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