- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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It's Hazmat Suit Night at Fenway Park, in which the first 25,000 fans will be outfitted with full bodywear -- guaranteed, the club promises, to protect fans from whatever toxic substances spill out of the Sox clubhouse while they're on the premises. Latecomers? Well, you're on your own.
The giveaway, unprecedented in professional sports, was the brainchild of master showman Charles Steinberg, charged by CEO Larry Lucchino to make sure fan hysteria does not bring a sudden halt to the team's record sellout streak.
"We value the comfort, enjoyment and life expectancy of our fans," said Steinberg, modeling one of the suits for a TV spot, though he took off the gas mask long enough to be heard.
The team also plans to post warnings on the video scoreboard throughout the game instructing fans what to do in case of exposure to players or other uniformed personnel they suspect may be hazardous to their health. Recommended behavior includes refraining from booing, to prevent potentially dangerous explosions.
The club reacted swiftly to an ESPN report by Buster Olney asserting that the Red Sox clubhouse is "toxic."
"The unhappiness that exists among the Boston players and staff is multilayered and deep," Olney wrote. "Calls and texts and complaints about daily events and exchanges are being sprayed all over the baseball landscape, as some involved share their frustration with friends and family and agents. Some are already talking about looking for work elsewhere down the road."
Olney suggested that the team could still make the playoffs, but warned of potential apocalypse if it doesn't.
"If the Red Sox don't make the playoffs," he wrote, "there will be a time when all the exasperation and frustration spills out spectacularly. Most divorces get ugly."
Olney did not offer any specifics, perhaps fearful of triggering panic among a fan base that already endured the meltdown of last September, brought about by a poisonous brew of poor pitching, distracted divas and a diet that fell far short of FDA guidelines.
An ESPN Boston survey of disaster experts, however, identified the following volatile elements that could be contributing to Olney's perception of a toxic environment:
1. The Youkilis Effect. This is the Sox equivalent of Chinese water torture. Kevin Youkilis will be traded, and until he is, the ripple effect on the rest of the clubhouse is palpable. Players playing out of position, young players wasting time on the bench, lineup roulette on a nightly basis, one very unhappy veteran who fell out with the manager early and would prefer his personal agony to end sooner rather than later.
Problem is, Youkilis' subpar performance isn't exactly stirring up interest. The potential landing spots are drying up. Scott Rolen just came off the disabled in Cincinnati, the Dodgers are looking elsewhere, the Diamondbacks reportedly balked at the asking price and the White Sox haven't liked what they've seen. Untradable? Doubtful. Some team will decide that Youkilis will revive with a change of scenery, and the Sox will ask for little in return. But until then, Code Red.
2. The Bobby Factor. The Sox have gone from a manager who got along with just about everybody, even tolerating Manny Ramirez on his worst days, to a guy who doesn't seem terribly concerned about whether he is liked or not. Adrian Gonzalez said the other day that the players often laugh about Bobby Valentine's quotes -- "That's why you have to love him," he said -- and David Ortiz, for one, has spoken about the energizing effect Valentine's presence has had on him. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, has emerged as a star on Valentine's watch.
Other players are less enamored, especially when Valentine tends to make public matters his predecessor deemed in-house. Catcher Kelly Shoppach demanded to know why he wasn't playing; Valentine volunteered that info. Clay Buchholz was asked to pitch in Josh Beckett's place on Sunday and said no thanks; when Valentine was asked by reporters why Buchholz wasn't pitching, he said so.
Dustin Pedroia was too close to Terry Francona to expect him to embrace Valentine overnight, but face it, Pedroia could play for the Chitauri if they wrote his name on the lineup card every day. Pedroia's frustration, of course, has been compounded by trying to hit with a bum thumb, but while he may not be the happiest camper, the day that someone accuses Pedroia of undermining a team is the day they should blow up the game for good.
A .500 record for a team expected to contend for its division seldom conjures warm and fuzzy, and this is no different, although Valentine deserves megapoints for sorting out the bullpen, surviving 19 player trips to the DL, and navigating through two dozen different outfield combinations. And funny thing is, there are players here who swear this is a tight-knit group.
3. Chain of command issues. At times there still seems to be a disconnect, especially between the medical staff and the manager, which has led to some confusion about who's in charge. Valentine has clearly been instructed to offer bare-bones information about how Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury are progressing on their rehab, and at times has been perplexed by the authority the medical staff has over the pitching staff, like when Franklin Morales was shut down this spring even though he insisted his arm felt fine.
Given a free hand, the manager probably would have pulled the plug on the Daniel Bard-as-starter experiment sooner, but creative differences between a manager and GM should be valued as such, instead of necessarily viewed through a negative prism.
Conclusion? The experts consulted by ESPN Boston suggest that while the Red Sox's clubhouse deserves monitoring, the real toxic threat may be posed by the Marlins, who are 2-10 in their past dozen games, have been outscored 73-21 in that time and have a manager, Ozzie Guillen, who has been known to blow up a clubhouse or two.
They're both 33-33 teams; you decide which one is riskier.
A 'toxic' situation for the Sox? It's nothing that can't be kept under control.