With Britton, Sox send wrong message

NEW YORK -- Pitching on Opening Day, whether it is Little League or the big leagues, is treated as a big deal. That’s why it is a mistake that the Red Sox allowed Drake Britton, who has drunk driving charges pending against him, to pitch Thursday night’s home opener for the Double A Portland Sea Dogs.

What were the Red Sox thinking?

Britton, you may recall, is the 23-year-old left-hander who last month, while attending his first major-league camp, was arrested at 4:42 a.m. by Lee County Sheriff’s Police, a short distance away from JetBlue Park, where he was scheduled to pitch the next day. According to the police report, he was paced at a maximum speed of 111 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone. His truck swerved between other moving vehicles before he jumped a curb and crashed through a barbed-wire fence.

The most serious of the charges Britton faces, DUI and damage to property, is a first-degree misdemeanor in Florida and punishable by up to a year in jail, a fine of $1,000 or both. A plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf and a hearing is scheduled for April 12 in Fort Myers.

Yet Thursday night in Hadlock Field, a capacity crowd was encouraged to cheer for Drake Britton, when he took the mound for the Sea Dogs.

What were the Red Sox thinking?

We tried to ask Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino that question, but Thursday afternoon Lucchino had Pam Kenn, the team’s senior director of public affairs, call and say that he was letting a statement issued by vice president of player development Ben Crockett stand as his response. Crockett had responded earlier Thursday to a reporter’s e-mail.

“As we said at the time of the incident, this is something we take very seriously and Drake fully understands both the mistake that he made and the gravity of his actions,’’ Crockett wrote in an e-mail. “Drake has been thoroughly cooperative during this time, and we feel it's appropriate that his development continues on the mound.’’

The issue is not whether Britton should be allowed to pursue his livelihood, or is entitled to the presumption of innocence until he has his day in court.

Of course, he should be. And it’s not to suggest that the Red Sox are neglecting the seriousness of the incident; according to major league sources, the Red Sox have a program in place and are quietly addressing whatever issues Britton might have.

If so, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, the Sox should be commended.

And the hope is that Britton indeed recognizes how lucky he is, that he was not killed nor harmed anyone else, that he will learn from his mistake, and that he will have a long and productive career. A major league talent evaluator who watched him on a back field this spring described him as an “incredible talent.”

What is troubling is Britton being given the ball on Opening Day, with all the symbolism that day entails, and the message that sends, not only to the fans but to other players in the organization. That flies in the face of any claims that you recognize the “gravity” of the situation.

Here’s gravity. The Red Sox had another promising pitcher, kid by the name of Josh Hancock, who made it to the big leagues with the Sox at age 24 before being traded and winding up with the St. Louis Cardinals. On April 29, 2007, Hancock crashed into the back of a parked tow tuck on a Missouri interstate and died “within seconds,” according to the medical examiner. Hancock’s blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.157, nearly twice Missouri’s legal limit of 0.08.

And last March, no more than 40 miles or so from where Britton ran off the road, a former No. 1 draft pick named Matt Bush, pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays at the time, hit a 72-year-old motorcyclist from behind with the SUV he was driving. "Literally, the tire on the SUV ran over the driver's head," a witness told WBBH-TV in Fort Myers. "Without the helmet, the gentleman would have been dead instantly."

The motorcyclist survived the crash, but was hospitalized with 10 broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken back and other injuries. The 26-year-old Bush, who fled the scene of the accident, was determined to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.18, more than double the .08 level at which a driver is considered impaired in Florida. He is serving a five-year sentence in a Florida prison.

That’s gravity, too.

A spokesperson for MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), after hearing of the incident involving Britton, issued this statement late Thursday afternoon.

“MADD is concerned any time we hear about an alleged drunk driving offense, but especially when it involves a high-profile figure. We would hope that the player takes responsibility for his actions, and decline the opportunity to play in tonight’s game, sending the message to his fans that he is remorseful about the alleged offense and drunk driving is a serious issue.

“If this player is convicted of drunk driving, we would expect the team to take appropriate punitive actions. However, at this point, the bigger issue is the message that is being sent to the young people and fans who may be watching this all unfold. MADD is hopeful that our judicial system will effectively address the issues involved. After all, drunk driving is a 100 percent preventable crime.’’

Britton did not bow out of the game. The Red Sox should have taken that decision out of his hands. Regardless of what steps they have taken to date in dealing with his issues, it would have been wholly appropriate for them to say something along the lines of this:

“We value Drake Britton as a person and as a player, and while his talent makes him fully deserving of the honor of pitching Portland’s season opener, we believe it important to send a message to Drake, our other minor leaguers and all of our fans that this should not be a day for applause, but for reflection. Thus we have decided to hold Drake out of the opener and will pitch him tomorrow night.’’

Instead, Drake Britton pitched the opener.

What were they thinking?