Ben Cherington steps up to the plate
New Red Sox GM boldly stands behind beleaguered Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett
BOSTON -- The room was packed with Red Sox employees, all turned out to see the best day of Ben Cherington's professional life. Finally, some good news on Yawkey Way: One of their own was being promoted to general manager, successor to Theo Epstein, whose installation as Cubs president three hours earlier in Chicago had the feel of a coronation.
But for all the scouts and stat men, secretaries and assistant farm directors and sales people who crammed the State Street Pavilion in Fenway Park on Tuesday afternoon, it was impossible not to notice who was missing.
In Chicago, owner Tom Ricketts, bursting with pride at his hire, personally introduced Epstein. In Boston, owner John W. Henry and chairman Tom Werner were nowhere to be found. That wasn't the case in 2002 at Theo's coming-out party.
A quick check of ambulance logs Tuesday afternoon showed no trips from Boston Harbor to Mass. General, either, for a man reporting a fall on his yacht.
"Their schedules are such that they're out of town," CEO Larry Lucchino said when asked about the absences. "I believe they're here in spirit. I suspect they're watching every golden minute of this press conference. One's in California; one's in Florida. But as you may know, this was something we had to squeeze into this particular date because of the World Series. I suspect that influenced it as well.
"But I wouldn't read anything into that."
OK, except that Henry and Werner had four days to clear their schedules for this event, which was announced Friday. And if they did not want to reinforce the impression, however unfair, that while the Cubs were getting Theo, the Red Sox were getting Theo Lite, it would have been advisable to show up instead of leaving Cherington and Lucchino to pick up all the pieces.
Uncomfortable? No doubt. Other than a couple of appearances on radio, one scheduled, one unprompted, Henry has not yet placed himself in a setting in which he would have to answer questions about the team's shocking September meltdown, the sudden departure of manager Terry Francona and revelations about a beery lack of discipline among his highest-paid employees.
And maybe that's why Henry and Werner were not here Tuesday. They didn't want to deflect attention from Cherington's day with questions aimed at them instead of the man of the hour.
But had they been on the premises, they might have received a timely lesson in accountability from their new GM. While Henry raised eyebrows with his broadcast comment that he opposed the signing of disappointing free agent Carl Crawford, Cherington on Tuesday volunteered that he was one of the strongest proponents of signing Crawford last winter and that he still has full confidence in the beleaguered left fielder.
Cherington could have easily let that $142 million topic slide by and let Epstein take the bullet from afar, but on his first day on the job at least, it appears Cherington has this quaint notion that speaking the truth comes with the territory.
"I wasn't trying to send a message," he said when asked whether he'd deliberately chosen to come to Crawford's defense in this forum as a means to counteract the negative vibes delivered by Henry. "I was trying to tell the truth."
Cherington said he has not yet spoken to Crawford; he felt it better that he become official before reaching out. But he says he plans not only to call but to pay a visit, and he expects the team's new manager will do the same.
It goes beyond the money the team has invested in Crawford, Cherington said. For all his struggles on the field, Cherington said, Crawford earned enormous respect from his teammates and from the front office, for the way he owned up to his failings and tirelessly tried to work through them. Imagine: This might have been a case of a guy caring too much.
"It would have been easy to run away from," Cherington said of Crawford's response to his travails. "Because of that, and his talent, I believe in this guy moving forward."
Cherington was equally unambiguous in his support of Josh Beckett, despite Beckett's being singled out as ringleader of the Wayward Pitchers Society.
"Josh is someone who has carried us in different parts of his career," Cherington said. "There's no way we win the '07 Series without him. This year, he was one of the best pitchers in the league. He's someone we're counting on being a huge part of our team.
"If things happened in the clubhouse this year that don't fit our standards of behavior, that's something we'll address with him."
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The Red Sox, by Lucchino's own admission, did not knock themselves out in a search for Epstein's successor. Cherington basically got the job, Lucchino said, by "acclamation a rather quick consensus that was formed." And say this for Lucchino: The man has a pretty impressive record in spotting GM talent, Kevin Towers in San Diego and Epstein being the two most notable examples.
And perhaps Crawford might take comfort in the fact that when Epstein was hired by the Sox in '02, Henry said he was opposed to that, too, on the grounds that Epstein was too young. Theo proved him wrong, and Crawford has the chance to do the same.
Cherington, meanwhile, will chart his own course as Sox GM, admittedly using Epstein's blueprint as a guide. He also acknowledged that as a new GM, he will be relying on collaboration with others, which probably means Lucchino's voice regains some of the prominence it lost when Epstein bolted six years ago and Henry had to lure him back with promises of greater autonomy.
Now, in Chicago, Epstein has all the power he could possibly want, answering only to the owner. In Epstein's last few days in Boston, Cherington said, the baseball operations folks were never sure which day would be Epstein's last. Someone rigged up a computer-generated woman's voice that bid Epstein goodbye at the end of each day, with the message varying in content from one day to the next. It worked to break the tension.
"The last couple of weeks, we had some really good conversations," Cherington said. "When it became clear it was going to happen, he gave me a lot of good advice. He's a friend. That part of it, it was hard to see him go. For a lot of people in the office, it was hard to see him go.
"It was emotional for him. As much as I know he's excited by this opportunity with the Cubs, I do think it was hard for him to walk out that door for the last time."
Epstein truly believed, Cherington said, it was time to move on. "But [the Red Sox] changed his life forever," he said. "And a lot of personal relationships evolved out of this. This was hard to walk away from."
However, Epstein did walk out the door, on Tuesday proclaiming in Wrigley Field, "It truly feels great to be a Cub today."
And Ben Cherington became the 11th general manager in Red Sox history.
"I can't play the guitar," he said. "And I don't have a gorilla suit."
He's not Theo. Soon enough, we will begin to learn whether it's enough to be Ben Cherington.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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