Make no mistake: The Red Sox’ managerial search ended in a very different place than where it began.
The selection of Bobby Valentine as the next Red Sox manager was an entirely unexpected outcome to the process. Shortly after manager Terry Francona was dismissed, according to multiple industry sources, at least one player was told by team officials that the Sox had no intention of hiring “someone like Bobby Valentine.”
The implication was that the team did not anticipate hiring a manager who ran counter to the mold of a so-called player's manager such as Francona, who typically tried to keep clubhouse matters in-house. And Valentine, at least based on reputation and history, seemed the antithesis of that.
As the Sox were at the initial stages of their due diligence process, members of the baseball operations department were committed to keeping an open mind. Still, multiple participants at that stage of the process simply couldn’t imagine Valentine as the 45th manager in team history and the successor to Francona.
Yet that is precisely what happened. Sixty-two days since Francona stepped down from his job, Valentine will be announced as his replacement at Fenway Park on Thursday at 5:30 pm.
So what happened?
The perceived answer is that Red Sox owners redirected the process and forced GM Ben Cherington and members of his baseball operations team to give up their ideal candidate (Dale Sveum) in favor of the manager with the greatest name recognition. There is at least some truth to the notion, insofar as the team’s owners were viewed as active partners in the process and served as champions of Valentine.
However, that perception is also superficial and ignores greater depth and complexity. During the two-month managerial search, the thinking of Cherington and his baseball ops colleagues evolved on what the team needed.
Specifically, the search evolved to place significantly greater weight on experience than had been the case at its earliest stages, a reflection of the fact that the Sox a) are viewed as ready to compete for a championship now and b) saw their 2011 season go up in smoke amidst a disintegrating clubhouse situation.
The Sox needed a manager suited to address those two realities. They needed someone to help them win now. And yes, they needed someone who was the right fit for both the owners and the baseball ops department.
Ultimately, that led to the conclusion that the right fit was Valentine.
Based on conversations with several sources familiar with the process, here is a glimpse of how the Sox’ search evolved to reach an unexpected outcome.
THE WISH LIST (EXPERIENCE OPTIONAL)
The Sox had opened the search process in some ways thinking that they might discover the next great manager. The team planned to examine a pool of candidates who either had not yet gotten a chance to manage or who had gotten a chance to manage but did not succeed for reasons perhaps beyond their control.
The result might net someone who lacked current name recognition but who could thrive while working in collaboration with the Red Sox front office. The idea was to find someone who would engage in a lengthy partnership, going from relatively unknown or unheralded to being recognized as one of the best in the game.
After all, it was a formula that had worked with the last Sox manager search. The team had identified one future managerial star who had no full-time big league experience (Joe Maddon) and another whose big league managerial career was viewed as a failure (Francona).
The success of the last search was certainly something of which the Sox were mindful this time around. Moreover, the field of experienced candidates was viewed as thin this year, a fact that became evident given the other managerial searches that took place.
The Cubs interviewed four candidates without full-time managerial experience. Of the six candidates interviewed by the Cardinals, all but one – Francona – had no big league managerial experience; the process ended with former team catcher Mike Matheny as manager. The White Sox hired Robin Ventura, someone with no coaching experience in the majors or minors on his resume. The Marlins felt compelled to make a trade to acquire the experienced manager they wanted in Ozzie Guillen.
The Sox – initially under former GM Theo Epstein and Cherington, then later solely under Cherington – identified elements they were looking for in that manager, traits that they valued. They needed someone, Cherington said at his introduction as GM, who had a strong voice, who would care about and protect players but also hold them to high standards, who would embrace the give-and-take of working in collaboration with both the front office and the owners, who was passionate about the game…
There was a checklist. But one noteworthy item, while a bonus, was not mandatory. Experience was viewed as a secondary consideration. The initial short list of candidates brought in for interviews suggested as much.
The team initially invited Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin, then-Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum, Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux and Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. to interview. The team would have been interested in talking to Dodgers third base coach Tim Wallach, but a contractual stipulation that he had to be interviewed in a narrow window following the season kept him out of the process.
