People want answers.
Why are the Red Sox 33-33 and eight games in back of the first-place Yankees? How come the popularity of this team is trending along the lines of Roger Clemens' 'Q' rating? Who is to blame for the clubhouse being in such a state that an ESPN.com column classified it as "toxic"?
Too many times with this team, this voice has had to utter the most unsatisfying yet succinct mantra that in baseball the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. People hate hearing that, and that certainly isn't ideal when trying to fill up the phone lines, but it keeps fitting perfectly in this world of instant gratification, over-reaction and hyperbole.
Well, here it comes again.
When diving into the abyss where these answers lie, there are going to be some unsatisfactory answers surfaced. There is some smoke and there is some fire when it comes to this highly priced .500 team, but the bonfire probably isn't burning quite as high as some might be led to believe.
With that, we'll do our best to debunk some of the myths when it comes to this team that hasn't exactly elicited song-writers to start crafting anthems for the 2012 season:
'TOXIC' IS PROBABLY TOO STRONG A TERM
When the term "toxic clubhouse" surfaces, thoughts immediately go to locker-on-locker crime, with the players' grumbling emanating from the relationships between one another. That doesn't appear to be the case here. Was it last September? Likely. Hitters. Bullpen. Starters. The team was collapsing and clubhouse factions were pointing fingers. This isn't the same kind of dynamic.
By most accounts from the players -- and through the power of whatever observation the media is permitted -- this is a group that gets along fairly well. There is interaction between positional groupings, with back-and-forth banter usually flying as freely as most clubhouses.
So where does the "toxic" assertion come from?
Start with the results. Ever notice that very few basketball coaches get technical fouls when they're winning? When you're underperforming, the uncomfortable aspects of the job are going to be brought to the forefront. If the Red Sox were 10 games over .500, such a clubhouse column might be put next to the NHL Draft when prioritizing hot button topics.
There is complaining about umpires. There is complaining about complaining about umpires. There is some uneasiness when it comes to the Kevin Youkilis scenario -- both in regards to finding out his future, and until that resolution is reached, who will play where and when. And then there is the manager.
When discussing the dynamic between Bobby Valentine and his players, we also have to start with the wins and losses. If the team was wildly successful, the "Valentine Way" would be easier to embrace, with even his peccadilloes classified as an after-thought. But the Red Sox aren't winning as much as it was expected they would be, so the disconnect is magnified.
Dustin Pedroia's "that's not how we do things around here" still lingers, because the fact is, the Valentine Way isn't how they did things around there during one of the most successful runs in the organization's history. Valentine making subtle public assertions regarding players' intentions, injuries and mind-sets have led to the kind of grumbling Buster Olney referenced in his ESPN.com piece. It wasn't what worked before, and typically isn't what works in the sometimes delicate balance of a major league clubhouse, and now it's being viewed as an approach that certainly isn't helping matters.
(When Red Sox chairman Tom Werner makes reference to the possible disconnect between some players and Valentine, as he did on The Big Show Monday, you know there is something to the issue.)
Valentine has shown some important abilities as a big league manager. He has exhibited an acumen for evaluating what players can and can't do, and put them in favorable positions, with Franklin Morales serving as the latest example. And such a skill shouldn't be underestimated when being led through a big league season. But when the results aren't what you want, such attributes are drowned out.
Take away two of Josh Beckett's 10 starts this season, and his ERA stands at 2.90. But because of those two starts, his public perception and postgame press conferences (and occasional lack thereof), such production isn't what the pitcher is going to be identified with. It might take an entire season's body of work to change minds. Or maybe minds will never be changed. It's a similar situation to what Valentine is facing.
When the Red Sox win with Valentine the manager -- no matter what kind of roster he is afforded -- that's when the text messages and eye-rolling will subside. (And you might also be surprised at how much umpiring talk hits the road, as well.)
PEOPLE LIKE TEAMS THAT WIN, AND THEY DON'T LIKE TEAMS THAT DON'T
Another aspect of the Red Sox' existence that the public seems to be hanging their collective hat on is that they just don't like what they see. They want the exuberance of the Rays. They want more moments like Sunday's suicide squeeze. They want every day to be Nick Punto bursting out of nowhere at home plate to rip Jarrod Saltalamacchia's jersey off after the catcher's walk-off home run.
What they don't want is a team that has anything permeating to the point where national columnists are questioning its make-up.
So what will make this team likable again? Few want to admit it, but the answer isn't complicated -- winning.
When Bill Parcells was hired by the Patriots, a friend of mine bemoaned the fact that watching games was now going to be boring as all get-out because of the ground-and-pound style of the former Giants coach. I explained that they could execute a seasons' worth of 3 1/3-yard runs straight up the middle and if they won it wouldn't matter a lick. That's how sports work.
Winning makes everything OK. The Red Sox haven't been winning for the past four months of playing baseball so everything isn't OK. Since last September 1, the Red Sox are 40-53 with the fourth-worst ERA in baseball. They've scored just one more run than their opponents during that span. When so much is being asked in terms of fan investment -- both financially and emotionally -- that isn't going to pave the way for warm and fuzzies.
Then factor in the uneasiness of last September, the offseason, the payroll and the perception that the desired organizational hose-down has been executed using a Waterpik and that leads to the lack of a season-long warm embrace.
NONE OF THIS HAS TO DO WITH WHY THEY AREN'T WINNING
The baffling thing about trying to identify the on-the-field reasons why this team isn't doing better is that one piece of the equation can't be pulled out and placed on top of the blame pie.
The Red Sox have the third-best OPS in the American League (just slightly behind the Yankees and Rangers). They're even second-best in the American League with runners in scoring position and two outs. Yes, their starters' ERA is fourth-worst in baseball, but in their last five starts Clay Buchholz has an ERA of 2.48, Beckett is at 3.19 and Felix Doubront stands at 4.30 (with six of his last seven starts seeing the lefty allow two runs or less), all certainly seemingly good enough to build a successful staff around. And since May 1, the Sox' have claimed the best bullpen in baseball with an 2.36 ERA and .206 batting average against.
So what's the problem?
First off, let's push aside the notion that any of the aforementioned uneasiness has anything to do with on-field performance. Players aren't striding to the plate worried about what Valentine is going to say at his next press briefing.
Perhaps the best way to start the conversation is to look at the top 10 players on the Red Sox' payroll and identify their contributions. It wouldn't be a huge leap of faith to suggest that eight of that group of 10 has either significantly underperformed or has simply not contributed at all due to injury.
That's an issue, one that the Yankees certainly aren't experiencing. Go through New York's biggest bread winners and you'll find all but Mariano Rivera contributing at an acceptable level.
As for the positions in which the Red Sox have invested most significantly for the long haul, among first basemen they are 12th in the majors in OPS (.783), 20th at third base (.686) and 15th in the outfield (.760).
Panic shouldn't ensue quite yet. They are four games out of the Wild Card, and do have what Werner describes as "the cavalry" coming back in the form of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford and Andrew Bailey. But until this team is truly smacked with a permanent identification, keep repeating the words that make people want to put on the earmuffs -- "the truth lies somewhere in the middle."