Commentary

Red Sox resemble team they hated

Dysfunction echoes Yankees 30 years ago under Steinbrenner

Updated: August 9, 2012, 11:01 AM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

Meddlesome ownership.

Overpaid and underperforming prima donnas.

A combative manager who can't help but antagonize players and media.

A press corps out for blood.

A passionate but entitled fan base.

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesBobby Valentine has received a vote of confidence from owner John Henry, among others.

Those are the basic ingredients that have turned the 2012 Boston Red Sox into an ongoing soap opera. But there is a certain familiarity to the mix. The Olde Towne Team has turned into the very franchise Boston once despised: The Bronx Zoo.

"History has repeated itself," says Moss Klein, who covered the George Steinbrenner Yankees for the Newark Star-Ledger for many years and still works on the paper's copy desk. "You could do a pretty good tale of the tape comparing these Red Sox to those Yankees. I'd give George Steinbrenner a big edge in the owner category. But Bobby Valentine might be even nuttier than Billy Martin was as a manager. Did you see what he did the other day to Dan Shaughnessy?"

What Bobby V did was videobomb Shaughnessy as the Boston Globe columnist was doing a TV standup for Comcast SportsNet, shouting, "It's not true! I'm not trying to get fired, folks!" -- a reference to something Shaughnessy had written.

"There are definite similarities," says Klein, whose "Damned Yankees," a history of that tumultuous time written with Bill Madden, has just been reprinted by Triumph Books. "You have two teams trying desperately to recapture the glory of two world championships. You have two teams trading away good young players for temporary fixes -- the Yankees traded Willie McGee after the '81 season for a reliever named Bob Sykes, and these Red Sox trade away Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney. Most of all, you've got the constant drama."

Consider the latest firestorm to hit the stuck-on-.500 Red Sox. It started with a whisper: Valentine admitted on WEEI last week that people in the front office had talked to him earlier in the season after they had gotten word that the manager had greeted rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks with "Nice inning," as the kid came into the dugout after making two errors in the inning.

Flames were fanned -- or vice versa -- when Valentine's former ESPN colleague Curt Schilling was asked about the "Nice inning" incident on WEEI and replied, "What that tells me is you clearly have a player or players or a coach who wants this guy to have no part of the organization." That remark forced general manager Ben Cherington to publicly reject the notion of players "running up the back stairs" to snitch on Valentine.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson
B Bennett/Getty ImagesReggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner were on speaking terms before Game 3 of the 1981 World Series.

Boston's record this year has far more to do with injuries (23 different players on the DL) and lackluster performance than it does with the manager. Most of the fans recognize that: In an Aug. 6 poll on ESPN Boston, the blame broke down as follows: Players, 48 percent; ownership, 32 percent; Valentine, 15 percent; Cherington, 5 percent. A toxic clubhouse revealed by the September 2011 collapse hasn't changed all that much. Valentine, hired to provide a Billyball-like antidote to complacency, is actually far more thoughtful and intelligent than Martin, but he was handed a flawed roster and some bad ideas. (See Daniel Bard -- in Pawtucket.)

A joking remark like "Nice inning" aside, Bobby V hasn't made it any easier on himself, dissing Kevin Youkilis, jousting with journalists and disclosing that he had, in fact, advised running back Silas Redd to transfer from Penn State to USC. (They're both from Stamford, Conn.) It didn't help matters, either, when his predecessor, Terry Francona, was given a warm reception in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium while doing his ESPN duties the last weekend of July.

On Monday, right on the heels of the Sox losing three out of four to the lowly Twins, Valentine was given three separate votes of confidence from 1. principal owner John Henry (by email); 2. chairman Tom Werner (by phone); and 3. Cherington (to the press in person). "We all share responsibility for the success and failure of the Boston Red Sox," wrote Henry. "We are not making a change in manager."

Says Klein: "George used to give votes of confidence all the time. I remember him telling us during spring training in '85 that Yogi Berra would definitely be the manager for the whole season, then firing him after 16 games."

One would think that men of intelligence would heed philosopher George Santayana's warning that "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." But when you have too many people who think they're the smartest guys in the room, and the pressure to win keeps building from within and without, well, you get the baseball corollary to the Santayana maxim: "Those who do not learn from the Yankees' acquisition of Dave Collins are doomed to sign Carl Crawford."

The Yankees of 30 years ago were coming off a World Series against the Dodgers. The Bombers had won the first two games, only to lose the next four. After Game 5 in Los Angeles, Steinbrenner claimed to have fought off two drunken Dodger fans in the hotel elevator. In Game 6, starter Tommy John yelled at manager Bob Lemon for pinch hitting for him in the fourth, and Steinbrenner wrote an apology to the fans -- this is during the game -- which read: "I want to sincerely apologize to the people of New York and to the fans of the New York Yankees everywhere for the performance of the Yankee team in the World Series. I also want to assure you that we will be at work immediately to prepare for 1982."

Steinbrenner then proceeded to change the character of the team from power to speed, kissing Reggie Jackson goodbye and saying hello to two Reds outfielders he coveted: Ken Griffey Sr. and Collins. "George was so intent on turning the Yankees into a fast team," says Klein, "that he brought in the old Olympic track star, Harrison Dillard, to coach that spring."

[+] EnlargeCarl Crawford
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesCarl Crawford is but the latest high-profile free agent to underwhelm fans.

The season was a disaster. Lemon was fired on April 26 after a 6-8 start and replaced by Gene Michael. The very next night, Yankee fans welcomed back Reggie Jackson of the California Angels with two different chants: "Reg-gie, Reg-gie" and "Steinbrenner Sucks." Thus inspired, Jackson homered off Ron Guidry in the Angels' 3-1 victory.

The Yankees went through three managers, three batting coaches and five pitching coaches as they finished the season 79-83, fifth in the AL East. Klein remembers Roy Smalley, one of the many veteran players the Yankees brought in that year, comparing Steinbrenner to a pet: "You know how your dog has a favorite toy he chews up and plays with? Well, we're the toy."

That was the start of a 13-season playoff drought for the Yankees, even though Steinbrenner brought back Martin three more times. "The best way I can sum up that era," says Klein, "is the time George signed Steve Trout and told Lou Piniella, the manager, "I just bought you the pennant."

We're not saying the Red Sox are about to go down that long a road. But the dysfunction, born of desperation, does feel very familiar.

There are millions of us who truly appreciate what the Red Sox have done since the change of ownership: the rebirth of the ballpark, the two World Series titles, the lifting of the spirits. One of us, though, needs to climb to the top of the mound at Fenway to tell the brain trust and the manager and the players and the writers and radio hosts and, yes, the fans, "Hey, you're better than this. You're better than those Yankees."

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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