This is the third of a three-part series examining the function and structure of Red Sox ownership and governance. Part 1, on Thursday, investigated the role of Red Sox owners in running the entire organization. Part 2, on Friday, examined Fenway Sports Group and the impact of NESN and Liverpool on Red Sox operations.
The initial move didn't happen by design. Rather, the realities of trying to squeeze a full baseball operation into an almost 100-year-old ballpark necessitated some creative uses of space.
In 2004, the Red Sox baseball operations staff was growing. So, too, was the entire Red Sox organization. There were too many employees to squeeze into what had been the office spaces in the ballpark, and so it was that general manager Theo Epstein and his executives were moved into a cleverly contrived space in the basement of Fenway Park after spring training of 2004.
The move was entirely practice, a reflection of the limited real estate for employees inside of Fenway Park. But ...
The basement took on a life of its own. Animal House shenanigans sometimes prevailed inside the baseball operations department of that time, as Epstein led a staff of mostly twentysomething and thirtysomething colleagues with a collective wild streak that occasionally featured the near-loss of an eye by a future GM.
At times, the basement seemed to offer the baseball operations staff under Epstein a considerable amount of autonomy, even sanctuary. There was freedom in this island within Fenway -- not just physical separation from other departments (as well as the team's ownership -- principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and CEO/president Larry Lucchino, all of whose offices remained on the second floor) but a sort of intellectual liberty that served as an antidote to a more mundane reality of running a business. While baseball ops hadn't been trying to get away from the rest of the organization, many team employees reveled in the separate world.
But that separate existence is no more.
This season, after spring training, the baseball operations department -- now under the guidance of Ben Cherington -- was relocated back to the second floor, reintegrated with the rest of the front office and put in proximity to the offices of Henry, Werner and Lucchino. The move can be viewed from multiple angles, not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Unquestionably, it is meant in no small part to increase casual communication between different parts of the organization. The move embraces the celebration of spontaneous interactions across departments.
Symbolically, after multiple years of disappointing results for the Sox, the move could also suggest that the organization decided that the model of physical autonomy wasn't working and that the baseball ops department should be brought back into the context of the rest of the organization.
"Part of being the organization we want to be is being more accountable, being fully integrated in a way where we can see more quickly where and when we may be steering off course. It's harder to do that when you're at a distance," said Cherington. "Moving an office is symbolic, but there is a physical change. There is something to the ideas that bounce back and forth informally just by virtue of passing each other in the hallway. It may have some value."
Added Lucchino: "One of the dangers that can develop in any organization is siloing. I think Ben has done a terrific job in that regard, and this is the next logical step to make things easier to give them better working conditions and to enhance communication."
Another way of viewing the move is to suggest that, symbolically, baseball operations has once again assumed centrality in the day-to-day operations of the franchise. Perhaps positioning the baseball operations staff amidst the other departments of the organization represents an antidote to the characterization in "Francona: The Red Sox Years" that marketing and revenue streams started to influence the organization's baseball decision-making model.
"We thought it would be a way to improve communications, enhance the quality of the life of baseball operations people who volunteered several years ago to go downstairs into new spaces we developed," said Lucchino. "It was a chance for us to sort of interact with them on a more casual, easygoing basis. We can never forget the fact that we are first and foremost a baseball team -- the principal product we have and that we care about first and foremost is our baseball performance, our baseball team, our baseball assets. They should occupy what seems to me to be a highly desirable workspace."
Regardless of interpretation, there is a reality. A baseball operations group that rarely crossed paths with team owners now does so with greater regularity -- including Henry, Lucchino, Werner, COO Sam Kennedy and executive vice president of business affairs Jonathan Gilula, who is becoming increasingly engaged with the baseball operations side.
There is, it appears, a change in the relationship between the ownership and the baseball decision-makers that is occurring.
