24 January 2007

Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top

Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top
by Seth Mnookin

Hardcover, $26.00 US ($36.00 Can.)
c. 2006, Simon & Schuster

"...by the middle of November, they had a $20 million per year left fielder who wanted out, an $11 million shortstop so offended by the team's offer for an extension that his agent had told the Red Sox to trade him, and in Pedro Martinez, a $17.5 million per year starting pitcher who was already warning the team that if they didn't sign him to an extension before the season began, he wouldn't even speak with them once it was over. In the midst of all this, the Red Sox decided to pursue one of the most outspoken pitchers in all of baseball."

Any baseball fan with a modicum of intelligence (and who hasn't been under a rock for the last three years) should be able to deduce that this quote refers to the Boston Red Sox, in the autumn of 2003. In the wake of yet another heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Hated Yankees(TM), the Sawx threw caution to the wind, stockpiled the best talent available, and set out to win themselves the championship that had eluded the franchise for 86 long years.

It worked, of course.

Author Seth Mnookin, in his mnew (sorry, I couldn't help mnyself) book Feeding the Monster, chronicles not just how "Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top", as the subtitle indicates, but how ignorance, cowardice, mistrust, mismanagement and bad luck had kept that team down for decades at a time.

Money was rarely a problem for the Boston American League franchise. Smarts and nerve? ...not so much. But even with all the money the Yawkeys had, as Mnookin tells, ownership did not always understand how best to use it, and when they did, there always seemed to be something holding them back. Usually it was the Yankees, of course, but other times it was just a bad hop by a ground ball, or a somewhat less than enlightened manager, or a gaggle of divisive beat reporters, or players who seemed selfish, overpaid, or just strange. There seemed to be no end to the misfortune that this franchise could suffer, to the point that some people thought they were Cursed. Whether you believed that or not, it made for an intriguing story. However, the decision to sell the team in the early part of this century brought about the possibility that it was how business was done, not where, that would make the difference for the Red Sox. New owners could overcome the so-called Curse, if given a fresh chance at it.

As the book's dust jacket tells, Mnookin was granted "unprecedented access" to the Red Sox inner workings, their front office personnel, players, history and records, almost all normally out of reach to researchers and journalists working with any organization, so much more so the Red Sox. Of course, until recently, "unprecedented access" could have meant that a Sawx beat reporter actually got some answers about some a prospect from the team's Double-A manager, or a quote from one of the team's players about a tough loss or a bold trade. The team's need to perpetually "feed" the Boston media "monster" with new stories, juicy details and lurid gossip about whatever was (or was not) going on with the team at the time, as much as anything, probably led to the paranoia surrounding the pre-Henry/Lucchino front office, and the Boston media were ready for a change. The Dan Duquette-led former regime in Boston operated under such a cloud of suspicion and mistrust that its relationship with the media was akin to a hijacker conversing with the bomb squad's chief negotiator. The main difference was that instead of a bank or an airplane full of people left wondering their fate, it was all of Red Sox Nation that felt like the information they craved was being held hostage by Duquette and Company.

After years of treating information like it was gasoline in a Mad Max movie, Feeding the Monster represents a frank and refreshing departure from that mindset, one that allowed Mnookin to write a book chocked full of quotations from key poeple in the organization, and to provide details of the Red Sox history that have too often been overlooked or ignored entirely. He dispels some of the myths that surround the Red Sox, like the one about how then-owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 in order to finance a play called "No, No Nanette" for exaple. A play that did not run until 1925. The popular notion of owner Tom Yawkey turns out to be a little naive as well. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, "The popular owner was a generous man and a leader among big league owners." and his HOF plaque lists among his qualifications, "RATED ONE OF SPORT'S FINEST BENEFACTORS. " That may be true, but he was also a petty, brash, brooding alcoholic who owned the Red Sox more as a way of vicariously living out his own failed athletic dreams than as some kind of altruistic service to the people of New England.

Fortunately, like Mark McGwire (and unlike the Red Sox for much of the last century), Mnookin doen't want to talk about the past, or at least he doesn't want to dwell on it for very long. He provides these facts as a background for the reader, to understand from whence this franchise has come, so that the reader can appreciate how difficult it was to enact such changes as they did when Tom Werner and John Henry bought the team and hired Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein to be the faces of the team's front office.

Exorcising the Curse of the Bambino did not happen overnight, of course. But careful planning, well-considered free agent acquisitions, and some clever trades brought together a team that could compete, year-in and year-out. The offensive juggernaut they assembled, based largely on a Bill James-led statistical paradigm that valued on-base percentage and power above all else, set several records between 2003 and 2005, including becoming the only team in baseball history to score at least 900 runs in three straight years. In 2004, as you know, the stars aligned perfectly, and all the statistical analysis and gutsy moves (like picking up Curt Schilling, and trading away Nomar) paid off, as they won a championship for the first time ince the end of World War I.

But success, while it does seem to breed good team chemistry within a season, also seems to breed in-fighting and primadonnas the year after. Egos enlarged, but the clubhouse didn't, and the team's management suddenly found itself with a bunch of players who though more of themselves than was appropriate, simply because they'd been present when the Curse was broken. On the field, the pitching fell apart, but the offense was still very good, and they managed to hold on to win the Wild Card again in 2005, this time getting swept by the eventual World Champion Chicago White Sox in the Division Series. Worse yet, the Dan Shaunnessy-led Boston rumor mill made Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein wonder about each others' loyalties, and their strained relationship eventually led to the boy-wonder GM refusing to return to the team after the 2005 season. That decision essentially hamstrung the team for the 2006 season, during which the Sawx finished lower than second place in the AL East for the first time since 1997, though that all happened after Mnookin published his book.

Without a working crystal ball to predict that result, Mnookin's book ends on a high note, projecting and predicting good things for the Boston franchise in 2006 and beyond. While he may have missed the mark a little on his 2006 prediction, Mnookin's general principle is spot-on: The Red Sox are under new management, with a new management style and a new approach to running the franchise that should consistently yield positive results for the Red Sox and their fans. If they keep to this model, there's no reason it should take another 86 years for Red Sox Nation to celebrate another World Championship.

And you would be a fool to wait even 86 minutes to read Feeding the Monster. Mnookin's fluid writing style and remarkably interesting subject matter make it almost impossible to put this book down, and his insightful quotes will help to offer you new perspectives on people you thought you understood already. Even if you're a Yankee fan, like me, you'll appreciate reading the opposition's game plan, if only so you can be prepared to counter it.

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