Should the Red Sox Have Let Damon Go?

It grieved me, as it did all Red Sox fans, to watch Johnny Damon open the Yankees’ playoff season with a hustle infield hit that led to a three-run rally that essentially sealed the game one victory over the Detroit Tigers. And I felt even worse when he blasted a three-run homer to get the Yankees on the board in game two.

If there is a symbol of two teams, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, that have spent the last several seasons in virtual lockstep but are now headed in opposite directions, it is Damon, Boston’s once-beloved idiot, now beardless, well groomed and in pinstripes. Last December Damon jumped teams and towns in what for him was essentially a no-brainer, after the Yankees offered him $3 million a year more than the Red Sox. Now October finds the Yankees favored to win the World Series and the Red Sox unhappily out of the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Damon has proved to be more than even the Yankees could have hoped. He provided a spark at the top of the lineup, which was the one missing ingredient in what was already an offensive juggernaut. He continued to be the ultimate gamer, playing with aches and pains that would sideline a majority of modern players. And off the field, Damon’s relentless energy and calculated idiocy proved to be the perfect antidote to several seasons of A-Rodian tension in the clubhouse. The Red Sox, of course, hastened to replace him. But while Coco Crisp performed well enough off the field--as the shill for official membership in Red Sox Nation--he was a total bust on it.

So was Boston’s decision to let Damon go a disaster? Certainly when measured by this 2006 season, which is about all the perspective your average Red Sox fan can muster. But doesn’t a four-year deal demand to be judged over the duration of the contract? It was only last year, as Boston was being dispatched from the playoffs by the Chicago White Sox, that fans in Boston were lamenting a similar decision to let Pedro Martinez depart to the New York Mets. But after Martinez’s brilliant debut season in New York, it is Pedro who is weeping, not the Red Sox or its fans. This season injuries limited him to just 23 starts, a 9-8 record and a journeymanlike 4.48 earned run average. Moreover, reports that he will return by next July should be regarded as somewhere between optimistic and delusional. So do we now credit the Red Sox with inspired prescience--at a savings of $53 million--for having cast Pedro to the wind?

For my part, I neither blame the Red Sox for Damon nor credit them for Pedro. The Yankees, with a $200 million payroll and Boss Steinbrenner’s checkbook always on standby, can afford the luxury of a temporary solution if Damon’s performance happens to deteriorate in the latter half of his contract as, say, Bernie Williams’s did. And despite obvious concerns about Pedro’s durability--the Mets can read medical reports as well as the Red Sox--the Mets overpaid for Martinez to buy priceless credibility in the competitive New York market. The Red Sox were simply adhering to a system that says you don’t overpay for past performance, especially to aging stars.

The question is not “What have you done for me lately?” but rather “What are you going to do for me starting right now?” It is a decidedly unsentimental approach for a team that exploits the most sentimental fans--the Cubs are their only rivals in this realm--in baseball.

As a result, the Red Sox and Red Sox Nation are something of a mismatch these days, which accounts for the anger and angst surrounding the Damon deal. But ironically it was the one decision that appears to have been swayed by sentiment--reupping team captain Jason Varitek for four years at an estimated $40 million--that could prove to be Boston’s most dubious.

Re-signing Varitek flew in the face of considerable statistical evidence that catchers in their mid-30s are high-risk propositions, likely to see both their numbers and their bodies decline. And this past season, as if on cue, the 34-year-old Varitek hit a career-low .238 and was sidelined for more than a month with a knee injury.

Of course, the Red Sox, to the extent that it tries to mimic the management style and success of its neighboring football Patriots, could argue the “Brady” rule. Like Tom Brady, Varitek plays the critical quarterback position and brings a host of intangibles to the game. For all the players from its 2004 championship team to whom the Red Sox have bid good-bye, the Patriots can match and raise them with a steady exodus of mainstays, even heroes--Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Willie McGinnest, Adam Vinatieri, Deion Branch--off its three Super Bowl champions.

But the issue is not whom you let go, but how you replace the dearly departed. And it is in that critical second stage that the Red Sox have repeatedly flopped. They have made a host of free-agent-signings blunders (Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement, Rudy Seanez, Julian Tavarez) as well as some dubious trades (Coco Crisp, Doug Mirabelli redux). And not enough of the young talent in the Boston farm system, the most critical component in their systemic approach, has proved ready for prime time. That is unless, of course, you count the young studs--Pittsburgh’s Freddie Sanchez and Mike Gonzalez, Florida’s Hanley Ramirez and San Diego’s Cla Meredith--the Red Sox dispatched to stardom in the National League.

The Red Sox system, a big-market adaptation of the approach that has come to be called “Moneyball,” can work. The Oakland A’s have amply demonstrated that, eyeing a trip to the AL Championship Series in their fourth playoff appearance over the last six seasons. Does anybody doubt that A’s general manager Billy Beane, immortalized in the book “Moneyball,” would have kissed off Pedro and Damon--with regrets, but without hesitation? After all, he has done exactly that with a succession of stars like Tim Hudson, Miguel Tejada, Mark Mulder, Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, Keith Foulke and, of course, Damon, who then jumped to the Red Sox. And he will do it again after this postseason with his current pitching ace Barry Zito. But unlike his Boston counterpart, Beane has filled the gaps brilliantly. Beane and crew have a keen eye for young talent, especially pitching talent, and have built a superb developmental program in the A’s minor-league system.

Beane was, of course, Red Sox ownership’s first choice to take the helm in Boston, before it turned to Theo Epstein. Epstein proved to be a freshman phenom, but since then has endured a sophomore slump followed by a junior-year meltdown. If he doesn’t figure out a Red Sox renewal plan over the course of the next year, he just might not graduate. It’s hard to imagine such a fate befalling a beloved hometown lad. But as I said, the Red Sox are a decidedly unsentimental franchise.