FROM A SEAT TO A VOICE AT THE TABLE
Lucchino often explains the role of ownership in baseball decisions as having a "seat at the table." It is a phrase that he's employed since being named the president of the Orioles in 1988. He uses the term to suggest involvement in dialogue about decisions, taking part in conversations rather than giving dictates or wielding a definitive veto hammer.
"John, Tom and I very definitely have a seat at the table, as in our view is quite appropriate," said Lucchino. "We perform a kind of advise-and-consent role with regards to major decisions, major policy matters, particularly those with significant financial ramifications."
Werner, in explaining the meaning of such a phrase, suggested that Cherington and baseball operations might recommend signing a player -- the chairman cited the example of reliever Koji Uehara -- and, in recommending the acquisition, would offer a rationale that includes opinions of scouts and other members of his department. At that point, the three representatives of the ownership group either endorse the pursuit/acquisition or challenge Cherington and his staff through "constructive dialogue," coming up with questions or arguments in hopes of a meticulous decision-making process.
Over time, the voice and feedback has become more assertive, particularly from Henry.
For a time, the team's principal owner tended to be very supportive, almost deferential, in meetings with baseball operations. Indeed, one source familiar with Henry's governance style suggested near-surprise with the degree to which he remained reserved in his opinions (and, for that matter, his demand for organizational information), suggesting that rather than taking an opportunity to assert leadership over the franchise, he instead behaved like something of a limited partner, fulfilling the "advise and consent" description laid out by Lucchino but with infrequent willingness to stop moves with which he disagreed from taking place.
Another source who has worked with Henry suggested that, in conversations with baseball ops, his deference could come across as passive-aggressive behavior. He would sign off on a deal, but only after trailing off in the conversation with his critique.
"He agrees to do something but presents it as being against his judgment, and gives the sense that you better be right," said the source.
On a couple of occasions, in fact, Henry publicly noted his objections, much to the discomfort of some of his employees. Back in 2005, the Red Sox principal owner went on record as saying that he believed the team shouldn't have pulled the trigger on the seven-player deal that resulted in the acquisition of Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell from the Marlins in exchange for Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez (among others). He would have preferred to keep the prospects and pursue a free agent pitcher like A.J. Burnett (who ended up signing a five-year, $55 million deal with the Blue Jays).
More recently, Henry's public admission after the 2010 season that he had been against the idea of signing free agent Carl Crawford -- at a time when Crawford still had six years left on the seven-year, $142 million deal he signed to play in Boston -- resulted in a need for a considerable amount of damage control.
It was one thing for the owner to disagree with the move. Indeed, a case could be made that his willingness to trust the decision-making of his employees on the biggest free agent investment in franchise history represented an impressive and even admirable commitment to delegation.
Indeed, the willingness to keep an open mind and allow one's personal reservations to be overridden is a hallmark of the Sox' decision-making process, not just for Henry but for other members of the organization as well. The owners and baseball operations staff have cultivated an environment in which they're supposed to remain open-minded to different arguments about deals.
"How often are we all going to agree on everything? Generally, there's always someone in the group that doesn't feel the same way as others," Cherington said. "In my experience, everyone is very open to argument and open to changing their minds. I would say that all of us along the way have felt one way about a decision and along the way weren't as committed to it. Along the way, we recognized the wisdom of the entire group and recognize that we're all trying to put the organization in a better place. Different perspectives are valuable."
Opinions, dialogue and open-mindedness all are viewed as assets. But in the case of Henry, the act of publicly acknowledging his personal reservations created organizational challenges.
In fairness, in noting his opposition to both the Beckett and Crawford deals, Henry described himself as somewhat or slightly against the eventual outcome when weighing all the factors, but not so drastically opposed that he was unwilling to sign off on the decisions. Still, the public admission of concerns about such deals rankled some.
