BOSTON -- Could a player's use of a homophobic slur on his eyeblack impact the Boston Red Sox's search for a new manager, assuming they decide not to bring back Bobby Valentine?
That was a question raised Monday by a longtime baseball executive during a lengthy discussion of the process that takes place when a team is conducting a search for a new manager. The player in question was Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar, who last week was suspended three games for appearing on the field sporting a Spanish word that often is interpreted as an anti-gay slur.
What does Escobar have to do with the Red Sox's search for a manager? Escobar's manager in Toronto is John Farrell, the former Red Sox pitching coach widely perceived as a leading candidate to replace Valentine if Valentine is fired with a year left on his contract -- and the Blue Jays release Farrell from the last year of his contract. The incident, the baseball executive said, does not reflect well on Farrell's control of his clubhouse.
"I think the Escobar thing is a big deal," the executive said. "This guy was walking by everybody in the clubhouse. If you're a player and you see that, if you have any pop at all in the clubhouse, you tell him [Escobar] that comes off or you go talk to the manager. But there apparently was no policing at all.
"How is that going to look to the people who were bitching about beer and chicken in the Boston clubhouse last year? Farrell's coaches, field staff, trainer, clubhouse guy -- no one stopped Escobar. That makes you wonder how firm a grasp Farrell really had on the club. The CEO, Paul Beeston, had to be thinking, 'How could this happen in our clubhouse, on my team?' Toronto is a very cosmopolitan place, a very tolerant place, almost like the San Francisco of Canada. Something like that just can't be allowed to happen there."
Farrell was highly respected in Boston during his four years as Terry Francona's pitching coach with the Red Sox; the pitching staff has performed badly in the two seasons since he departed. He enjoys a good relationship with Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington and particularly with Mike Hazen, one of Cherington's top lieutenants who with Farrell ran Cleveland's farm system when they were with the Indians organization. He is well-spoken, interacts comfortably with the media and is regarded as a good communicator.
But the executive also said the Blue Jays' performance this season also should raise red flags with Cherington. The Blue Jays began play Monday in last place in the American League East. Like the Red Sox, they have been hit hard by injuries, but on June 7, they were three games over .500, at 30-27. Since then, only Cleveland (33-64) had a worse record than Toronto's 36-58 record. In the season's second half, the Blue Jays rank last in batting average (.227) and on-base percentage (.288), 13th in slugging percentage and 12th in runs scored.
"The talent doesn't equate with the record, even with the injuries," the executive said. "And this isn't like you're comparing apples to oranges. This is apples to apples, because the Blue Jays are competing in the same division. They're playing the same clubs the Red Sox are playing, and as bad as the Red Sox have been, they've been worse.
"Ben has to ask himself, 'Is this really the candidate I'm sold on, because he may be the last manager I get to hire.'"
The executive insisted he was not rendering a judgment on Farrell's suitability, just raising the kinds of questions the Red Sox should ask as they go through the process.
Surprisingly, the executive downplayed the importance of Boston's choice as manager, at least relative to what he considers a far more relevant issue.
"It doesn't matter who the manager is, the Red Sox won't win in 2013 unless they make good personnel decisions with the flexibility and wherewithal the August trade gave them, which is far more than most teams will take into the winter," he said.
For that reason, he said, the Red Sox cannot afford to drag out their search for a manager, should they have one. "You don't want to be bogged down looking for a manager when you have all these other issues you need to address," he said.
Ideally, he said, the Red Sox should have a manager in place in time for the general managers' meetings in November, which take place a week or so after the conclusion of the World Series. That didn't happen in 2011, when the Sox were still reeling from the departure of GM Theo Epstein and dismissal of Francona. Cherington had presented a candidate to Sox owners at the GM meetings last November in Milwaukee, but after having lunch with Dale Sveum, the Red Sox decided not to make an offer and Sveum took an offer from the Chicago Cubs (and Epstein) the next day.
The Sox did not hire a manager until December, when Valentine, who had not been on Cherington's original list of finalists and was introduced to the process by CEO Larry Lucchino, was named to the position.
The reason you want your manager in place as early as possible, the executive said, is that you want to focus most of your energy on rebuilding the club and want your manager's input on personnel decisions. "You have to put the team together with the manager in mind," he said. "You may have a player you like, but the manager doesn't feel the same way."
