Monday, October 17, 2011

John Henry and the Dawn of a new Era for Red Sox Nation

Turbulent times in Red Sox Nation hit an interesting fork in the road when Red Sox majority owner John Henry did what very few sport owners ever do – listen to a local all-sports radio station. Fed up and paraphrasing Howard Beale’s classic speech “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” from the 1974 movie Network, Henry took a leap of faith Friday. While driving around Boston he tuned in to The Sports Hub 98.5 mid-afternoon drive show Felger & Massarotti and decided it was his turn to step up to the plate.

The hosts were playing the roles they were being paid for, reflecting on the news of the day as content for their program. Friday’s “topic du jour” in New England? A report in Thursday’s Boston Globe that suggested the Boston Red Sox late season collapse was a direct result of issues manager Terry Francona had; both personal and professional. Those issues included allegations that Francona had problems with both pain medications and his marriage. Boston Globe writer Bob Hohler used unnamed sources in Thursday’s article and went on the record several times soon after the Globe published the scathing indictment of the 2011 Red Sox making it clear none of his sources came from the Red Sox ownership group that include Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino. Hohler’s admission didn’t stop former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling from suggesting in an ESPN report his belief that the unnamed source of the quotes was the ownership group. Former Red Sox Nomar Garciaparra also went on record on ESPN stating that he believed he had been smeared by both the Red Sox ownership and senior management in his last days with the Red Sox and once he had been traded away.

"It's ridiculous that people would talk about things like that," Henry told the radio station, trying to at least set the record straight that the source of the information wasn’t Henry or his partners as was alleged. "(Francona) brought two World Series to this franchise. He's arguably the best manager we've ever had."

Henry arrived at the radio station angry and not prepared to take it anymore, but also ready to take responsibility as the owner of the Red Sox for the information being leaked to the media about Francona.

"Ultimately, if there were team sources involved, they do work for us. Did it come from John (Henry), (chairman) Tom (Werner) or (CEO) Larry (Lucchino)? No," Henry told The Sports Hub at an impromptu drop-in on Friday after hearing the show from his car.

"If it's someone with the team, and that's what it says in the newspaper, then I'm very upset about it," he told the radio station.

"It's reprehensible that it was written about in the first place."

It’s always interesting to see how close sports radio hosts, or so called sports journalists, are prepared to inch toward the line in the sand; to ask that question that no one wants to ask. Throughout the early parts of the nearly 90 minutes Henry spent live on-air at 98.5 the hosts time and time again accused senior management of being the source of Hohler’s quotes and time and time again Henry attempted to set the record straight berating the hosts for suggesting that he and Hohler were lying. But, amongst the gamesmanship exhibited by the hosts, what they failed to ask was how Henry felt about Schilling’s comments that senior management was Hohler’s source. How does John Henry feel about Schilling, who he paid tens of millions of dollars to (including an $8 million contract for the 2008 season, a season he never pitched one inning of baseball), making comments that the ownership group were ‘bad’ people and that they were the anonymous source of the article? That was a question that should have been asked.

Once Henry arrived he was the breath of fresh air Red Sox Nation needed. It has been three weeks since the Red Sox season ended on the last day of the regular season; a season filled with promise and the anticipation that the Red Sox, and not the Texas Rangers, would be representing the American League in the World Series. Henry missed the organization’s press conference on Friday, September 30 that followed the end of Terry Francona’s tenure as the Red Sox manager. He did appear on Boston’s other all-sports radio station (WEEI) the following week. That was at best a lacklustre appearance by Henry, one that may have done more harm then benefit. The Hohler report, Schilling’s comments and the Red Sox were front page news for all of the wrong reasons. Henry took a tremendous risk in driving to a radio station unannounced and demanding to be heard.

But it offered Henry the platform he was looking for, a chance in his mind, as the teams’ principal owner, to set the record straight and to begin to allow his organization to move forward and start to prepare for the 2012 Red Sox season.

Henry addressed a number of key issues, including the speculation that the ownership were never interested in retaining Francona for the 2012 and 2013 seasons which were two option years the Red Sox and Francona had agreed to following the four-year contract Francona signed after leading the Red Sox to the 2007 World Series.

"At one point I sent an email out during the season to the rest of the guys in upper management and said, 'Unless we think we're going to find a better manager we should pick up the options,'" Henry said on The Sports Hub. "Then I was reminded why we negotiated for the options. There are a couple of people in our organization whose pet peeve is picking up options before their time.”

It didn’t make any sense for Terry Francona to return as the team’s manager after suggesting he didn’t have the respect of his players.

"(Francona) negotiated a certain amount of dollars and a certain amount of years. We got the options. ... Tito was great about it. He never said a word about it. I was the only one who said a word about it."

Henry made it clear, despite reports that suggested Francona was going to be fired, he wasn’t fired and management never talked about Francona’s Red Sox future before the end of the season.

"We hadn't had one discussion internally about a replacement manager," Henry said. "Even as of Sept. 30 we hadn't had that discussion. Basically, what we heard from Tito, the things that he said to us (at the season-ending meeting between ownership and Francona), we would not have picked up the options (had he not chosen to leave)."

The Red Sox spent more than $300 million in the free agent market in the last few years. John Lackey’s five-year $84 million contract was a complete waste of money. Time will tell if Carl Crawford’s seven-year $140 million contract was one big mistake but Crawford’s 2011 season was a series of failures. Felger & Massarotti questioned if the Red Sox free agent spending spree was more about creating TV ratings then it was to win baseball games. The Red Sox 2010 season was filled with injuries that crippled the team on the field and led to both their exclusion from the playoffs and bad ratings on the New England Sports Network of which 80 percent is owned by the Fenway Sports Group (Henry and company).

"I was more concerned that we didn't make the playoffs than what the TV ratings were," Henry said. "We felt we needed to be aggressive in the offseason and we were aggressive. But it wasn't because we needed to prove that we were still going to spend money here."

"Can you imagine spending $300 million for PR?" Henry said. "I could hire someone for a couple hundred thousand to spend all their time on PR. We don't have that person."

And the topper, Henry made it clear he was against the signing of Carl Crawford, "but I don't meddle to the point of making decisions for our baseball people. This was driven, and Theo will tell you this, by our baseball people. It wasn't a PR move, and neither was the Gonzalez signing."

The healing process for the Boston Red Sox and the citizens of Red Sox Nation began Friday afternoon when John Henry made his appearance on a Boston all-sports radio station. In an era when companies are failing everyday and senior management are leaving with golden handshakes and a pat on the back, it is stunning to see the owner of a Major League Baseball team do what John Henry did Friday. Henry held himself accountable and took responsibility for what went wrong with the business he owned. He made it clear to the most important stake holders he has, the citizens of Red Sox Nation, that things were going to change. He took a very public platform to make sure his comments would be on the record and attempted to clear up what he believed were the misrepresentations that were being made about the Red Sox on the radio station and in the media.

Job well done John Henry, job very well done.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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