BOSTON -- If Ben Cherington has learned anything in the decade-plus he has worked for the Boston Red Sox, it is the value of trust.
And now, faced with the first major decision of his new job, the Red Sox general manager must decide whether he can trust Bobby Valentine.
Under GM Dan Duquette, whose relationship with manager Jimy Williams was toxic, Cherington saw what happens in the absence of trust -- the disintegration that occurs between front office and manager, front office and players, manager and players, players and other players.
Working with Theo Epstein, Cherington saw anew what happens when trust is ruptured -- Epstein leaving six years ago in a gorilla suit after his falling-out with club president Larry Lucchino -- and when it is restored. It might well have been an uneasy truce between Epstein and Lucchino, but for the most part, Epstein and his staff, with the backing of ownership, strove to create an environment in which a premium was placed on trust and a commonality of purpose.
The scouts, the player development people, the minor league staffs, none of them had to guess at what they were charged to do: build a scouting and player development machine, with a commitment from ownership that they would be given every resource to do so.
The players were afforded perks unknown in previous administrations. A more spacious clubhouse was built, a new family room was created, travel was upgraded, and the players were given a voice in matters both big and small.
The manager, Terry Francona, took the job knowing his general manager would be heavily invested in the day-to-day operations of the team, an arrangement that from the outside might have appeared meddlesome. But Francona also knew Epstein was committed to giving him the best team he possibly could, and a closeness developed between the two that withstood periods of mutual frustration and disagreement.
That relationship took a terrible hit at the end of this past season, during a collapse that raised for Epstein troubling questions of whether Francona had lost the capacity to be an effective voice in a clubhouse that had lost its way. Those questions resonated even louder for the owners, and with trust having been trumped by doubt, Epstein could no longer act to shield Francona from the voices clamoring for change, voices that in the end might have included his own.
And now Epstein and Francona are both gone, and trust is again at a crossroads on Yawkey Way. Do the Red Sox owners trust Cherington to make the right decision in hiring a manager? At the moment, that appears to be very much in doubt, as Cherington seemed headed in one direction, narrowing in on Dale Sveum as his preferred candidate, while ownership appears to be championing another, Valentine.
Lucchino initiated the contact with Valentine, currently an analyst for ESPN, and while Cherington was present at the first meeting with Valentine nearly a month ago, Cherington had given every indication publicly that his choice was likely to come from the original list he had drawn up and made public. Valentine's name was not on that list. The other finalist, Gene Lamont, was on that list.
Can the Red Sox win with Valentine as manager? There should be no doubt. The Red Sox remain a very strong team, one that will show up in spring with a few things to prove. And no one can seriously question Valentine's ability to manage.
But can Ben Cherington trust him? Can the baseball operations staff trust him? Can the players? Steve Phillips, who as Mets GM had fierce battles with Valentine and lobbied for his firing, now says the turbulence that existed in New York was not all of Valentine's making and that Phillips bore responsibility too.
Yet everywhere he has managed, Valentine has invited drama; if anyone has detected the drama gene in Lamont, he or she has kept it a secret.
If the Sox win in 2012 with Valentine, he almost certainly will be the dominant storyline -- and, by extension, so will Lucchino, the man who lobbied for his hiring.
If the Sox win in 2012 with Lamont as manager, the team will be the story -- and Cherington and his staff might be in line for a few bows as well.
And what will it say about the future of trust on Yawkey Way if, in the end, it's not Cherington's decision to make?
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.