Boston, the Red Sox, and Anonymous Sources

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Grantland’s favorite Canadians, Jonah Keri and Chris Jones, return to The Triangle to discuss the Boston Red Sox. More specifically, Keri and Jones discuss the Boston Globe’s bombshell story on the club. Over e-mail, they debated anonymous sources, journalism, and Boston baseball. Take it away, Canadians …

Jonah Keri

Mr. Jones,

So it seems we have something shiny and new to debate in the world of sports and sports journalism. Specifically this Globe article by investigative reporter Bob Hohler on the collapse of the 2011 Red Sox. A couple of choice snippets:

“Instead, Boston’s three elite starters went soft, their pitching as anemic as their work ethic. The indifference of Beckett, Lester, and Lackey in a time of crisis can be seen in what team sources say became their habit of drinking beer, eating fast-food fried chicken, and playing video games in the clubhouse during games while their teammates tried to salvage a once-promising season.”

And …

“Team sources also expressed concern that Francona’s performance may have been affected by his use of pain medication, which he also vehemently denied. Francona said he has taken pain medicine for many years, particularly after multiple knee surgeries. He said he used painkillers after knee surgery last October and used them during the season to relieve the discomfort of doctors draining blood from his knee at least five times.”

You’ll note the mention of “team sources” in that second passage. We’ll get to the post hoc explanation for the Red Sox downfall in a minute. But it’s the sourcing of this story above all else that’s punching me in the face.

Here’s where I stand on anonymous sources: I’d love to see journalists use them only in extreme cases, or when the subject is trivial (“You didn’t hear it from me, but rutabaga sucks.”) Watergate or nonsense, basically.

This story is hardly alone in using anonymous sources to gather key material. You see it all the time, especially in political reporting, but sometimes in sports journalism, too. By offering a shield of anonymity, the reporter gives his source a chance to say anything he wants about anyone he wants without any accountability or concern for consequences. We can’t verify the motivation of the sources, because we don’t know who the sources are. And when we’re groping in the dark that way, it calls the veracity of the anonymously sourced article into question.

It might be that every single fact reported in the Globe story is 100 percent true. But the burden is on the reporter to prove it. Going to the accused (in this case, Terry Francona and the various named players) is a decent start. But it’s not nearly enough. If it were up to me, I’d want to see hard evidence that the accusations made are in fact true, and all sources being named, before running a story, especially one this inflammatory and potentially damaging to reputations.

In the story, Hohler writes:

“This article is based on a series of interviews the Globe conducted with individuals familiar with the Sox operation at all levels. Most requested anonymity out of concern for their jobs or potential damage to their relationships in the organization. Others refused to comment or did not respond to interview requests.”

1. Does this story qualify as important enough to the public interest that granting anonymity is justified, the way it would be if, say, corruption in the CIA were uncovered? One could argue that few matters are of greater public interest than baseball in Boston. I don’t share that view.

2. Generally speaking, anonymity should be reserved for the weak, not the strong. If this article was sourced entirely from clubbies and assistant trainers and wasn’t, say, Red Sox upper management kicking Francona in the ass on his way out the door, then that becomes somewhat more understandable. But that’s the thing about anonymity. We can’t possibly know who provided this information, so we don’t know what positions of power these people held.

I have no doubt that Hohler and his colleagues worked their asses off to report on and write this story, and I don’t believe they intended any harm per se in their methods. I appreciate their efforts to contact all of the accused. I guess I’m just a zealot when it comes to using anonymous sources. I’d sooner not run the story at all than run it this way. That would cost my publication a zillion page views and the attention of the entire sports world today, making my decision (likely) economically dubious.

Oh, well. I’m lame that way.

Chris Jones

Mr. Lame,

First off, I have to step back a little bit from this story and try to sit in my Chair of Objectivity for a few minutes. It’s not that I’m happy to see the Red Sox in such a doomed offseason lather. (Well, offseason for them, anyway.) IT’S THAT I COULDN’T BE HAPPIER. My winter will be made warmer by the further cannibalism to come.