"I think that's bad leadership. To me, if you firmly trust people who work for you and defer to them, that means you don't tell anyone how you felt. I think it's weakness from you when you say, 'I didn't want it but let them do it.' That's weakness," said one Henry business associate. "As a leader, you should be covering up the fact that you didn't want to do it. Say as an organization, 'We all made the decision and we stand behind it.' Why would you openly second-guess the people that work for you? Or, he should say, 'We came to a decision as an organization and I don't even remember who felt what.' "
Still, it is notable that the ultimate decision made by Henry in those instances was to follow the recommendations of his baseball operations staff. That, suggested Cherington, held true to the way the organization has operated. Everyone -- including the owners -- is open to persuasion when deciding on transactions.
As principal owner, Henry (in concert with Werner) has veto power over deals should he want to exercise it. He does not strike an authoritarian pose, however.
"By and large, this goes back before I was GM, the vast majority of times baseball ops makes a recommendation and feels strongly about it, it happens," said Cherington. "I can't remember, ever, any times when he just said no. I remember times when he's been a consenter and a couple of occasions where he hasn't been and perhaps more by his influence something hasn't happened."
Of course, there also is at least one very notable instance in which the owners played a considerable role in directing an outcome rather than weighing in on a course of action proposed by baseball operations.
When Terry Francona's tenure with the Sox came to an end after the 2011 season, the baseball operations department -- with Cherington in his first days on the job -- was charged with finding his successor.
The group interviewed five candidates, presenting one (Dale Sveum) to the owners. After that meeting with Sveum, the owners huddled with Cherington and concluded that, not only were they unprepared to endorse Sveum, but the team should place greater emphasis on an experienced manager and broaden the managerial search. The owners encouraged Cherington and the baseball ops department to meet with Bobby Valentine.
Cherington -- who from the beginning felt that complete ownership endorsement of a manager was so critical as to be an absolute precondition for a hire -- ultimately made the call to hire the controversial manager over Gene Lamont. But clearly, Valentine was an owner-sponsored candidate, as opposed to the other five interviewees who came into the process at the initiative of the baseball operations department.
And ultimately -- in contrast to a number of successful baseball personnel decisions made by Lucchino, Henry and Werner whether with the Sox or prior organizations -- the hiring of Valentine came to feel like an arranged marriage whose forced nature doomed it to failure.
Werner and Henry do not shy from that reality.
"It's clear in retrospect that he wasn't the right man for that group last year. But I don't think you can blame Bobby for that. You can blame me, you can blame Larry, Tom," Henry said during a press session in Fort Myers, Fla. "But I think he should manage again, and he'd be a great manager for the right team."
Werner, for his part, identified the hiring of Valentine as one in a series of mistakes that the organization made in a relatively short period of time. The hiring of Valentine, as well as the acquisitions of Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, all produced terribly disappointing results for an organization that entered 2011 and 2012 with championship aspirations.
"Those two decisions [to sign Crawford and trade for Gonzalez] were driven in large part by the strong recommendations of Theo Epstein and there was a lot of debate. In the end, those decisions were supported," Werner said. "I wish that you could go back and change the outcome, but I think that even the best general managers make mistakes. I feel like you just move forward. I guess the same would be true with Bobby Valentine.
"Bobby Valentine was not the right fit for the Red Sox in 2012. We've acknowledged the mistake," Werner continued. "It doesn't mean that he's not going to be successful somewhere else or that he's not a smart baseball guy, but it didn't work out. We made a decision at the end of last year to move in a different direction. And so far, I think John Farrell is doing an outstanding job."
Given the recent mistakes, how will the organizational dynamic change?
For starters, Henry's view on his role has evolved. The team's principal owner suggests that he was comfortable with delegation, particularly with regard to baseball operations, until around the end of the 2011 season, "maybe October, November" -- interestingly, around the same time that the Sox were transitioning from former GM Epstein to Cherington, and when the organization was amidst its search for Francona's successor.
Over time, Henry had observed a philosophical drift in the organization away from the core values that he felt had been at the heart of the club reaching the playoffs six times in seven years. He felt, and still feels, that he can play a role in the organization's return to the principles that made it successful, the reclaiming of a competitive advantage in the team's operating philosophy.
