That noise you heard coming from the Pacific Northwest last night?
That was me, breathing a sigh of relief.
Relief, that the Red Sox could not convince Billy Beane to sign on the dotted line.
You see, it looked for all the world like the Red Sox were going to place me in something of a quandary.
It's a baseball columnist's job to write as if he's smarter than the people he's writing about. That's not to say the columnist has to believe that he's smarter than everybody else. But the truth is that he's better off if he acts like it, and he probably is better off if he does believe it. There's nothing to improve a column like conviction. And if your conviction is that a manager or a general manager or an owner or (best of all!) a commissioner screwed up ... well, that's pure gold. There's nothing easier than writing a column for the Monday papers in the city of a team that lost a football game on Sunday afternoon.
In football, everybody's brilliant on Monday morning. And in baseball, everybody's brilliant after whatever trade or free-agent signing or first-round draft pick didn't work out. And as a columnist, it's my job -- and sometimes my joy -- to write as if I'm smarter than whoever made that trade, or signed that free agent, or drafted that high-school pitcher in the first round.
And you know what? Most of the time, I believe it. Or rather, I believe that I'd have been smarter in the particular instance. I don't actually believe that I'm smarter than Dean Taylor or Dan O'Dowd, but I do think I would have been smart enough to not sign Jeffrey Hammonds and Mike Hampton to the deals they got. And when you think you're smarter than the people you write about -- at least in some instances -- then you can write with some conviction that they screwed up, and by golly if only they'd picked up the #&@% telephone and asked you for some advice, they wouldn't be in this mess.
But if Billy Beane had wound up in Boston, what could I write when the Red Sox did something that didn't make any sense to me? Could I really think that I'm smarter, for even a moment, than a team owned by John Henry and employing Larry Lucchino and Billy Beane and Bill James and Theo Epstein?
By themselves, they're all vulnerable to criticism. After all, Henry didn't exactly build a powerhouse down in Florida, and Lucchino's teams have suffered their down years, and Beane is paying way too much money for the services of Terrence Long (Billy's tried to explain that contract to me at least three times, and I still don't understand it), and James' books are littered with predictions that didn't come to pass, and Epstein ... well, I don't know of anything he's done wrong. But he's still a young man.
On a given day, I might be smarter than one or another of these fellows. But all four of them? That's hard to imagine, even when the one doing the imagining is yours truly, and yours truly has rarely been accused of thinking too little of himself. If Henry and Lucchino and Beane and Epstein and James worked together ... well gosh, it's hard to imagine just what they might accomplish. Hard to imagine how many games their team might win.
Granted, it might actually have taken a few years for everything to fall into place. The next two seasons look like good ones, but in 2005 free agency and a poor farm system are going to take their toll. That should be an off season for the Red Sox (unless Henry throws his wallet at the problem), but by 2006 and 2007 they'd have been the best team in the game.
And you know, they might be anyway. But it would have been more likely with Beane aboard. In the meantime, when the Sox do something that doesn't make sense to me, I'll give the benefit of the doubt and assume I know more than they do.
* * * * *
If you live in New England or if you read Boston's newspapers on the Internet, you know that the writers who cover the Red Sox are fairly obsessed with the franchise's seemingly endless search for a new general manager. But you know, they're probably worrying far more than they should. Because the general manager of the Red Sox, whoever he is, won't operate like the general manager of nearly every other club. The next general manager of the Red Sox will be the second or third most powerful member of management, after Henry and Lucchino.
So in addition to finding a general manager who fits most of Henry's and Lucchino's criteria, the Sox also have to find someone who doesn't mind sharing a goodly portion of the authority. And truth be told, I'm not completely sure that Billy Beane would have been that someone. I suspect he'd have figured a way to make the arrangement work, but I also suspect there would have been some rough patches. But now, with Beane out of the picture, the Sox can concentrate on finding a GM who's not only a good baseball man, but who also doesn't mind having more than one boss.
This is, of course, just the sort of arrangement that has served the Yankees fairly well for a number of years now. Yes, Brian Cashman's the GM, but he's ably supported by men like Mark Newman and Gene Michael, and they say the owner has some pull, too. This is not a knock on Cashman, by the way. Any points that you want to take away from Brian Cashman because of his (presumed) lack of authority as GM, you have to give right back to man because of his (apparent) ability to get along with his boss. The Boss.
The next Red Sox GM, whoever he is, won't have to work with Steinbrenner. But he will have to work with Lucchino, and he will have to put up with a legion of writers who think that criticizing Red Sox management is a duty. After all, there's nobody smarter than a Boston baseball writer ...
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Scribner's, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.