That aside, I’m probably a little softer on the anonymous source debate than you are, because I sometimes write about subjects — politics, for instance — where they’re a necessary evil. Important stories might not get written without them. And whether you like it or not, in Boston this is an important story. In fact, I imagine this will be one of the Globe’s most-read stories this year. Eyes win.

I will say, however, that I can’t imagine any writer enjoys using anonymous sources. There’s something about their use that automatically makes a story look shady, and that’s partly because they’re almost exclusively used in negative stories; anonymous sources are bad omens in that way, journalism’s equivalent of a dude wearing a mask in an alley. Nobody’s going to look at him and give him the benefit of the doubt.

Interestingly, Joe Sullivan, the sports editor at the Globe, did an online chat about the story today, and he was asked about the use of anonymous sources. Here was his response:


    “Our goal is to never use unnamed sources. Unfortunately it is sometimes the only way to make important information public. We stated in the story that people spoke out of concern for their jobs or potential damage to their relationships to the organization. It was the only way to get to the root of the problem. Our sources are always people who have knowledge of or are directly involved in the story.”


I would say that the first, second, fourth, and fifth sentences are accurate. Our little debate really centers on Sentence No. 3.

The overwhelming sense, reading the Red Sox blogroll — right about now Sons of Sam Horn is making noises like a witch who’s been doused with water — is that ownership is the principal source for this story. It certainly reads that way to me: Let’s try to bust up Theo and Francona — despite this season’s collapse, the principal architects of Boston’s apparently already forgotten World Series titles — on their way out of town. If that’s the case, the concerns raised by Joe Sullivan in Sentence No. 3 don’t apply. Their relationship to the organization? Give me a break. They are the organization.

Which is what makes this story such a bad one for Red Sox fans and such a good one for the blackhearts like me. The entire baseball world is reading this story today and thinking: Gee, the Red Sox seem like such a classy, top-flight ball club. I sure hope I can play/coach/manage/get my soul destroyed for them someday!

Seriously, I’d rather play in Houston.

For me, the only guy who comes out of this thing looking sympathetic is Francona. He gets broadsided by some seriously dirty pool, but he goes on the record, defends himself, and doesn’t take any parting shots of his own. I feel like Boston’s last honorable man has left town with Tito.

Keri

Dear Port Hope Schadenfreude,

Right, “they are the organization” is my main issue here. It’s not the first time something like this has happened in baseball, or even with this team. There’s the famous smear job foisted on Manny on his way out of town. Maybe he really was a selfish ballplayer or whatever insult you want to throw at the guy. But these farewell ass-kickings are unsavory at best, irresponsible to print at worst. Ditto for anonymous digs at Sammy Sosa on his way out of Chicago, etc.

(By the way, I’m a doofus with a BA who drops Simpsons references and F-bombs in game recaps. My frustration from all this really comes as a reader, not some judge and jury empowered to speak for the industry. I can barely speak for a ham sandwich.)

We need to cover the after-the-fact analysis in play, too. One could certainly argue that positive clubhouse chemistry and leadership could help a team win (difficult to prove, but doesn’t mean such things don’t exist). But the writer is relying on the testimony of others in saying that [Jason] Varitek and [David] Ortiz and others didn’t properly lead this team. What constitutes appropriate leadership anyway? A fire-and-brimstone speech during a losing streak? Or could keeping one’s mouth shut and hitting game-winning homers count as leadership, too? Because Jacoby Ellsbury certainly hit the crap out of the ball all year (including down the stretch). Yet he gets mentioned as someone who “contributed little to the clubhouse culture,” whatever that means.

Many people have noted that this kind of finger pointing probably doesn’t come up if the team won. The 2004 Red Sox were branded as a bunch of lovable “idiots” for their quirky personalities; this group gets raked over the coals for theirs. If Dan Johnson played for the Red Sox and not the Rays, this probably isn’t a story at all. As Over The Monster blogger Patrick Sullivan noted on Twitter, it would have been interesting to read this story a month ago, rather than today.

Perhaps some good could come of this story. If players have indeed let their conditioning lapse, maybe they rededicate themselves this offseason to prove the haters wrong. If players’ overall attitudes were negative above and beyond what you’d expect from a team in a terrible losing streak, maybe that will get fixed in time for 2012.