"We have always been chain-of-command guys. Our philosophy, my philosophy, has always been, you hire the right people and give them the power, the resources to be successful. There's no doubt that there are risks associated with that," said Henry. "Over time, I've become less of a chain-of-command guy because the issues in professional sports have become so financially oriented -- there aren't that many issues that don't have a financial component that are of real substance."
"Having a stronger presence, in my view, was needed. I'm more hands-on than I was," he continued. "We had so much success. But success is a strange thing. When you look at how many successful people have shot themselves in the foot over time, you continually see stories of people who do things in their lives and you shake your head and think, 'How could they do that?' They had X amount of money and broke the law. They had a certain position and then they did X. ... You shake your head.
"It often is very successful men who should know better but who have been so successful that they feel a bit invulnerable, a sense of invulnerability, and a sense of entitlement."
Given the Sox' struggles of recent years, Henry suggests that it reached a time when he had to take a more active role in fighting organizational drift and self-satisfaction with its decision-making model. And so, he has taken a more adamant stance regarding some aspects of how the baseball operation runs and what the team pursues in terms of personnel.
He is circumspect in discussing the specifics of his vision or role, allowing only, "There was a philosophical shift within baseball operations. We had a competitive advantage. We've gotten back to that, so I don't want to talk about what that is."
However, according to multiple sources familiar with the team's decision-making this offseason, some of the areas of emphasis for Henry included:
-- A desire for shorter-term deals, even if that meant paying higher average annual values.
-- The devotion of resources to building depth as opposed to a concentration of dollars in star players.
-- A need to rebuild a disciplined lineup with one of the highest walk rates in baseball.
-- Challenging the team's decision-making processes and ensuring that a diversity of voices took part in them. Henry noted publicly, for instance, that he wanted to see senior adviser Bill James' voice play a more prominent role in team discussions.
To be sure, in some (perhaps most or even all) of these sentiments, Henry's views aligned closely with those of many in baseball operations. Nonetheless, there is general agreement from those in baseball operations and from Henry himself that the owner has taken a more vocal role in setting the organization's priorities.
LOOKING BACK, GOING FORWARD
So what does that mean? Are the Sox now an organization that will be run from a top-down approach, where Henry (and/or Werner and/or Lucchino) call the proverbial shots?
Not necessarily. Cherington suggests that, most importantly, he has been able to construct the decision-making environment that he wants, with what he characterizes as constructive input from his bosses. On some moves, he and his department have complete freedom. On others, there is ownership involvement, sometimes even active ownership involvement, but the GM suggests that it is beneficial and reasonable rather than onerous.
"There's a great deal of latitude to build a baseball operations department the way you want to, to create a decision-making structure the way I want to, to place a value on players the way that we believe in and to make recommendations on anything -- whether it be player personnel or other types of hirings. Once it gets to that level, there's collaboration," said Cherington. "If I recommend strongly and make good arguments, I don't remember not being able to do anything.
"The pushback -- which needs to exist -- is in making sure we have a good process, making sure we have all the information we need, that we incorporate the resources that we should. Those are things that I'm responsible for. If I was an owner of a team coming off a year like we had, I'd be doing the same thing -- I'd tell the baseball ops staff that we need to do this, this, this, this and this, and making recommendations off of that. You make the arguments that make sense and we'll do it. I don't think that's very different from any other team. The scrutiny is different coming off a bad year. It should be.
"I think ownership knows where to be on the spectrum [of involvement] at the right times. There's plenty of times where we do things that have no involvement at all, and there are things that happen every day in baseball ops that they're not involved in because they don't have to be -- and they shouldn't be. And there are things where -- their involvement in hiring a manager, major player acquisition decisions, a big contract -- that they are involved in, and they're always available, always accessible at all hours of the day. It's not ever an issue getting their attention on the team, and never has been."
The resources provided by Sox owners remain considerable. While the team did not sign any superstars this offseason, the Sox did redistribute the savings achieved by trading Gonzalez, Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers by making a broad number of acquisitions (Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Joel Hanrahan) that will sustain a payroll that ranks among the highest in the game.