Of those five candidates, none had full-time big league managing experience. Mackanin had been interim manager of two teams that had been out of contention at the time he inherited them. Sveum had a unique interim managing experience, being given the keys to a contending Brewers team at the end of 2008 and helping them sneak into the playoffs, but nothing beyond that. Alomar had never managed in the majors or minors.
Maddux declined the invitation and removed himself from consideration. That left the Sox to begin the process of talking initially to Mackanin, Sveum and Alomar.
However, the front office had also committed to taking a broad-based and open-minded approach to the search. The people in charge of the search for the baseball operations group -- Cherington, assistant GMs Mike Hazen and Brian O’Halloran and VP of player personnel Allard Baird -- felt it necessary to make no assumptions about who would be the favorite in the process. Moreover, there was an understanding that the first individuals invited to interview would not be the lone candidates.
Early in the process of those initial interviews, Cherington traveled at the behest of Larry Lucchino to an event in Hartford on Nov. 3 where the team CEO/president was speaking on a panel with former Rangers, Mets and Chiba Lotte Marines manager -- and current ESPN analyst -- Bobby Valentine.
Valentine was, of course, bright and engaging, but he represented a tricky candidate. Unlike the first few men brought into Fenway Park, he possessed ample managerial experience that had witnessed both spectacular successes and failures. His personality, in comparison to the initial pool of interviewees, bordered on oversized, and he had baggage (due to the fact that he was experienced) that no one else did.
That did not lead to an out-of-hand dismissal of his candidacy. But he was not in the initial group of candidates whom the Sox’ front office members intended to interview. Instead, he was viewed more along the lines of someone to keep in mind as the first round of conversations with candidates unfolded.
Shortly after that meeting in Hartford, the Sox added two more candidates to the pool. They received permission to talk to Blue Jays first base coach Torey Lovullo (no prior big league managing experience) and then, in an unexpected addition, Tigers third base coach Gene Lamont.
The team had not initially included Lamont among the first wave of planned interviewees. But as the first round was unfolding, and as the Sox were considering their candidates, they started to gain an increasing sense that it would be valuable to talk to one or more candidates with big league managerial experience.
Lamont was more than a decade removed from his previous big league managing job. Jim Leyland’s longtime right-hand man -- regarded in the early-1990s as a future managerial star -- had spent four years managing the White Sox from 1992-95 (winning AL Manager of the Year honors in 1993, leading Chicago to a division title) and four more in Pittsburgh from 1997-2000.
Pittsburgh has been something of a managerial black hole. The Pirates are now 19 years into the longest run of consecutive losing seasons in North American professional sports history. Lamont largely disappeared from the managerial radar after absorbing four of those losing seasons, despite the fact that he nearly won NL Manager of the Year honors in 1997 while keeping a Pirates team that had been stripped down to spare parts (and a $9.1 million payroll) in contention for much of the year.
But the Sox heard consistently excellent things about the man who had been the Tigers’ third base coach since 2006 (a role in which he’d served in Boston on the staff of Jimy Williams in 2001). And when they brought him in for an interview, Lamont was tremendous.
He answered virtually every question with an air of certainty based on his prior experiences. In every scenario that the Sox discussed with him, Lamont had a thoughtful, substantive answer at the ready for what he would do as manager. He reinforced the sense that experience was a meaningful asset, something that members of the Sox’ baseball operations department were individually and collectively sensing.
Of the initial five candidates, only Sveum had projected a similar air of assurance. At that stage of the process, while the Sox had been extremely impressed with Alomar and Lovullo, viewing both as excellent future big league managers, Sveum (who, like Lamont, was unfazed by any scenario presented) and Lamont were the two who separated themselves.
THE MILWAUKEE MOMENT
The Sox had not necessarily planned to conduct second-round interviews with candidates at the GM meetings in Milwaukee, at which both GMs and owners would convene from Nov. 14-17. But the Cubs, under new president of baseball operations (and former Sox GM) Theo Epstein, were barreling ahead with their search process and the Sox had their schedule pushed as a result.
