Theo Epstein, who was Red Sox general manager for nine seasons before departing to become president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs in the aftermath of Boston’s September 2011 collapse, on Wednesday addressed criticism of Red Sox ownership in a new book co-authored by former Sox manager Terry Francona.
In an excerpt from the book "Francona: The Red Sox Years" that appears in this week’s Sports Illustrated, co-authors Francona and Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy asserted that ownership was obsessed with declining TV ratings and followed the recommendations of market research consultants urging the team to add more stars and “sex symbols."
Epstein attended that meeting with consultants in November 2010, and was quoted in the book as being highly critical.
"They told us we didn't have any marketable players, that we needed some sizzle," he is quoted in the excerpt as saying. "We need some sexy guys. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist comedy. We'd become too big. It was the farthest thing removed from what we set out to be."
Epstein said that quote should not be construed as a criticism of the Sox owners, as many have done.
“My quote about how 'they told us... we needed sizzle' was in response to a question about the meeting to discuss the consultants' study on NESN ratings," Epstein said. “It was specifically about the consultants' meeting; it was not about ownership."
Epstein took exception to the assertion made in the book that after that meeting, he was responding "to the pressure from his bosses and the sagging ratings" when he traded for Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, signing the pair for a combined total of 14 years and $296 million.
“There is no direct link between that meeting and the Red Sox moves that winter," he said Wednesday. “I take full responsibility for those moves. It was my job to handle the pressure of a big market and make good decisions."
Francona had described an earlier meeting during the 2010 season with owners John W. Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino in which he nearly walked out of the room when Werner said the team needed to "start winning in more exciting fashion." The only thing that kept him from leaving, he wrote, was Epstein grabbing him by the knee.
Epstein said Wednesday that Werner’s comment was made in jest.
"Tom's line about needing to 'start winning in more exciting fashion' was delivered as a joke -- what to do if ratings are down even though the team is having a winning season," Epstein wrote in an e-mail.
Francona, who wrote that to this day he doesn’t know how to respond when people ask him whether he was fired or quit after the 2011 season, also questioned the owners’ passion for the game.
"Our owners in Boston, they've been owners for 10 years," Francona is quoted as saying in the book. "They come in with all these ideas about baseball, but I don't think they love baseball. I think they like baseball. It's revenue, and I know that's their right and their interest because they're owners -- and they're good owners. But they don't love the game. It's still more of a toy or a hobby for them. It's not their blood. They're going to come in and out of baseball. It's different for me. Baseball is my life."
Epstein disputed that characterization.
"I spent a decade in the organization," he wrote. "In my opinion, John, Tom and Larry do love baseball and care deeply about the Red Sox and Red Sox fans."
Epstein, who has just completed his first year as president of the Cubs, a season in which the team lost 101 games, said he was focused on the Cubs’ fan convention this week and reluctant to be drawn into a discussion of the book. But on Wednesday, he felt obligated to respond.
"I got a chance to work with one of the best managers and one of the best ownership groups in baseball, and we all had a lot of success together. We have fond memories of that time -- including supporting one another through the difficult stretches -- but now we are all consumed with new challenges as we should be."
Francona, in an interview with ESPN Boston’s Joe McDonald, said the excerpt in SI made the characterization of ownership harsher than he intended.
"The last chapter is hard because it was a hard ending," Francona said. "I’m sure there will be a thing or two that will [tick] somebody off that I didn’t think would, but I’ve read it seven times and me and Dan made change after change because I wanted it to be good, I wanted it to be interesting and I also wanted it to preserve the clubhouse because I do believe in that so much."