And, in terms of the personnel and infrastructure in the baseball operations department, the team increased its commitments this offseason, making new hires in the medical and scouting departments, among others.
Perhaps more significantly, there is an increased sense of organizational alignment now than there has been in some time. That reflects, in part, a wealth of conversations that occurred between team owners and baseball operations staff (foremost, Cherington) in the days leading up to and following last August's blockbuster trade with the Dodgers. That period offered an opportunity for some organizational soul-searching that yielded a relatively unified outlook going forward.
"There was quite a bit of conversation late in the season last year, before the Dodgers trade and after," said Cherington. "We talked about how we got there, what we needed to do, came up with plans moving forward. ... Whenever you're in the room for more time to talk with each other about what you want to be and how to get there, there's going to feel like -- and there probably is more -- agreement."
Still, that didn't mean that the owners dictated the moves of the offseason. Rather, it was the collaborative framework and organizational philosophy that was outlined in the meetings last August and September that helped to guide what the team decided to do over the offseason, and a commitment to organizational discipline -- not just in terms of contracts, but in terms of decision-making processes.
All of that introspection reflected an effort to move forward from a 13-month period -- from September 2011 through the end of a horrendous 2012 season -- that has been the most challenging in the 12-season tenure of the Red Sox owners and the baseball operations staff that has been in place for so much of that time.
An organization that had become accustomed to considerable success is amidst an effort to emerge from its most dramatic on-field failure in decades. The shortcomings of the final month of the 2011 season (a byproduct of some decisions that went terribly awry in the preceding seasons) and the 2012 campaign were so comprehensive that no one in the organization could hide from fault.
That, in turn, outlined a challenge that team owners and the baseball operations department must face jointly.
"Ultimately, the results have been atrocious, in 2012 especially. Sixty-nine wins was a disgrace and something none of us was proud of; 2011 was perhaps more painful, the way it played out," Red Sox COO Sam Kennedy said. "No one is dodging that. That's our fault. When I say our, I mean management. We have to fix things. The good news is that John and Tom have given us the resources and their support, their vision, their time to make sure that we do get back on track.
"If you have people criticizing you and your organization, that hurts, but come on. We're big boys and we can take it, and we're going to get this thing right. ... I feel so great about the direction we're going on the baseball side. It's going to make it that much sweeter when we get back to the mountaintop. We're down at the bottom looking back up again, and it's going to be great when we're back on top. It's just going to take a little bit of time and hard work, and we need to be able to take these bullets, because lord knows, people are firing them at us. It goes with the territory and we have to have that thick skin that I alluded to.
"But these guys, they are committed. ... They wouldn't want to do anything else. It's going to be fun coming back up and really get the marketplace behind the team. That's our obligation. That is going to make it that much sweeter when things get back on track."
Even now, in the early stages of a 2013 season that has offered members of the Sox more grounds for optimism than the team has experienced in some time, it remains to be seen how the team's decisions and reconfigured operating structure plays out, whether Kennedy's optimism about the team's return to glory comes to fruition.
What cannot be doubted is that there's quite a bit at stake. A return to the mountaintop to which Kennedy alluded could bracket the stretch of September 2011 through September 2012 as an aberration. But if the team does not reclaim its status as a perennial contender, then the triumphs of 2004 and 2007 will recede even further into the distance, a critical but ultimately incomplete part of how this ownership group will be evaluated.
"The results haven't been there for the last year -- people would say, for years," said Henry. "So it's good for us to try to explain how things work."
It's a fascinating moment in the life of the organization and this ownership group. There is no hiding from the Sox' recent failures, nor from the significance of what lies ahead. The processes that guided the Sox this past offseason and that continue to direct them going forward will determine not just on-field fortunes as measured in wins and losses but the legacy of many in the organization, perhaps foremost, the owners who presided over the first two Red Sox World Series winners in more than eight decades, but who remain under considerable scrutiny after a period of dramatic struggle.