality. The emerging portrayal of factionalized clubhouse misery has become a fun-house mirror in which all the players look grotesque (more, even, than a diet of beer and fried chicken might suggest).
That is not just true of the individual players but also the team as a whole. Increasingly, the amazing collapse has severed the Sox from the incredible stretch of baseball (an 81-42 stretch from mid-April through the end of August) that preceded it.
The entire season is being evaluated through the prism of the season’s final 27 games. And the portrayal of the causes of the year-ending failure now are focusing so much on off-field causes that the on-field product -- in particular, issues related to individual health, performance and execution -- has become a footnote.
Yet inside Yawkey Way, where the Red Sox -- even at a time when front-office transition from Theo Epstein to Ben Cherington seems almost inevitable -- are drawing the blueprints to emerge from the wreckage, the view is necessarily different.
As general manager (and now almost-sure-to-be-ex-GM) Epstein pointed out at the press conference following the end of the season, the Sox have to own their failures at the beginning and end of the season. Yet if they do so, they must also keep perspective on the full sweep of 2011, including the fact that the team -- despite concerns about the depth of the rotation once Clay Buchholz was sidelined by his back injury -- looked like one of the best in baseball for most of the summer, through an August smackdown of the Rangers in Texas.
Health woes, of course, are inevitable for any team. That said, if Buchholz had not been injured, or if he had been out for one or even two months rather than three, or if Kevin Youkilis had not been injured down the stretch, or if Erik Bedard had not seen his season get disrupted by injuries, or if Adrian Gonzalez’s shoulder had not worn down in the waning weeks and months of the year, or if Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon had not combined to blow leads in five games or any number of other unlikely events hadn’t occurred, even the September swoon would have been unlikely to keep the Sox from the postseason.
While the public temptation is to view the Sox as a roster in need of massive overhaul -- again, something that is the byproduct more of a perceived soap opera than the result of a detailed assessment of the roster -- the individuals responsible for shaping the club maintain a different outlook, as do evaluators from other clubs.
“The Red Sox aren’t going to be rebuilding,” said one. “They’re not going to dismantle it.”
Is there a need for leadership change? That question is so obvious that it borders on rhetorical.
Yet, depending on who is hired to replace him, the departure of former manager Terry Francona -- who has acknowledged an inability to reach the clubhouse down the stretch, in contrast to previous seasons -- along with one or more veteran free agents may have already laid the groundwork for the necessary cultural change. Indeed, the impassioned reaction of second baseman Dustin Pedroia (in a call to The Big Show on Wednesday afternoon) hinted at the prospect that the year-ending collapse could actually have a galvanizing effect on the club’s attitude.
In light of the fallout from the collapse, perhaps the Sox will place more of an offseason emphasis on finding free agent grinders with reputations for their excellent clubhouse comportment. That said, the Sox already account for makeup when acquiring players, and while they might give somewhat greater weight than usual to citizenship this offseason, the team also won’t go off the deep end in overvaluing such a trait at the expense of on-field skill.
Will the Sox listen to inquiries from other clubs about players who were seen as part of the clubhouse problem? Of course, just as they will listen to inquiries about those who were not. But there is also reason for the team to believe that pitchers (most notably Beckett and Jon Lester) who have become focal points for the team’s sad state of affairs can revert to their form of past seasons, when they were considered positive influences on younger peers.
Beckett, in particular, has been in the crosshairs since the end of the season. He is viewed as the leader of the rotation, and for 2011 he is being viewed increasingly as someone who femented mutiny -- whether leading the charge among starters for beer-swigging, finger-lickin’ in-game snacking or flouting calls for conditioning, something that may have played into his ankle injury that left him unavailable and then ineffective in September.
The 31-year-old has always been viewed as moody, even at times when he was characterized as a leader. Indeed, part of the way that Francona was capable of keeping him in line in the past was to remind him of his leadership role, a responsibility that he would often take to heart. This year, for reasons that were mysterious to multiple team sources, despite his tremendous on-field success, Beckett was unresponsive to such requests.
Still, there is reason to think that he can reclaim his status as a good citizen. After all, a year ago, the idea that he could be an effective pitcher seemed almost unfathomable, coming off one of the worst seasons by a starter in Red Sox history.
But Beckett took his failures in 2010 as a challenge, claimed responsibility for them and addressed them in dazzling fashion, going 13-7 with a 2.89 ERA. Perhaps this offseason he will once again look in the mirror and identify what must change in order for him to be seen as a key contributor to the team’s future success rather than a cause of its year-ending failure. Perhaps others will do the same.
Externally, the 2011 Red Sox are viewed as a big, steaming mess for whom the playoffs feel like they are taking place in a parallel -- and unreachable -- dimension. But every public pronouncement from team officials and players since the year-ending splat has underscored how close the team feels it was to significant accomplishments.
And ultimately, it is those internal assessments that will mean the most in determining the composition of the club for 2012 and beyond. As much as it is natural to expect the Sox to take a wrecking ball to the roster through blockbuster trades, the actual course of the offseason might be far more conservative.