FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Are the Boston Red Sox off the rails?
It might seem that way to the team's fans, given that the team hasn't made the playoffs since 2009, hasn't won a playoff game since 2008 and endured national scorn and ridicule for an epic collapse at the end of last season.
But the team's owners aren't on-board with a dour, defeatist, living-in-the-past approach. This is, after all, a new spring.
"I'm not concerned about the direction of the organization," principal owner John Henry said Saturday. "I think we've got the right direction. I've heard the term 'new chapter,' and I sort of feel like this is the next chapter.
"There's a real excitement here in camp. It's palpable. It's not just a new facility. There's a real excitement to be back at it again. So I'm extremely happy with the leadership of this organization and with the product we're going to have on the playing field, and the general attitude and atmosphere."
Henry, president/CEO Larry Lucchino and chairman Tom Werner sat on a bench outside the clubhouse at JetBlue Park, looking relaxed and fresh after meeting with the players -- despite a rocky offseason that included the departures of general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, the architects of two World Series champion teams.
Asked if the team has an "image" problem that needs to be cleaned up -- especially in light of the beer-and-chicken-in-the-clubhouse controversy and a variety of offseason miscommunications -- Lucchino said, "I wouldn't put it in the terms you use, but I would say we feel individually and collectively that we have something to prove in 2012. I think our players feel that way. I think our manager and coaches feel that way. I know Ben (new general manager Ben Cherington) and baseball ops feel that way. And I can certainly tell you that ownership feels the same way. We have something to prove."
Said Werner, "I think we said we accept our share of responsibility for perhaps not having more of an open-door policy. I think we'll be more present this year, but in the end, I do think that more has been written about this than the State of the Union, so we're moving on. This is a new chapter. We've accepted some collective and individual responsibility."
Henry reacted sarcastically to criticism that he is spending too much time with the Liverpool Football Club and is distracted and unable to deal effectively with the needs of both the Red Sox and Liverpool.
"It's difficult, because I'm not here today -- I'm somewhere else," he said. "If I were here, I'd say this is about baseball. With us, every day is about baseball. We have other things, too, but every day is baseball. I think we speak 365 days a year -- maybe 364 -- but virtually every day there's something related to baseball.
"We're always involved, but there's been more to do. One thing we've done over the years is try to let your GM do his job. Let the CEO do his job, because they're eminently qualified to do their jobs. ... I don't think it makes a difference for players really. I don't think they're thinking, 'What's going on with ownership?' or 'Where are they?' We're there. They see us. We're at every home game."
Minutes earlier, Henry, Lucchino and Werner had met with the team before the first full-squad workout of the spring. Lucchino and Werner spoke, but Henry didn't.
Werner said the owners talked about their pride in being involved with the organization, encouraged the players to feel proud, and told them they have a phenomenal fan base.
"This is going to be a new chapter," he said. "We didn't spend too much time talking about 2011. It's the new chapter. We have a new ballpark. The fans are excited about this year and I certainly think the players are motivated to play postseason baseball."
Lucchino said the meeting belonged to Cherington and manager Bobby Valentine, who announced that the Red Sox were banning beer from the clubhouse.
"We did have conversations with players," Lucchino said. "Each of us spoke with different players at different times -- not in any systematic way, but we did, and I think it's fair to say we all came away with the same sense of motivation. These guys feel a keen sense of motivation that there is something to be done in 2012, something to prove in 2012, and so I was encouraged by the conversation."
Lucchino, asked if his involvement in baseball operations has changed, said, "I've always had a seat at the table, so I would say it's fairly similar -- maybe a little greater activity this offseason because of the changes in the GM and field manager. But I have enormous confidence in Ben running that ship."
Lucchino, Henry and Werner countered the perception that the Red Sox did not do enough in the offseason, that their payroll -- while it may be the second-highest in baseball at $190 million or more, according to Lucchino -- consists primarily of pre-existing contracts.
"If pre-existing contracts get you to a certain point, it's hard to go beyond a certain point," Henry said. "Every year, we have a budget, and every year we go over our budget. Are we prepared to go over budget? Yes, if the right situation presents itself. It (the luxury tax) is going to be a bigger issue every year as we move forward."
Lucchino said it's pointless to talk about that now when the season's only getting started.
"There's a payroll you have in the offseason," he said. "There's a payroll you have as the season goes forward. There's a midseason payroll adjustment that happens if there's an opportunity on July 31. And there's the final payroll. There are a lot of different payrolls. To suggest that it's static -- it is what it is now -- is an erroneous way of looking at it.
"No, we're not done in terms of 2012. It's only February. We're not done. There are things you do during the season that are possibilities to improve the club. Maybe we should be direct about this: Our payroll is going to be in the $190-plus-million range. I'm pretty confident in saying that if you look at it the way we do, you'll see that. That's a gigantically large commitment because there's a gigantically large commitment to winning in this organization. If we haven't proven that to you in 10 years, shame on us."
Added Henry, "We've very much looking to the future. Other clubs are catching up in payroll so we have to have more. When we first came in, there was a fear we were going to have a small-market mentality. But I think that was an advantage. It's an advantage to have a big payroll with a small-market mentality, so I think we have to be more careful about how we spend our money, so we'll be. There's a lot to consider with baseball economics going forward in the next four years."