But as far as this particular blown September lead goes, blaming it on players eating fried chicken or Francona having marital issues is incredibly facile and incomplete. The pitching staff got ravaged by injuries, as did Kevin Youkilis. Even if you ignore the depleted roster, the schedule got tougher, with lots of games against the Yankees, Rays and Rangers and fewer against, say, the AL Central (though yes, the Orioles did kick their butts, too). The Rays happened to dominate the head-to-head matchups, taking a big bite out of Boston’s lead. They also caught a broader hot streak of their own at just the right time. Everything that could have gone wrong for the Red Sox went terribly, horribly wrong.

Replay the season 100 times under the exact same conditions, and even with jerks (allegedly) running the asylum and a tough schedule and injuries and The Curse Of KFC and everything else, the Sox probably hang on 99 times. Hell, Nate Silver thinks what happened can only happenonce in 278 million tries.

I touched on this a bit when we debated the downfall of Barry Zito: Human beings are suckers for explanations. We can’t just accept that the Red Sox completed the biggest September collapse in baseball history. There has to be one simple, obvious reason why. If we just chalked it up to randomness and said it wouldn’t happen again if the season played out 277,999,999 times, that would be wholly unsatisfying to our human instincts. Bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to good people, right? If so much of life is beyond our control, that would be a terrifying thought.

Very understandably, we don’t like being terrified.

Jones

Well, putting aside the anonymous sources, the intra-organizational bloodletting, and the incredibly sad specter of Francona sitting on his bed in his lonely hotel room, I’ll agree with you that today’s story really doesn’t explain Boston’s collapse.

I mean, you and I differ here: I believe in answers. I don’t believe in simple answers to complex questions — and the collapse of a baseball team playing alongside many other baseball teams makes for a pretty enormous equation — but I do believe that there are reasons behind actions, even if those reasons aren’t always something we can understand.

Lost in all the stories of the collapse has been how badly the Red Sox started. They play .500 ball in April, and they’re in a totally different spot in every imaginable way. And you’re absolutely right: Winning changes the view. If the Red Sox were still playing this week, beer and fried chicken become the pirate-flag symbols of a loose band of brothers. But that same sort of behavior on a losing team — coupled with some massive, crippling contracts — makes you look like a pack of assholes. You can’t sit on the lousy bench for a manager who would die for you? You’re going to bitch about a doubleheader until daddy gives you a free pair of headphones and a boat ride, you man-ape? You infant?

I really don’t want to get into an argument about the statistical significance of a wing versus a breast on a man’s pitching arm, but when you’re being paid millions of dollars to play baseball for a living, you have to understand that appearances matter. They just do. The dockworkers and bartenders who love you and your team can’t abide the feeling that they care more than you do. Watching the Red Sox this September, for a fan — and I’m talking about real fans, the adults who were once those babies with tiny baseball mitts in their cribs — must have been like watching a man cheating on the woman who you’ve always wished were your wife.

That’s all that matters here. The truth is, I don’t think Red Sox fans will worry whether any of the so-called transgressions outlined in this story had much impact on the Red Sox finishing third in their division. I don’t think all that many of them would really be mad that the team lost in such historically spectacular fashion. Except: What hurts the most is that this particular collection of players doesn’t seem to love them back. Boston, the city, can abide a lot of sins. But the cardinal sin in that town — as much shit as I like to give it — is carelessness. Not as in clumsy, but as in an absence of care.

Why is Boston ultimately doomed? Who knows? We’ve been down this road before, Jonah, you and me. I recognize that I probably put too much stock in chemistry and not enough in biology and physics. But John Lackey has more friends in that clubhouse than Jacoby Ellsbury does. I don’t care which of the sciences you believe in: That’s a bad sign.

Chris Jones is a Writer at Large for Esquire and is a regular contributor to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at @MySecondEmpire. Jonah Keri’s new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Follow him on Twitter at @JonahKeri.


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Filed Under: Baseball, Boston Red Sox, MLB Playoffs

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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