The Cubs, like the Sox, regarded Sveum highly after interviewing him (along with Mackanin, Alomar and Maddux). Maddux had removed himself from consideration with Chicago, citing family considerations, and so Sveum was seen as the Cubs’ clear front-runner.
Members of the Sox baseball operations department felt that their former third base coach represented a potential managerial star in the making. His reputation among players was outstanding. His answers were poised, his demeanor confident.
Obviously, there was some element of the unknown with Sveum given that he had never been a full-time manager, and he had just three seasons of minor league managerial experience. And publicly, his reputation was that of the sometimes over-aggressive third base coach who waved runners almost recklessly at times. That had no real bearing on how he would perform as a manager (a completely different job) aside from the fact that he had been accountable and answered questions whenever he shipped a baserunner to home plate doom.
But he had been so impressive in the interview process that the Sox felt that they could not let the Cubs tab him without having Sveum at least meet with the team’s owners. The team pushed ahead and scheduled a meeting between Sveum and principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner along with Lucchino and Cherington in Milwaukee.
At that time, Sveum was the only candidate whom the Sox had publicly scheduled for a second round interview. That being the case, he looked like the clear favorite.
Yet members of the Sox baseball operations department insist that Sveum was not being sent to meet with Henry and Werner as a prelude to a coronation. They instead wanted to present their top candidates to the owners and then have a discussion about them with an eye towards forging a consensus. Cherington had said explicitly during the process that, even if he identified a favorite candidate, the buy-in of team owners was a prerequisite to hiring a manager.
The reasoning was obvious. A manager who represented the choice of just baseball operations or just the team owners likely would be doomed to failure in Boston. The job of managing the Red Sox is immensely challenging, an all-consuming, 24-7 task that can suck the life out of those who perform it. Without complete organizational backing, that life-sucking force would be accelerated to an overwhelming point.
And so, after the conversation with Sveum, Cherington, Henry, Werner and Lucchino huddled to take stock of not just the individual candidate but also the process. The team’s owners felt that there was significant value to the idea of an experienced manager and known quantity, given what Cherington would later that day describe to the media as the “unique circumstances” of the job.
But it wasn’t just the owners who felt that way. As the first round interview process had unfolded, the individuals conducting the interviews and simulations with candidates also started to think through not just the attributes that would create a great partnership for the long haul, but more specifically, what would suit the 2012 Red Sox.
There were candidates who would be able to grow into the job and become very good managers at some point. But given their inexperience, there was a question of how long it would take them to get there. Someone like Alomar, though regarded by all who interviewed him as a very good future big league manager, was not necessarily viewed as someone who would be the right fit for a team built to win right now. In a building situation, yes, Alomar and Lovullo would represent tremendous candidates.
But for the 2012 Sox? Perhaps not. Since the Sox are a roster constructed (at significant cost to the owners) to win now, and since an incoming manager would not be inheriting a turnkey operation but would instead have to command immediate respect over the clubhouse, the idea of having an experienced manager -- someone who had managed to confront such challenges in the past -- had become increasingly appealing to the Sox’ baseball operations staff.
Sveum had been impressive. Had the team’s owners been gung-ho that he was the man for the job, then he might have received an offer. But at the conclusion of that lunch, the team was not at that stage.
Neither owners nor baseball operations had ruled him out, but both felt there was value to continuing the process given that there was not a sense of complete certainty about him. Even if that meant that meant the Sox would pass on the opportunity to hire Sveum, there was a shared belief by those involved in the search that it was not appropriate to rush or disrupt the hiring process in order to extend an offer to a frontrunner.
By this point, it appeared that Sox owners were interested in at least talking with more experienced candidates. At the same time, the opinion of the baseball operations staff had evolved. The group felt that it had undervalued experience in drawing up its initial list of criteria for the managerial search. And so, there was an agreement that the search would be broadened.
