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August 15, 2012, seemed like just another miserable night for one of the most loathsome teams ever foisted upon fans of the Red Sox. The most dysfunction $175 million can buy lost 5--3 to an Orioles team that was better than Boston by seven wins with less than half the payroll and none of the pettiness. Bobby Valentine, revealed in a report the previous day as a manager the players wanted fired, had been ejected. But the night was about to get better for John Henry, the principal owner of the Red Sox.
Henry was sitting outside the Four Seasons Hotel in Denver with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston, enjoying some fresh air during a break in the baseball owners' meetings, when another familiar face approached him.
"I need to grab you for a minute."
It was Stan Kasten, the president of the Dodgers, a team that came under the ownership of Guggenheim Baseball in May and is in line for a regional television package after the 2013 season worth untold billions. Kasten had, in fact, placed a call two weeks earlier to Red Sox president Larry Lucchino. Then, Kasten had said, "This is an unusual call, Larry, but I want to tell you, we are out there and we are prepared to add significant payroll to make our team stronger this year and in the future."
Now Kasten was delivering the message to Henry, face-to-face and with even greater urgency. It was obvious what was going on—the Dodgers were flush with money and were willing to pay sticker price—and what this meant for the Red Sox, a franchise that had lost its way and disgraced its premium brand. Los Angeles was willing to be Boston's bailout fund.
Ten days later the Red Sox traded first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, outfielder Carl Crawford, pitcher Josh Beckett and infielder Nick Punto to the Dodgers for four minor leaguers and first baseman James Loney. The Red Sox, but for $12 million they included in the trade, were off the hook from $272 million worth of contracts, not to mention the brooding mug of Beckett and the unsightly hacks of Crawford, whenever he was healthy enough to play.
In 1991, Massachusetts was hit by a deadly Halloween nor'easter that was immortalized in print and film as The Perfect Storm. "This," Lucchino says, "was whatever the opposite is of a perfect storm." Never have a team and its fans been so happy to officially pull the plug on a season. Not only were they lucky to have found a trading partner that behaved like a hedge-fund manager in the midst of a midlife crisis, but the Red Sox were also fortunate they had become miserable to the point that the once-unthinkable act of deconstruction was an easy choice.
Less obvious is where the Red Sox go from here. They must decide what to do with their Captain Queeg, Valentine, as well as the $104 million coming off the books this year alone. "I think you'll see a sort of slow and steady reinvestment of the money," Lucchino says. "What we were looking for was payroll flexibility, and we're not going to squander that payroll flexibility with intemperate actions immediately."
The Red Sox as we knew them are done, having collapsed upon themselves like the Beatles, the 2007 housing market and the Soviet Union. From 2003 through '08 they won two World Series and came within two wins of reaching two others. In the process Boston defined state of the art in baseball in building both a team and a brand. The franchise's quest to increase revenue could be measured in the inches it essentially annexed from the public sidewalks and streets around Fenway Park to sell more cold beer, pink hats and assorted other official totems of tribal affirmation.
To keep it all going, like a factory with three shifts, the Red Sox ran at peak capacity. They sold every last obstructed-view seat at Fenway, charged the game's highest ticket prices, kept ratings and ad rates high on their television network, and kept signing or extending expensive veterans (Gonzalez, Crawford, Beckett, J.D. Drew, John Lackey, Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo, Daisuke Matsuzaka, et al.) until they were more like the Yankees than they would ever dare admit. When they took New York to a Game 7 in the 2003 ALCS, the Red Sox' payroll was 65% of the Yankees'; by this year it was 84%. They have spent $629 million over the past four years without a single postseason win to show for it.