Say this for the Red Sox, there’s a reason for every move they make.
Whether it’s planning season-opening ceremonies for the first home game, orchestrating events that celebrate the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, planning a stirring pre-game memorial for Johnny Pesky or firing a manager one day after finishing its most disastrous season in 47 years, every move is made with a keen eye toward public perception.
Thursday was no different.
Bobby Valentine was fired in a 90-minute midday meeting at Larry Lucchino’s home. In attendance were the Red Sox CEO/president, principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and general manager Ben Cherington.
So, the decision was made.
How would the Red Sox go about formally announcing the move to the media and a fan base that is understandably bitter?
Enter Red Sox public relations mastermind Dr. Charles Steinberg. He handled the 2004 and 2007 World Series celebrations brilliantly on Opening Day in 2005 and again in ’08. He has handled countless other celebrations over the years before leaving for stints with the Dodgers and the Commissioner’s Office. He came back to the Red Sox before this season.
Traditionally, when a managerial change is made, a press conference at Fenway would be called -- as was the case last year when Terry Francona and the team “agreed to end” their eight-year association. That Friday night, Lucchino took to the podium in the press briefing room to announce that the Red Sox and Francona had decided to part ways.
But this was different. This was a team firing its manager with a year left on his contract. There was plenty of discussion in the organization about how to deliver the news to a fan base that has ranged from angry to apathetic all season.
The decision was made to send out a release with statements from Henry, Lucchino, Cherington and even Valentine. Simultaneously, the announcement was made on the Red Sox Twitter account.
“We made sure to release the news as soon as we could, to everyone simultaneously, and not hold it for an event,” Steinberg told me via email Thursday night.
Then came a separate release that the team would make Lucchino and Cherington available “on an informal basis” to reporters. I wondered aloud in the Gillette Stadium press box: Informal?
Reporters were brought into a club suite on the third level of Fenway Park to sit down with Lucchino and Cherington, just hours after they relieved Valentine of his duties as manager.
There I sat with WEEI colleagues Rob Bradford and Alex Speier with the men who had to answer for the 69-93 season and their decision to fire Valentine. We sat around a circular granite table with several Red Sox executives -- including Steinberg -- looking on as observers.
Just hours earlier, Lucchino and Cherington gave the news that certainly couldn’t have come as a surprise to Valentine.
“[Valentine] took the news with great maturity and dignity and class,” Lucchino told the three of us.
We were allowed 10 minutes in that enviroment to quiz the Red Sox executives as to how and why they reached their conclusion.
There was no need, Steinberg figured, for a press conference, not in the world of Twitter and not with Lucchino and Cherington willing to spend 10 minutes with each major New England media outlet.
“Some people felt we should not have a grand press conference to announce the dismissal of a manager -- one that he wouldn't be attending,” Steinberg added. “Some suggested simply a press release.”
Every case is different. Last year, there were a pair of press conferences involving Terry Francona -- one with Theo Epstein discussing the collapse, and one with the manager after the mutual decision was made to part ways.
In 2005, when Epstein announced that he would not return as GM, there was a press conference with him and Henry. In 2006, when Epstein came back, Epstein and Lucchino met with reporters in small groups. And, after Grady Little was not retained in the wake of the 2003 ALCS disaster in Game 7, the Red Sox also went the press conference route, with Epstein and Lucchino explaining the decision to reporters en masse.
This time, the team elected to discuss the decision in a different fashion.
“As we did after the club let Grady go, an availability was suggested,” Steinberg said. “That way, Larry Lucchino and Ben Cherington would still be available, accessible, and accountable, without the theater of announcement without the subject of the announcement present.”
There you have it.
The Red Sox were trying to avoid “the theater of announcement” in the firing of Bobby Valentine.
Substitute the word circus for theater and you really get to the bottom of what the Red Sox were trying to accomplish Thursday.
This may seem hard to believe but the Red Sox were trying to do the humane thing Thursday. They orchestrated everything Thursday to create an intimate, non-threatening environment, knowing full well the potential for a mob mentality -- and circus -- certainly existed. After all, wasn’t the season a circus enough?
The media -- an extension of the fan base -- was starving for answers. How could this season have gone so wrong? What did you learn from the Bobby Valentine experiment? Why wasn't he fired during the season? What are you expecting from your next skipper? How can you make sure this doesn’t happen again?
Look, the Red Sox have been raked over the coals time and time again this season, and they would tell you in an honest moment deservedly so. I criticized this team early for not letting Cherington do his job and late for their apparent lack of communication between ownership, management, coaching staff and players.
And certainly no one has taken a bigger hit in all of this than Lucchino. Everyone knows Valentine was his guy.
But on Thursday, having witnessed what I did in person and sitting face-to-face with Lucchino and Cherington, I felt the sense they were trying to do right by Valentine and by the fans by promising to “fix what’s broken,” as Lucchino put it.
Yes, each media outlet had to wait its turn for a chance to speak directly with Lucchino and Cherington. But in the end, each outlet got what it came for -- access to the men responsible for the day’s biggest story.
“In the Twitter world, this way is tougher, though the sessions have been good, but that was the rationale,” Steinberg told me.
Only in Boston would the WAY they fire their manager make nearly as much news as the decision itself.
The cynics -- and there are more in Boston than any baseball town in America -- will say the Red Sox were trying to control the situation on Thursday by not facing the mass media but breaking them down into mini-focus groups. Some might go as far to call them cowards.
Like it or not, that’s Steinberg’s job, to do everything in his power to control the situation as much as humanly possible.
Unlike Bobby Valentine, the day started for me in Foxboro. I interviewed Brandon Spikes, Vince Wilfork and Brandon Bolden in a Patriots locker room full of talk about big hits and a big game coming up against Peyton Manning.
The day ended with me heading up to Fenway through the fog and mist not knowing what to expect. What I found when I went inside was a kindler, gentler Red Sox brass, humbled by a miserable season.
In the public relations battle, at least, Thursday was a step in the right direction for the Red Sox.
Naturally, Twitter was all abuzz Thursday. Let’s go to the Trags Bag for a sampling of reaction to the Bobby Valentine firing:
@Sportsgal1972 You cut the tail off the snake. The head still has to go. #new ownership
@hurricanept Lucchino to blame; overruled Cherington on the pick. But Valentine owns a lot of the issues once season started.
@danwelch73 Lucchino is to blame. "Larry Lucchino runs the RedSox." BV was his hire. I hope the next mgr isn't [John] Farrell.
@dtufts If not Farrell, they may do an international search for someone who hasn't heard of Boston's less-than-hospitable sports environment.