Ben Cherington's neck is on the line

BOSTON -- Safety net? That has been hauled away.

Like Philippe Petit, Ben Cherington is now all alone on the high wire.

Cherington can make out the faces below, all waiting to see whether he will make it to the other side.

His bosses. His players. The media. And a restless, rancorous Red Sox fan base that will expect the general manager to produce a winner, and fast.

The monumental distraction that was Bobby Valentine has been swept aside. There is no confusion about who selected John Farrell to replace Valentine, no chain of command issues, no puppet strings being pulled.

John Farrell is Ben Cherington's man. Period. Accepted and endorsed by Boston Red Sox ownership? Of course. John W. Henry, by knowledgeable accounts, was the one who got compensation talks started with Toronto CEO Paul Beeston. Boston CEO Larry Lucchino and chairman Tom Werner are on board, too.

But the ownership also came away highly impressed with the other candidates interviewed for the managerial job, most notably Brad Ausmus, who came in extremely well-prepared, presenting a detailed plan, complete with proposed coaching staff, as part of his vision to restore the Red Sox to their winning ways. They loved his intelligence, his personality, his baseball acumen.

In some ways, Ausmus reminded the Red Sox of another bright manager-in-waiting who blew them away in his interview, except for his lack of managing experience. That was Joe Maddon, circa 2003.

The man the Red Sox chose that go-round, Terry Francona, proved to be the right man at the right time, inheriting a team that had bitterly fallen one win short of going to the World Series and taking it the rest of the way, with a general manager, Theo Epstein, orchestrating all the right moves -- acquiring Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, trading Nomar Garciaparra at the deadline.

The team Farrell is taking over bears little resemblance to a team needing just a couple of tweaks to become a championship contender again. There is a core of talent, to be sure, to build around -- Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks and Cody Ross and Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, for openers. But now it is up to Cherington to deliver the pieces necessary to rebuild a franchise whose credibility, character and competitiveness have fallen into severe disrepair.

The business of restoring this team's reputation was supposed to have begun last winter, when Cherington ascended to the position previously occupied by Epstein.

Instead, Cherington's first year proved disastrous by any reckoning. He was emasculated by the Valentine hiring, a shotgun wedding that left Cherington trying to put a happy face on a relationship that had no chance of working. His offseason experiment to make Daniel Bard a starter blew up in the laboratory. He added Ross, which worked out even better than anticipated, but his other trades, most notably the one in which Josh Reddick blossomed into a star in Oakland, all tilted the wrong direction.

Cherington had no answer for a manager who alienated his players and appalled at least some of his coaches with his lack of preparation and disregard for their input. And by the time injuries ravaged the Sox roster, Valentine was left to field lineups that were barely acceptable for a split-squad game in March.

But now Cherington has Farrell, a man the GM told ownership he was more comfortable with than any of the other candidates, one he was confident spoke the same language, and would work hand in hand with him in fumigating the clubhouse and making it a place where confidence and trust could be cultivated again.

Cherington will be judged, of course, on whether he has made the right read on Farrell, whose two-year term as manager of the Blue Jays ended with no better than mixed reviews, especially compared to the across-the-board accolades his four-year stint as Red Sox pitching coach received.

But hiring a new manager might prove to be the least of Cherington's challenges this winter. The $262 million deconstruction of the roster that took place in August, when the Sox rid themselves of the contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, has placed on Cherington the burden of making the moves necessary to remake the team.

He has been granted an unexpected and astonishing degree of flexibility to place his own stamp on this team. There are big holes needing to be filled. The Sox need pitching, a first baseman, a shortstop, a couple of outfielders. Judgments need to be rendered on whether Jose Iglesias will hit enough in the big leagues, whether Jackie Bradley Jr. is the star-in-the-making he appears to be, whether Jacoby Ellsbury should be traded away a year before free agency, how best to use Bard, assuming he can be salvaged.

Reputations will be won and lost on the decisions Cherington makes. Most importantly, his own. He has the manager he wanted in Farrell, a decision that will be well-received by Sox players.

But no matter how much help he gets, in the end, he must navigate that high wire alone.