Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 24: Chicken and Beer

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 24 — Chicken and Beer 

The 2011 Boston Red Sox were supposed to be unstoppable. Following a disappointing 2010, the front office traded for Adrián González and signed free agent outfielder Carl Crawford. Between those two and the return of the core that had given them so much success — including Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and a pitching staff led by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, closer Jonathan Papelbon and newly-acquired reliever Bobby Jenks — most observers assumed the AL East was theirs to lose.

And boy did they lose it.

The thing was, after a slow start, they played really, really well for a really long time. The Sox were five games back within a week of Opening Day but soon righted the ship, tying for first place late May and building as much as a three-game lead in the division. Indeed, the Sox went 80-41 between April 15 and August 27. And, while that division lead would disappear by early September, they remained in excellent position to make the playoffs, leading the Rays in the Wild Card race by nine games on September 2.

Then they finished the month with a 7-20 record and suffered an ugly loss on the final game of the season to the Orioles, making them the first team in the history of baseball to not make the postseason after having a nine-game lead or larger in September.

And then, somehow, things got worse.

Soon after the season ended, Bob Hohler of the Boston Globe wrote a story laying out the sordid details of the Red Sox’ 2011 season. Or, at the very least, the details that the Red Sox front office wanted the public to know as it began the time-honored process of scapegoating players and coaches for the misfortunes of the club.

“Individuals familiar with the Sox operation at all levels” told Hohler “a story of disunity, disloyalty, and dysfunction like few others in franchise history.”  The knives were out for everyone, but the dullest ones were reserved for ownership. Manager Terry Francona and the Sox’ biggest stars got the sharpest treatment. The highlights:

  • Team sources claimed that Terry Francona’s marital problems and his alleged abuse of pain medication affected his performance. Sources also said that Francona increasingly took on the role of a lame duck manager with his effectiveness at reaching his players reduced as his suspicion that the team would not exercise his 2012 option grew. And, in fact, the club did not exercise the 2012 option. Francona vehemently denied the charges and, quite reasonably, called the whole thing an exercise in blame-shifting;
  • There was a report of considerable acrimony and resentment on the part of the players surrounding the scheduling of a double header against the A’s in August due to Hurricane Irene with the team’s failure to just keep calm and carry on laid at Francona’s feet;
  • It was said that Kevin Youkilis became increasingly frustrated and detached as he battled injuries, and that he withdrew from interaction with most of his teammates over the course of the year;
  • Adrián González — who had an excellent season on the field — was accused of “providing none of the energy or passion off the field that the Sox sorely needed.”  David Ortiz was accused of being a clubhouse disruption ; and
  • Theo Epstein’s judgment in signing Carl Crawford and Bobby Jenks — the former of which stunk and the latter of which had his season and his career ended by an early-season injury — was called into question. Epstein would leave the Red Sox and sign a contract to run the Chicago Cubs on the very day the Globe story was published.

The part of the story which got the most attention, however, involved starters Lester, Beckett and Lackey, who were reported to have made a habit of drinking beer and eating takeout chicken and biscuits they’d get a clubhouse attendant to pick them up at the Popeye’s around the corner from Fenway Park. In the clubhouse, we were told, as the Sox dropped 20 of their last 27 games, the trio — sometimes joined by Tim Wakefield and Clay Buchholz — not only drank beer and ate chicken but played video games while the season went up in flames. They were also said to have cut back on their exercise regimes against the advice and wishes of team trainers. The story made explicit reference to them getting fat.

The story created a firestorm and, in the eyes of many, justified the front office’s refusal to bring back Francona and to let Epstein leave despite the fact the two of them were responsible for leading Boston to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. In the weeks that followed a lot of holes were poked in the Globe story. Lester said it was all overblown and that the pitchers ordered chicken to the clubhouse maybe once a month and people all around the game noted that drinking beer in the clubhouse is not out of the ordinary on any team. But the damage had already been done and house was cleaned.

Papelbon left to sign with Philly. Lackey had Tommy John surgery and would miss the entire 2012 season. Ben Cherington took over for Epstein as general manager and Bobby Valentine took over as manager from Francona, who went to spend a year as a broadcaster. With Valentine’s hiring came a lot of offseason stories about the new level of discipline he would allegedly provide that Francona did not. Meanwhile, the Sox made a big deal out of a rule change in which beer would henceforth be forbidden in the clubhouse. Francona, correctly, called it a P.R. move. No matter what you think of all of that, the 2012 season was supposed to be a return to glory for Boston now that the bad air and dirty laundry had been cleared.

Nah. Valentine lost the clubhouse no later than the first month of the season when he publicly ripped Youkilis on TV and then, when Dustin Pedroia and González defended him, Valentine backed down. Some authority figure he was. Heck, he may have lost the club as early as  spring training when he made a habit of publicly calling out players during drills in front of the media and fans and everyone. Crawford was injured. Just about everything that could’ve gone wrong did, and almost everything that went wrong was a function of the changes the club made while scapegoating those who departed from the 2011 club.

The 2012 Sox were at .500 at the All-Star break, but were 62–71 at the end of August. They were at 66–81 on September 16 and, that day, were mathematically eliminated from the playoff race. On September 19 the team lost its 82nd regular season game, thus clinching their first losing season in 15 years. When it was all said and done they lost 93 games, their worst season since 1965. On October 4, a day after their final game of the season, Valentine was fired.

The crazy part: in 2013, with John Farrell hired to manage and new additions David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and Koji Uehara, the Sox went from worst to first and won the dang World Series again, just about two years after all the chicken and beer. There would be ups and downs and many more personnel changes in the next few years, but far less drama, and they’d add their fourth World Series title of the 21st century in 2018.

Whatever happens with the Red Sox going forward, it still feels like that 2011-13 roller coaster has had an impact. Mostly in that it seemed to convince Red Sox’ ownership that changing the manager, general manager and roster on a dime isn’t a destructive and, often, can be a constructive thing. How else to explain the club going from Epstein to Cherington to Dave Dombrowski to Chaim Bloom and from Francona to Valentine to Farrell to Alex Cora in such a short period of time? Maybe that keeps working and brings them another World Series title. Maybe it doesn’t.

But whatever happens, it’s not likely to be dull. This is the Red Sox we’re talking about, right?

PREVIOUS ENTRIES:

No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.