Pablo Sandoval sideshow could cost manager John Farrell dearly

ATLANTA -- Pablo Sandoval has made himself a $95 million punchline. Two presses of a "like" button to show appreciation for an online hottie on Instagram while in a clubhouse bathroom here -- during a game -- and the man known as Kung Fu Panda in San Francisco is now the Panda in heat in Boston.

But outside of Thursday's benching, a possible fine from Major League Baseball and a healthy dollop of ridicule heaped upon him, the consequences for the Boston Red Sox third baseman are trivial compared to the potential fallout for his manager, John Farrell.

Never mind that in a "Wasting Time at Work" survey taken last year by Salary.com, 89 percent of the respondents admitted they wasted time every day on the job, most of that lost productivity spent on some variation of what distracted Sandoval from his task at hand -- checking Facebook, email, Twitter, fantasy teams, Googling god knows what and, yes, Instagram. You do it, I do it, and chances are the 11 percent who say they don't do it are probably lying.

But this is all about perception, and for Farrell, already staggered by the on-field performance of his underachieving team, the prevailing narrative back home is that this is further evidence he has lost control of the team, one of his most important players seemingly more preoccupied with a certain woman's curves than Alex Wood's curveballs.

Both Farrell and general manager Ben Cherington -- once he overcame his reluctance to address the issue at all -- tried to downplay the blowback Farrell might face.

"For one, I don't think the clubhouse is one that has run amok,'' Farrell said. "This is an incident I believe is isolated, and my focus is to continue to get better on field.''

Cherington, when asked how concerned he was that the incident reflected poorly on Farrell, said, "This happened. Unfortunately, it happened at a time things aren't going well with the team. It's been addressed and we move on.''

It's never that simple, of course, especially in a market like Boston's, where this episode will be seen as a direct descendant of 2011's fried chicken-and-beer fiasco, which was used to topple the House of Francona. Farrell was gone by then, managing in Toronto, but he and Terry Francona remain close, exchanging texts and phone calls.

Farrell understands what he is up against.

"I respect the question,'' he said. "I understand the environment in which we work. I understand there's a lot of passion and currently a lot of frustration by many, and that includes our fans, and I understand that.

"When situations arise, they're addressed head-on, but the same approach is applied every day: What are we doing daily to work at getting better? That's what I expect, and I think that's what we demand from our players.''

The timing, of course, couldn't have been worse, the Sox having lost eight of their previous nine games after Cherington had said the team was still good enough to win the division, and Dustin Pedroia defiantly dissing the team's critics just three days ago for their negativity.

"This becomes a much greater focal point; I recognize that,'' Farrell said. "I think players now in Boston for the first time are feeling that, living in it and living through it, and yet it's important we continue to stick together as a group and know in times of success we share it, in times of struggles we band together equally.''

Sandoval was one of the team's earlier arrivals at the ballpark Thursday afternoon, coming on the first of the two buses from the team's hotel. He met with Farrell, and then Farrell and Cherington together. It was determined that, as punishment, Sandoval would be benched Thursday.

"I take the punishment," Sandoval said. "When you grow up, you learn from a lot of things. You grow up every single day in your life. You learn from that.

"It's their decision to make. I broke the team rules. I should be punished."

Given that he came into the day as one of the team's hottest hitters, with two hits in each of his past five games, Sandoval's absence was potentially more punitive to the team than it was to him.

A benching might be unpleasant, but hardly qualifies as disciplinary action for breaking a major league and team rule against the use of cellphones and other electronic devices, from a half-hour before the start of a game until its conclusion. Why no disciplinary action?

"John addressed that, [and] I don't have anything to add,'' Cherington said, making no effort to hide his irritation at being asked. "Something happened yesterday. Pablo's being punished by not playing tonight. Other than that, that's something John handles inside the clubhouse.''

There's still a chance MLB could fine Sandoval; the incident is under review, according to MLB spokesman Michael Teevan. Farrell also made a vague reference to handling "some other things internally," without offering what that might entail. Requiring Sandoval to have a hall pass before using the bathroom during a game? Pulling the plug on his Instagram account? Do tell.

Yes, Farrell said, Sandoval owned up to his conduct, but did that mitigate his, um, stupidity?

"When something comes from your phone,'' he said, "it's easy to trace. No, it doesn't mitigate it. It's a rule and it's understood by all. Game time is to commit and devote yourself to the game and your teammates. Anything beyond that is taking away from what we're trying to do.''

A 5-2 victory Thursday night, with Sandoval's stand-in, Pawtucket call-up Travis Shaw, making a nice defensive play in the fourth inning, eased the pressure on all parties involved, but only temporarily. The Sox are headed to Kansas City for a weekend set with the high-flying Royals; it could get ugly.

Could Farrell be managing for his job? Three weeks have yet to pass since owner John W. Henry pledged his support, but that was back in more innocent times, when an owner could say he still believed his team could contend. Now, with 94 games left to play, the Sox would have to go 61-33, a .638 clip, to win 90 games, the number it typically takes to have a chance to win the AL East -- a division, by the way, in which the Red Sox are 12-21, the only team in the division with a losing record in intramural play.

Farrell knows how quickly that support can evaporate, especially when he oversees the most costly roster in franchise history. It's never the manager's fault until it is. But until that happens, he is determined to do it his way, regardless of how few likes that might earn him on Instagram.