"I know that we have the players in our clubhouse who are committed to winning, who have the talent to do it, and are motivated to put 2011 behind them and prove to everyone that they're worthy of the fans' trust." -- Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington at the press conference introducing him as general manager
On the one hand, from a physical and preparation standpoint, Josh Beckett’s golfgate may have been meaningless.
The decision by the Red Sox to skip Beckett’s scheduled start last Saturday was made on Wednesday. He went golfing last Thursday. By the time it was his turn to take the ball on Thursday night against the Indians, the Red Sox insisted that he was physically ready to do so.
Beckett said he felt fine, just as he had in a bullpen session on Monday. And the Sox downplayed the idea that a round of golf was a harmful undertaking to a pitcher who was dealing with stiffness -- don’t call it an injury! -- in his lat muscle.
“I didn't think he was injured when he was skipped,” manager Bobby Valentine said. “I've never seen a pitcher get hurt playing golf.”
Said Cherington before Thursday's game: “In this particular case, with what he was going through, he didn’t believe he was putting himself at risk. Based on that, based on what I’ve heard from medical staff, I don’t think he was putting himself at risk. I understand where the questions come from because he skipped a start and he was out, someone sees him playing golf. I understand where the questions come from. Drilling down to the facts, I don’t believe he was putting himself at further risk.”
Still, there was the matter of perception when it came to Beckett’s conduct. It was a convenient narrative (regardless of whether it was true or not) for the public to look at the timeline and to conclude that the pitcher had put his personal amusement ahead of his team’s well-being. Regardless of whether or not the golf outing was harmful, in the eye of much of the public, it seemed harmful, or more to the point, indifferent to the plight of his flailing club.
In some respects, the golf outing was reminiscent of the sort of whimsical behavior that turned Manny Ramirez into a lightning rod. Back in 2003, Ramirez had been unable to play in a Red Sox-Yankees series on either Saturday or Sunday due to pharyngitis. But between those two contests, Ramirez’s friend, Enrique Wilson, met him for a drink at the lobby bar of Ramirez’s residence at the Ritz.
Fans condemned Ramirez. His teammates also were livid. And so, the slugger was benched on Sept. 1 of that year, in a contest against the Phillies that proved pivotal to the Red Sox’ push for the postseason.
In that instance, perception mattered. In the case of Beckett and his 18 holes, perception mattered.
“Perception,” Cherington said before last night’s game, “is a powerful thing sometimes.”
Indeed it is. That being the case, Beckett’s abysmal performance on Thursday -- he allowed as many runs (7) as he recorded outs (7) while giving up two homers and four doubles in an 8-3 Red Sox loss -- could not have been more ill-timed. And, perhaps as significantly, his remarks after the game could not have been more ill-conceived.
“I spend my off-days the way I want to spend them,” Beckett, who was booed resoundingly on his way off the field after being lifted in the third inning, said after the game. “My off-day is my off-day.”
Asked if he understood why people might think it looked bad, Beckett offered no empathy.
“Not on my off-day,” he said. “We get 18 off-days a year. I think we deserve a little bit of time to ourselves.”
He did allow that the boos that cascaded upon him as he walked off the field were earned after he “pitched like [expletive]. That’s what happens. Smart fans.”
Still, that bit of deference aside, Beckett’s defiant tone will win him few votes in the court of public opinion. That is of consequence to the Sox on the business and ownership side, as the increasing disenchantment with the team hits the team in the wallet.
Despite wide swaths of empty seats, the Sox continue to announce nightly sellouts. But even if they are selling enough tickets to qualify for the designation, the increasingly pervasive no-show phenomenon at Fenway Park is costing the team millions in concessions and merchandise revenue.
Still, Beckett’s job is to perform on the baseball field, and his primary responsibility is to his teammates and members of the baseball operations staff. The Red Sox signed Beckett to a four-year, $68 million contract (now in its second season) not because he’s an attendance draw or a particularly popular public figure but instead because they believed in both his ability to help them win, something that is a product of his preparation process for games.
And despite Thursday’s dreadful performance, which snapped a string of four straight quality starts and raised the pitcher’s ERA from 4.45 to 5.97, Red Sox players and decision makers -- at least those who commented on Beckett’s performance -- had no real concerns about the pitcher’s conduct.
“Josh has always been accountable for his performance on the field,” Cherington wrote in an e-mail after the outing. “I don’t believe his outing tonight was affected by anything he did or didn't do on our last off day. I expect he'll pitch well five days from now.”
