Ultimately, it’s not about Bobby Valentine.
Terrible managers have won the World Series, as have some who were loathed by their teams. Great managers, wildly popular in their own clubhouses, have failed to do so.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said throughout the managerial hiring process last winter that there was no such thing as the perfect person for the job, and that instead his search was for the right person to take charge of the roster. More than four months into the season, Cherington pronounced Valentine remains the right person for the job.
“I do [think so]. I believe that,” he said. “Bobby’s our manager and we’re not considering anyone else. … He’s as committed to managing the team as he ever has been, and we’re committed to him and trying to do everything we can to support him and make this work.”
That’s not the same as saying that his tenure is working, or that it is without issues, or that he is excelling in his role. Cherington did praise Valentine’s skills as an evaluator, someone capable of defining the right roles for players and then executing in-game tactics to position his team to win. But that is merely one aspect of the job. Others, such as communication with players, coaches and other members of the organization, seemingly represent, at best, works in progress.
That being the case, Cherington’s pronounced support for Valentine came across as a genuine endorsement-for-now, in the same way that the decision by the Sox front office to stay the course at the trade deadline and to let the team’s 2012 fortunes ride on the sustained performance of the roster as (largely) constructed represented a somewhat tepid embrace of the status quo.
The duration of the Sox’ commitment to Valentine remains in question. Asked whether he would remain the manager for the rest of the year, Cherington said that he did not want to put timelines on the matter. So, while Valentine remains in his job (“We are not making a change in manager,” owner John Henry added via email), the questions about his future are unlikely to disappear.
But ultimately, in a vacuum, his future as a Red Sox manager is meaningless. The Red Sox can keep him. They can fire him.
The primary consideration for the Sox remains an effort to find the right alchemy to motivate a roster that has been, in the words of Nick Punto, “very mediocre” for the entire season. After 110 games, the Sox are at exactly .500 (55-55, after a 9-2 win over the Rangers on Monday night). That record is a reflection on the health and performances of the roster above all else.
“To blame Bobby Valentine for the Red Sox being .500 at this point in the season is simply wrong,” Henry wrote. “A lot has been written about injuries to key players this year. The impact of that on the Sox this year should not be discounted.
"In baseball, managers often get too much credit and too much blame for what happens on the field. That seems to be a constant. There is often the thought in organizations, 'This isn't working so the manager needs to go.' But an organization is much more than the field manager. We all share responsibility for the success and failure of the Boston Red Sox.”
Both Henry and Cherington noted that the team’s disappointing performance of the season to date reflected far more broadly than on just Valentine. It has been, to date, an organizational struggle, but one that reflects most directly on what the players have done when on the field.
“When the performance isn't there, we're all going to be criticized. And we earn that. We earn that criticism. I don't think it's fair to direct it at any one person,” said Cherington. “We're collectively responsible. Bobby's one of those people. So am I, so are the players, so are the coaches, so is everyone else.
“Winning and losing always has more to do with players than anything else. I don't question the effort of the players. I think our players have fought and battled, worked hard, played hard, fought out of tough things. It's not a question of effort. At some level, the players on the team, it's a reflection of me, it's a reflection of the front office. So, if players win or lose more than anything else, then I need to be accountable for that. We need to be better day to day and put ourselves in the best position to win tonight, tomorrow, the next day, and we'll continue to work on those things behind closed doors. We expect what follows to improve. It needs to.”
The players recognize that it is up to them to dictate the fortunes of the team and to set aside whatever off-field drama -- and chances are, plenty of it will continue to swirl for some time -- in order to be a good team. On Monday, they did just that, with the top four members of the lineup of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez delivering the sort of impact performance that has been rarely witnessed this year. The quartet combined to go 11-for-18 with eight doubles and seven runs while driving in eight.
That sort of performance matters far more than a vote of confidence.
“The .500 record we’re at right now, it’s on us. It’s not on Bobby. Everybody wants to make a big deal out of that but it’s never been on Bobby. It’s always been on us,” said Gonzalez. “He hasn’t swung the bat all year. He hasn’t pitched. It’s us that are playing out there.”
The idea that the team is fractured irreparably, beyond the point of being capable of going on a run, is difficult to endorse. After all, that theory hardly meshes with the fact that the team is 11-6 in the second half against the Rangers, Yankees, Tigers, White Sox and Rays -- teams with records over .500. It is the club’s 1-6 mark against the fading Blue Jays and Twins that has sabotaged what could otherwise be a strong second half.
At every level of the Red Sox, the team’s .500 record represents a disappointment. In terms of Valentine’s role in that struggle, the team had one of two routes to go -- either fire him and put everything at the feet of the players, or commit to him publicly and leave it up to the players to show that, in fact, they are talented enough to go on a sustained run despite the constant weirdness of everything that has occurred in 2012 at the periphery of what matters.
The Sox chose to take the latter route, something for which Valentine was sheepishly grateful.
“I regret that they had to do it,” Valentine said of his endorsement by Cherington and Henry. “If our record was better, they wouldn’t have had to do it. Totally appreciated, though, if they felt it was necessary and they think it’s good for the guys.”
Asked whether he felt empowered to do his job, Valentine responded with some amusement.
“I can’t even fathom what that would refer to,” he said. “The ownership is fabulous. It’s a very expensive payroll. Ben has worked 24/7. He’s been in my office every day. There’s never been anything that we’ve had any major disagreements with. I don’t know how I could be more empowered. Maybe a magic wand at times. I’ll use that during the game if I ever find out where I could get one.”
Certainly, if the Sox go on a run to vault them from the fringes of contention into a position where the playoffs are more than a mere longshot, that would prove the ultimate rabbit out of a hat. But the team’s ability to accomplish such a thing will rely far less on putting Harry Potter in the manager’s office, and more on whether or not the players perform to their abilities.
With the team declaring that Valentine is going nowhere, that responsibility for the rest of 2012 has been placed squarely at their feet. On Monday night, they responded, a reminder that there are 52 games left in which to change the narrative of a season that has been, to date, an unsettled exercise.