Commentary

Why would John Henry sell now?

The notion that the Red Sox are suddenly for sale just doesn't pass the smell test

Updated: September 14, 2012, 2:55 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- No, Bobby Valentine said Thursday afternoon to a question offered in jest, he was not planning a bid to buy the Boston Red Sox.

"I'm not in the market," he said. "I couldn't get a group together to buy a Little League team."

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine and Bill Cosby
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThere was no immediate word on whether Bill Cosby would back a Bobby Valentine bid to buy the Sox.

You can't buy what's not for sale, of course, and principal owner John W. Henry and CEO Larry Lucchino were aggressive in their efforts to shoot down a Fox Business News report saying the owners were exploring the potential sale of the club. Team chairman Tom Werner would have joined them, but he was busy squiring the legendary Bill Cosby around the premises, which is infinitely more entertaining than taking sticker prices off Pedro Ciriaco and Scott Podsednik.

Lucchino labeled the report "nonsense" in an interview on radio station WEEI, and Henry, appearing later Thursday on the same station, was even more adamant while also confirming that the formality of signing Lucchino to an extension had been achieved.

"I think that if there have been any discussions, they certainly haven't included Tom or Larry or I, so I don't know who's discussing it," Henry said. "Certainly not minority partners, because we've had changes in ownership among minority partners even this year. As you probably know, the New York Times was a significant owner at one point. They owned 17 or 18 percent, and they now own zero. That's been going on, and others have changed the ownership interest, but there's certainly been no discussion.

"We have quarterly partner meetings, and there's been no discussion among partners, even in executive sessions, about a sale of any kind. I don't think there's anyone in the partnership who's interested in selling any of the aspects of Fenway Sports Group."

Could they be fibbing? You can't ever rule that out, I suppose, but why would they be interested in unloading now, when Major League Baseball has just doubled the value of its TV deal with ESPN and has much bigger network deals pending? That would seem to make it an odd time to be unloading a franchise whose worth will only soar in the next few years.

And there is also the matter of bailing out now, at the nadir of their popularity. For a group that prized the bragging rights earned by winning two World Series titles in a town that had gone 86 years without winning one, a strategy of cut and run and count your money does little in the way of preserving a legacy.

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This just doesn't pass the smell test, no matter how much some alienated followers of the team might wish it was true. Recent setbacks sustained by Henry in his primary business -- the financial and commodities futures market -- have been cited as a reason he might look to unload, but volatility comes with the territory and Henry has weathered these things before.

And the disappointing performance of the team, which will miss the playoffs for the third straight year and may finish last for only the second time since 1965, may actually serve as a spur for an even greater commitment by the Trio.

Do not underestimate the role of ego here. To restore the Sox to their former greatness -- this time without the guiding hand of one-time boy wonder Theo Epstein -- would appear an irresistible challenge for three guys who have stewed at the public beating they've taken in the past months, the perception that they've been distracted by their other sporting interests or by the craving for maximum profits at the expense of winning.

"I think some of the criticism is that we've been too hands-off at our level," Henry said. "Obviously, we're not going to make baseball decisions, but I think there's validity to some of that criticism that we perhaps have relied too much on others and we need to be more involved, and we have been more involved as this year has gone on."

In some ways, ownership is in a no-win situation. Get too involved, they're accused of being meddlesome, a la Steinbrenner -- and, in the case of the Sox managerial hire, a la Lucchino. Stay in the background, and they're accused of indifference.

Their behavior in recent weeks suggests a bigger degree of involvement. Lucchino and Henry played major roles in the megatrade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, with Henry directly engaged in talks with Dodgers CEO Stan Kasten that led to a huge reduction in the amount of cash that went to the Dodgers in the deal, and the whole "reset" aspect allowing them to reinvent the roster.

There was the meeting with players in New York in July, the flying directly to Baltimore to be with the team after the owners' meeting in Denver in August, the public defenses of Valentine, the "fact-finding trip" Henry undertook last week in Seattle.

Call me crazy, but that doesn't sound like someone looking to wash his hands of the business.

"We're committed to this franchise for the long term," Henry said. "When we get up in the morning, we don't think about anything other than, 'What can we do?"'

The megarich possess greater leeway to change their minds, of course, but it's pretty apparent from this vantage point that the doing doesn't include planting a "For Sale" sign on Yawkey Way.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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