“I think Josh is always prepared,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia added. “I don’t know what [golfing] has to do with anything. That’s what pitchers do. They golf. I think that if he was hurt really bad, obviously, he’d be on the DL. He wouldn’t be making his next start. But I think skipping a start is normal for a pitcher. … I think if he had gone out there tonight and throws a no-hitter, nobody talks about it. But he gave up some runs, so it’s going to be a big issue. As far as I’m concerned, he always goes out and gives it 100 percent and competes.”
Again, the simple fact of the matter is that Beckett was, according to all Red Sox parties, fine physically. While the pitcher expressed disappointment that his stuff was flat and poorly located, he attributed that to a small mechanical issue (staying on top of the ball to create downward angle). Valentine suggested that he looked like a pitcher dealing with rust after “maybe just a little too much time off.”
The outing on the golf course, at a time when he wasn’t making a start, likely was irrelevant to his success and failure on the field. The consequence was merely one of making Beckett appear entitled, carrying the air of a pitcher who looked as if he cared more about his off-day than his team’s well-being.
Of course, such an appearance is precisely the sort of thing that the Red Sox seemingly intended to address in the aftermath of their epic collapse of 2011. Last fall, it was the sense of entitlement that again seemed to permeate the team’s horrendous play down the stretch, particularly amidst the portrayal of a gluttonous rotation. And so perception became a very real thing that the team felt it needed to address.
But more significantly, at least for Cherington on the day of his introduction as GM, was the idea of “[restoring] the culture that we expect in the clubhouse, to restore a level of accountability.”
Asked on Thursday afternoon whether he felt the Red Sox clubhouse culture had evolved to his satisfaction this season, Cherington suggested it had not.
“When you’re 12-18,” he noted, a few hours before his club’s record dropped to 12-19, “the clubhouse culture is not what you’re going to want it to be. Until we get going, it hasn’t evolved and it’s hard to evaluate. When things aren’t going well on the field, inevitably that’s going to affect the clubhouse culture to some degree. Guys are not going to feel as good about themselves as they would if things were going well. It hasn’t evolved simply because we haven’t been playing good enough baseball.
“[But] in terms of the level of accountability and the effort on the part of the people in the clubhouse, I’m very satisfied with that,” he continued. “The work that’s getting done every day, the fact that they’re battling, grinding and taking responsibility when things don’t go well. I’m satisfied with that. We haven’t had enough good results yet to create a good culture.”
The Sox let Terry Francona go and hired Valentine as an agent of changing the clubhouse dynamic and providing a new leadership voice. But the team’s struggles on the field have made it difficult for him -- or anyone else associated with the Sox, for that matter -- to assume leadership qualities.
“The manager is a big part of the leadership in the clubhouse. He’s not the only part of the leadership in the clubhouse. We all have to lead in our own way,” Cherington said. “Thirty games into a season during which we haven’t had close to our full complement of players and have been battling that, battling some pretty extreme game circumstances, no matter what our roster looks like we’ve had some extreme game circumstances, we’re certainly all getting tested. Players are getting tested. Coaches are getting tested. Bobby’s getting tested. I’m getting tested.
“So, we’ll see,” he added. “We’ll see how we persevere through. I think we will. I think you’re always watching and looking for how people are reacting, but I can’t make any statement that would have, I don’t have a good analysis on the leadership of this team because we’re not there yet. We need more time. Thirty games isn’t enough.”
Nor, evidently, is 31 games, as the trials and tests of the Red Sox at this early stage of the season continue. It is a team that now faces a hostile climate at home -- made even more hostile by the fact that the team has now lost a startling 11 of 12 games at home -- that will challenge further the development of the clubhouse culture that the team seeks.
But right now, the idea of that clubhouse culture is dependent upon a winning culture. And in that realm, the team is falling woefully short. If the Sox were amidst a run of any sustained success, or if they had won on Thursday, then the Beckett controversy would have been mitigated.
Instead, the Sox continued to perform like one of the worst teams in the American League, and those who made it to Fenway Park let them know it.
“When we don’t play to our potential and don’t win, we’re going to hear it,” Saltalamacchia said. “That’s part of playing in Boston. We know that right now, we’re not winning so we’re going to hear it even more regardless of what happens. It’s frustrating, yeah, but it’s part of the game. We’ve got to go out there and perform. No more talking, no more excuses. We’ve got to play.”