Bobby V's Sox boxed in on all sides

NEW YORK -- It doesn't matter, at this stage of a misbegotten season, who is at fault. But on a day that the former manager held court in the clubhouse like it still belonged to him, while the current manager publicly gave a confusing and contradictory account of why his star left fielder wasn't playing, can everybody agree that this isn't working?

That the Bobby Valentine era never really had a chance to work, considering the forced circumstances of its birth and the fact he has not yet been able to field the team he thought he would have when the season began?

The cracks that showed up earlier this season appear on the verge of breaking wide open. A half-dozen players showed more affection early Saturday afternoon for Terry Francona, who sat in a semicircle with a group that included Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, than Valentine has seen in the five months since he first put on a Sox uniform.

"It looks like he's holding chapel," said a major league employee who has been in clubhouses for 35 years and said he has never witnessed such a scene involving an ex-manager.

Francona, an analyst for ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," privately vowed in spring training that he would avoid the Sox clubhouse because it is no longer his domain. He has made cameo appearances on previous assignments, but nothing like what happened here Saturday, when Pedroia invited him to take a seat, and one by one, other players joined them. How did that look for Valentine? Evidently Francona was past caring -- he gave a bear hug to bullpen coach Gary Tuck, who ignores Valentine -- and so, it would seem, are the players.

Valentine made light of Francona's pregame appearance. "Hey, we won," Valentine said following Boston's 8-6 victory Saturday night. "He got 'em ready."

Pedroia heads the list of players who believe Francona was unfairly scapegoated for last September's collapse, and while Pedroia, Ortiz and others have said they have no issue with his successor, the results scream otherwise. The team has not responded to Valentine, who came saddled with a reputation for being in the center of dustups and has not disappointed, clashing with coaches, players and medical staff here.

Valentine has argued to the contrary, saying he can find no fault with the team's effort.

Injuries? Pedroia pointedly said Friday that injuries are an excuse, and the Yankees' example would suggest he is right: The Bombers have had significant injuries to Mariano Rivera, Brett Gardner, Michael Pineda, David Robertson, Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez and half their bullpen and are running away with the American League East. The Red Sox, meanwhile, are merely running out of time.

During a pregame media session Saturday that at times bordered on bizarre, Valentine said that the reason Carl Crawford wasn't playing was because he was on a "four-day program" in which he played four days, then sat one. Really? Crawford previously played in six straight games before he was given a day off, last Sunday against Toronto.

Valentine explained that away by saying he bucked orders from the medical staff.

"Actually, I did a manager 'no-no' thing, you know," Valentine said. "I went against what I was told to do. Never to be done again.

"They told me before the game [July 20 against the Blue Jays] he wasn't playing and I did the old 'veto power' -- 'Who says he's not playing?' -- and I played him."

The session took its odd turn when Valentine was asked if it was fair to say he wasn't wild about the four-day plan.

"Yeah, I'm wild," he said. "I'm not wild," he said in the next breath, punctuating with a few sound effects evidently intended to convey his impression of "wild."

What is truly peculiar is that the plan would be implemented Saturday, when Crawford had already had a day off with the rest of the team Thursday, hit a home run Friday and had good career numbers (.319 average) against Yankees starter CC Sabathia.

Crawford said he felt fine. He said he felt "embarrassed" that it looked like he was ducking Sabathia. "I'm still trying to figure this out like you are," he said. He remains confused, he said, about a timetable for the Tommy John surgery he insists he will need, which the team disputes. Don't be surprised, especially if the team continues to flounder, should Crawford decide in the next 10 days to have the operation.

A team source, however, said that Crawford knew about the four-day plan, and it was Crawford, not the medical staff, who told Valentine he wasn't playing July 20 against Toronto. And Valentine responded that yes, he was, and he did.

The first-year general manager, Ben Cherington, is approaching his first trading deadline with little realistic hope of making the "bold" move CEO Larry Lucchino said he was empowered to make. The biggest moves he could make -- trading Lester or Jacoby Ellsbury -- he will not make, because he is opposed to blowing the team up. He doesn't want to move prime prospects, the price he would have to pay for another front-line starting pitcher, especially when the Sox have so much money already invested in veteran arms.

Valentine still publicly professes confidence in his team, predicting that it still hasn't gone on a hot streak and will. Pedroia praises the talent, makeup and work ethic of this roster. "We have a great team," he insists.

Majority owner John W. Henry has so far not responded to questions of how he views this team and whether he believes it is responding to Valentine's leadership.

"There is abundant talent on this team," chairman Tom Werner wrote in an email, responding to the same questions posed to Henry. "No one including the players is happy with the way we have played. Beyond that I am not getting into specifics this afternoon."

But if this is such a great team with so much talent, why the mediocre play? When Valentine was first hired, the prediction here was that his success would be predicated on the bond of trust he was able to create with his players and staff. That hasn't happened. Lucchino will not authorize firing Valentine because it would be admitting a mistake. The Sox did Valentine no favors by not allowing him to pick his own coaches. Cherington is caught in the middle. The players may yet set aside their differences with the manager and pull a reverse of last September.

But can we all agree this isn't working?