“If we could identify someone who had that type of experience that we thought also fit our clubhouse and fit what we were trying to do, then we might pursue that,” Cherington said the night after ownership met with Sveum. “We feel like there are some unique circumstances here. This is not just any manager’s job. This is one where we do feel we’re ready to win and there are challenges that related to what happened to what happened last year and just generally in the Boston market, as you guys know. I’ve been very happy with the candidates and our next manager could very well come from those candidates but we’re not ruling out adding to that field.”
Minutes later, word emerged that the Cubs had offered Sveum the job. The Sox were not at a point where they were ready to make him a counter-offer and so Sveum accepted Chicago’s job.
That, in turn, removed an early frontrunner from consideration. Of the remaining candidates, Lamont had separated himself as someone whom the baseball operations department believed capable of stewarding the 2012 Red Sox. As impressive as other candidates had been, their relative inexperience meant that there was, perhaps, too much guesswork involved for the team to see them as the right fit for those “unique circumstances.”
And so, not only did the Sox decide that Lamont should meet with owners, but they also felt that there was a compelling argument to be made for the formal addition of at least one candidate.
There is little question that the team’s owners were intrigued by Valentine. Lucchino considered him a longtime friend, and Valentine had been the manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines when the Sox struck a partnership (which ultimately proved of little practical value) with the NPB team in 2007.
Valentine had been in dialogue with Henry, Werner and Lucchino at various points of the process. Yet while Valentine had not formally taken part in the full day of interviews with baseball operations, one source insisted that the meetings between the ESPN analyst and team owners were not occurring behind Cherington’s back, but rather that he had been with the team’s owners at each step of the process. The next day, the decision was made to bring him to Fenway for a formal interview the next week, after Cherington traveled to the Dominican Republic on a scouting trip.
From a perception standpoint, the conclusions drawn from Milwaukee seemed obvious and damning. The Sox had identified Sveum (and, publicly, no one else) as a candidate worthy of a second-round interview. Sveum had met with owners, who declined to offer him the job. The Cubs jumped, and Sveum -- seemingly Cherington’s handpicked candidate -- had been lost. And then, Valentine -- who had initially been left off baseball operations’ list of interviewees, despite his meeting with Cherington -- was invited into the process.
There was a clear industry belief that Cherington’s legs had been cut off in his first significant act as GM. The owners had seen what his search had yielded, scoffed and directed him to meet with their favored candidate, someone who would fulfill a need for a charismatic public figure who would light up NESN and dazzle fans, but someone who was a polarizing figure (a phrase that is encountered constantly to describe Valentine) who was as likely to fracture relationships with players and management as he was to repair them.
There may have been some truth to the portrayal of the idea that the team’s owners were the ones driving the Bobby V. bandwagon. Would Valentine have been interviewed in the absence of a push from ownership? Maybe not. Would the process have played out in this fashion had Epstein not left for the Cubs, either in duration or in terms of candidate pool? Would the interview list have been the same had Epstein not been involved in drawing it up?
Still, there were other behind-the-scenes realities at work. Those involved in the process insist that the dialogue between owners and baseball operations was open. There was a shared belief in the idea of achieving consensus and engaging each others’ opinions (a trademark of Cherington’s operating style). There was a shared preference for a thorough process, even at the expense of expediency.
And there was also a notion that the just because the team had begun the second round of the interview process, it did not foreclose the idea of having another candidate -- specifically Valentine -- take part in the first round of the process in the form of the full-day meeting with the baseball operations department. Cherington said after the meeting with Lamont that he did not, at that time, anticipate interviewing anyone else, but he was careful in his public statements never to rule out the possibility.
There are those who were outside the process who will always insist that Lucchino and the owners steamrolled Cherington. On the other hand, there are those who were party to the process who will always insist, at least in conversations with those same outsiders to the process, that the entire search maintained a collaborative air, and that the idea of ownership fiat steering the process towards Valentine was nonsense.
There is likely some hint of truth to both perspectives. But, unquestionably, by the time that Sveum was off the board, there was consensus among all who were involved in the decision that an experienced candidate was what the team needed going forward.
Lamont might be that man. But so might Bobby V.
