- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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You can wring your hands all you want over whether Jonathan Papelbon served up the wrong pitch to Robert Andino or why Marco Scutaro hesitated just long enough to get gunned down at the plate or why David Ortiz stretched a pivotal single into a costly out or why supposed Gold Glover Carl Crawford couldn't make a shoestring running catch, but it won't change a thing. The Red Sox season wasn't squandered during one compelling night in late September, with all of baseball fixated on one of the most dramatic evenings in the game's long and storied annals.
Boston blew its chance at being "the best team ever" long before Andino delivered the final knockout blow to a staggering Red Sox team that has been punch-drunk for weeks now.
There are a number of glaring reasons the local nine holds the dubious distinction of choking up the biggest September lead in baseball history. The pitching wasn't nearly as good as advertised; in fact, at times, it was downright abysmal. When your staff finishes 28th in the majors in "quality starts," you've earned that distinction. Still, it's not that simple to place all the blame on the underachieving hurlers; during one stretch, after all, the Sox committed 23 errors in 21 games.
Decorated hitters such as Crawford struggled through "slumps" that slowly but surely morphed into "trends." Although the assembled talent was at first glance glittering, when the late-season malaise kicked in and it was time to roll up their Brooks Brothers sleeves and wade into the muck of an everyday slump, far too many of the big-name players turned up their noses and balked.
While the Rays were young, hungry and edgy, the Red Sox were arrogant, complacent and, worst of all, entitled.
They took their baseball gifts for granted, and when those gifts abandoned them, as they almost always do during a long baseball season, they were either too lazy or too cocksure to recognize what was required of them to maintain the consistency that is so vital in baseball.
So they complained about the absence of the designated hitter in interleague play, bemoaned injuries that robbed them of key players, even suggested their schedule was too grueling because they played too many televised night games (Adrian Gonzalez can lay claim to that gem).
Back in the good old days, the Red Sox famously dubbed the Yankees "the Evil Empire" because they were arrogant, complacent and, yes, entitled. When New York failed, it merely outspent everyone else to pluck the best players from free agency and rejigger its lineup.
Somewhere along the way, the Red Sox became what they once abhorred.
Theo Epstein overspent for John Lackey and Crawford because he could. Sox owner John Henry has deep, deep pockets. (Have you caught a glimpse of his new crib in what they call the "leafy" section of Brookline? Leafy, incidentally, is code for obscenely wealthy.)
On paper, the Red Sox looked invincible. We thought they had superior pitching, enough firepower to outslug any other team in baseball, and an infield that promised to be stingy with errors and strong up the middle. The Sox had multiple base stealers (Jacoby Ellsbury, Crawford, Dustin Pedroia).
One of their own pitchers, Josh Beckett, predicted they'd win 100 games.
Instead they imploded, losing 16 of their final 21 games. They lost five of seven to the lowly Baltimore Orioles, who, until they met up with the generous Sox in the final weeks, were on pace to lose 100 games.
People say we make too much of the value of good chemistry and camaraderie. They are wrong; it matters. When things get tough, teams with unified players step up. They rely on guys who believe in leadership and accountability -- and each other -- to turn things around.
Say what you want about "The Idiots" of the 2004 champion Red Sox. They were loose cannons, irreverent, wild and unorthodox. But Kevin Millar and Johnny Damon and Derek Lowe and the boys were tight. They had each other's backs. When they fell behind 3-0 to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, they vowed it wasn't over, even though nobody believed them. It was of little consequence that no one else thought it possible because the only ones who mattered -- them -- did.
I'm not saying the way to build a model franchise is to parcel out shots of whiskey in the dugout. But The Idiots weren't afraid to get their shirts dirty, their pants muddy. They weren't afraid to hurt each other's feelings, if that's what it took. They cared -- a lot.
So did the 2007 World Series team. There are 11 players remaining from that championship club, which at first glance looks like a huge number, but the problem is too many of them no longer play prominent roles in the Sox clubhouse. The captain, Jason Varitek, is a sub. Tim Wakefield has been reduced to "insurance" in the rotation. Beckett was an ordinary pitcher this season. Dice K's career could be over. J.D. Drew is an apparition.
Ellsbury is a 2007 alum and an MVP candidate, a magnificent player with the brightest future of them all. His teammates like and admire him, but he keeps to himself, confides only in Jed Lowrie.
Can you blame him? His teammate two or three lockers to his left continued, as recently as two months ago, to publicly question Ellsbury's decision to retreat to Arizona last summer for treatment for broken ribs. Kevin Youkilis has always been a hot button. On occasion, his intensity and his honesty were his biggest assets, but not this season. The injured Youkilis showed up every day the way he wanted Ellsbury to, but he turned so sour and cynical that his carping and insistence on inserting himself into other people's affairs turned him into a detriment.
Then we have Ortiz, who had a redemptive season on the diamond. He has long been credited for galvanizing the Latino players and justifiably so, but he didn't seem to grasp how damaging it was to publicly question whether Alfredo Aceves should be a starter instead of a reliever, and how it undermined both the manager and the general manager at a critical time of the year.
Terry Francona acknowledged Thursday that this was not his best season in terms of handling his ballplayers. "At times we didn't put our best foot forward, and that's my responsibility,'' he said.
Francona was uncommonly candid in discussing his own concerns regarding the chemistry in his clubhouse.
"Ultimately you don't need a team that wants to go out to dinner together,'' he said, "but you need to have a team that wants to protect each other on the field and be fiercely loyal to each other off the field."
Jon Lester, another holdover from 2007, appeared to hold up his end of that bargain, for the most part. Francona and Epstein both lauded Papelbon for the strides he's made in mentoring some of the younger players.
But there is no better leader on the Red Sox than Pedroia, a whirlwind of energy and effort who delivered big hits, made plays in the field, and kept on fighting and imploring his teammates to do the same.
In the fascinating NFL Network documentary on Bill Belichick, there's a snapshot of a somber Tom Brady and Belichick standing side by side on the field in the waning moments of a demeaning loss in 2009. The coach looks straight ahead to the field, his quarterback matching his aggravated stare, and declares, "I can't seem to get these guys to play football the way we need to play."
I can picture Francona and Pedroia side by side on the lush green lawn of Fenway, looking out at the talented yet disjointed group of baseball stars and saying the same thing.
Belichick and the Patriots, as we know, cut loose a number of high-profile players and started anew. Perhaps the Red Sox will do the same.
Yet nothing can erase the ignominy of 2011, when the "best team ever" proved to be worse than we could ever imagine.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.