Ideally, you also want the manager to be part of the process of recruiting free agents. That is particularly important this winter, the executive said, to counteract the perception of Boston being a dysfunctional place to play.
Another factor that gives the process a certain amount of urgency is that there could be as many as four managing jobs open this winter. Houston has the only official opening -- former Sox bench coach Brad Mills was fired and current bench coach Tim Bogar last week interviewed and has emerged as a favorite, according to some informed speculation, along with Tampa Bay bench coach Dave Martinez. But there also could be openings in Detroit, Cleveland and Miami, especially if the Tigers miss the playoffs.
There is always the concern that if you dawdle in the process, the candidate you prefer could be grabbed by someone else.
By now, assuming the Red Sox have made the decision to let Valentine go and are just waiting until the end of the season to make it public, they should be in the process of assembling names of prospective candidates, which generally depends on the network of contacts a team has. Lucchino, with his lengthy experience in baseball, obviously has people he would turn to for recommendations and people who would contact him with suggestions.
Cherington also can rely on someone like top aide Allard Baird, a former GM in Kansas City who has an extensive network, to furnish names, with other scouts and minor league personnel contributing names as well. Cherington's own network might be limited, the executive said, by the fact that he has spent nearly his entire career with the Red Sox; that is mitigated by the fact that in 15 years, Cherington has served in a wide number of roles in both scouting and player development.
"Better to assemble names first and then decide whether they fit," the executive said, "because if you do it the opposite way, you might end up overlooking some guys. You also have to decide whether you will have any internal candidates, and what you will do with your coaches, whether any of them should be kept. In Boston's case, given the issues Bobby had with the coaching staff, you may have to start fresh.
"But then you discuss what kind of personality you want in a manager -- a consensus builder, a leader, a dictator. To me, strategizing doesn't rank first anymore. Gene Mauch couldn't manage today. To me, the most important factors for a manager today is communicating with players and handling the bullpen. You have to communicate on a daily basis. You want your manager not only to be the voice of the team, but to have his hand on the pulse of the club as well. You've got to be able to delegate, too, with coaches that are able to handle the responsibility.
"A bilingual component in today's game is also critical, if not with the manager, then with a strong coach."
It should be understood, the executive said, that the days of a GM hiring a manager in a vacuum are long over. Ownership could be involved, he said, and should be involved. In every managerial hiring process he was involved in, he said, ownership played a part.
"No matter who they pick, he will have to be blessed by ownership," the executive said. "They have to feel comfortable with the choice because the manager, he is the face and voice of the organization, the one people see at home and on ESPN. How he acts can definitely affect the perception of the ballclub, impact the club from both a strategic and marketing perspective.
"It's actually good for ownership to be involved, because they're going to bring up issues that may be different from the ones raised by your baseball operations people."
That said, the executive asserted, it hurt the Red Sox last year that Valentine was viewed not as Cherington's choice, but Lucchino's pick. It raised issues about the chain of command, he said, made it unclear whom Valentine really had to answer to and did not offer a clear picture of Cherington's authority to the players. It is important, he said, that Cherington's hand is seen as much more decisive in the decision-making process this time, even though Lucchino and the owners would have input.
It also needs to be recognized, the executive said, that Boston, like New York, is a much more challenging environment for a manager, especially for a first-time manager, such as Dave Martinez, Bogar or Joey Cora, all of whom the executive identified as extremely capable. That is especially true this year, he said, given the tumultuous circumstances of the previous 12 months. You don't automatically rule out first-timers, the executive said, but you proceed with the knowledge that you're asking an awful lot of a novice to come in and clean up the kind of mess that exists here.
Last winter, the Red Sox were very public about their search, bringing in each of their candidates for a session with the media. It is expected they would do the same this winter; to do otherwise would suggest they made a mistake in doing so in 2011. Being open about their search, the executive said, also can lead to input from sources who might not otherwise have volunteered information about a candidate.
The season ends a week from Wednesday. Red Sox owners have insisted they will wait until the end of the season to conduct a review of Valentine's status. That review, for all intents and purposes, almost certainly already has been conducted. An announcement might not be long in coming.