THE END GAME
Valentine spent all of Nov. 21 meeting with the Red Sox’ baseball operations staff. He was almost exactly what that group anticipated. His creative, lively baseball mind was obvious. His willingness and passion to discuss the game flowed.
There was a significance to that dialogue, since that conversational style sold some participants on the idea that there could be a meaningful and dynamic working relationship between Valentine (should he be hired) and the front office. Valentine, Cherington pointed out after the interview, has a thirst for good information. If selected as manager, while Valentine would have exacting standards for the kind of information he would embrace, the front office believed that the venom that he and the Mets front spewed at each other a decade ago might be avoidable.
Did some members of the interview process still have some hesitation based on the fact that Valentine and former Mets GM Steve Phillips used to lob grenades at each other? Of course. Still, people change, times change, circumstances change. Valentine is now 61, and desperate for what may be his last chance to manage and the majors and perhaps his only opportunity to win.
The incentives to avoid a confrontational dynamic are too significant for him to ignore. Moreover, Valentine struck the Sox during his interview as far more philosophically open-minded than he is often portrayed. He is unquestionably opinionated, but he also struck the Sox as someone who was willing to endure informed challenges to his opinions.
Given the tumultuous end of the Sox’ 2011 season, the team also found his track record of turning around dysfunctional organizations in Texas and with the Mets to be impressive. The Mets experience -- because of the market, because of the circumstances -- was probably the most noteworthy.
Valentine was thrown into a clubhouse beehive at the end of the 1996 season as an interim manager. The Mets went from 71-91 in ’96 to an 88-74 contender in ’97, a springboard season that ultimately positioned New York to reach the postseason in both 1999 (when they reached the NLCS) and 2000 (when the Mets made it to the World Series). The Rangers, in his first full year on the job, had likewise achieved drastic improvement.
The Sox continued their due diligence on Valentine. Yes, there were good and horrible player relationships in his past. But the team found that players who were willing to work hard and hold themselves to high account had ultimately come to respect Valentine. The most significant gripes and acts of insurrection came from players whose careers were far closer to their end than their peak, players who fumed over their diminished roles (or, in the case of Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson during the 1999 playoffs, simply played cards in the clubhouse in a “let them eat cake” display).
Judged on the baseball operations interview alone, Valentine was probably as impressive as any candidate with whom the team had met. Was he the perfect candidate, someone about whom the Sox could feel 100 percent certainty? The end of his tenure in New York suggested that he was not.
But was he a fit for what the Sox needed, someone with a great baseball IQ who was willing to work with the front office, who inspired the confidence of the team’s owners, who had demonstrated an ability to survive in an enormous market with endless demands?
Check. Check. Check.
Virtually any managerial candidate will come with questions. Valentine is no different. And ultimately, the Sox will only be able to take measure of some of the answers to those questions once the partnership between the manager and his organization takes root in spring training and during the season, when wins can render any misgivings or raised eyebrows about the process irrelevant. That is true of Valentine, just as it would have been regarding some of the uncertainties about other candidates such as Sveum (inexperience) or Lamont (market readiness/profile) had the Sox selected them.
But in Valentine, the Sox have identified the candidate who has the full backing of the organization and whose presence will be unmistakable from his first day on the job. For a team that is driven to win in 2012 and to leave behind the baggage of the end of 2011, he came to be embraced by both the front office and owners as the right person to hit the ground running.
Valentine views this job as a growth opportunity, a chance for him to achieve a dynamic with a front office unlike any he has ever had. But “growth” may not be quite the right word. He is already big enough for the task. To succeed in working with the Sox front office, he merely needs to embrace new elements of a job that is already known terrain for him.
In that regard, the Red Sox front office is optimistic that Valentine will do exactly the same thing that it did in hiring him – namely, evolve. The team went into the search process with an open mind, without a predetermined outcome to its process. Valentine’s somewhat surprising emergence reflects the fact that the team ultimately reassessed its beliefs about what was needed to separate the 2012 Red Sox from the enormity of the end of 2011.
And ultimately, after a process that took unexpected turns, Valentine emerged as the right man for the position, the person with whom the Red Sox are now ready to move forward.