One More Time: Leadership, Moral Luck, Accountability, And Scapegoating, Baseball-Style.

Here is part of the statement released by  Boston Red Sox owner John Henry yesterday after the team fired its head of Baseball Operations, essentially the team’s General Manager, Dave Dombrowksi:

“Four years ago, we were faced with a critical decision about the direction of the franchise. We were extraordinarily fortunate to be able to bring Dave in to lead baseball operations. With a World Series championship and three consecutive American League East titles, he has cemented what was already a Hall of Fame career.”

Wait…HUH? He was hired four years ago, the team won three consecutive American League East titles (for the first time in the franchise’s history), a World Series Championship (following an epic 2018 season that saw Boston win 108 games) and he’s fired? What did he do, sexually harass players? Flash the owner’s daughter?

No, he made the ridiculous decision of standing pat with the same young, powerful team that smoked the opposition last season, a choice that was as conventional and obvious as it was wise. But for reasons that I could analyze in excruciating detail, boring all of the non-baseball fans reading this to tears, that same team, with the same players and same manager who made all the right moves just a year ago, performed  inconsistently and often poorly from the beginning of the 2019 season through yesterday’s game, which eliminated them from any chance at a fourth straight division title. The team isn’t going to make the play-offs either, despite having the highest pay-roll in the game. The same team that dominated last season is likely to end the 2019 season having won 20 fewer games than the year before.

The problem is that there isn’t any obvious reason why this happened.; it just happened. There are no major injuries to explain it: indeed, the team that has won the division, the %$&*#!! New York Yankees, had far more injuries and more serious ones. No aging Sox veterans finally turned old overnight, either. It just happened, like a brain aneurysm or piece of Skylab falling on a pedestrian.

Several players, especially the high-priced starting pitching staff, under-performed dreadfully, but nobody, literally nobody, saw it coming. That group included a still-young starter, Chris Sale, regarded as one of the three best in baseball, two former Cy Young winners theoretically in their primes, a rising young star widely regarded as being on the cusp of greatness (and who has in fact had a terrific season), and a #5 starter who throws 100 mph.

In addition to the collapse of the starting staff, it often seemed as if all the breaks that the team got last season were evening out this year.  Clutch hits didn’t come; errors occurred at the worst possible times; weakly-struck batted balls by the other team’s hitters found holes in key spots. Despite as good an offense as the team had last season, it strangely lacked the ability to come back and win games when the Red Sox fell behind. As a fan, I found the team infuriating to watch.

So who is to blame? How could the team’s ownership show fans that it didn’t regard its near-historic fall from last season’s pinnacle acceptable? Who would bear the responsibly for the debacle? The answer, it seems, was Dave Dombrowski, who, outside of some dubious missteps this season that were hardly inexcusable and that just as easily could have worked out, had done what nearly 100% of general managers would have done in his position: stick with a young winning team. Nobody, literally nobody, could fault him for the decision that was getting him fired.

Having written about this phenomenon so recently, I’ll just quote from the previous essay (in a passage that was itself a quote from 2011 post):

Being at fault, however, is not the same as being accountable. A leader is always accountable for disasters and misfortune under his or her authority; fault is irrelevant. If an employee caused the mess, the leader allowed the employee to be in a position to do so. If an unexpected event threw the leader’s brilliant plans into disarray, he or she is accountable for not adopting a different plan. Organizational disasters, whether it is Abu Ghraib, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or Pearl Harbor, cannot and must not be attributed to factors beyond leadership’s control, nor should they occur without real consequences attaching to those in charge. Without the certainty of accountability, leaders will be tempted to occupy precious time constructing ways to shift blame and punishment to others, and this leads, inevitably, to weaker and less trustworthy leaders. Worse still, it causes the constituencies of leaders to lose faith and trust in the organizations they lead.

Sports is a valuable simulation of society and life in general, and the plight of a team that fails when it should have succeeded is a simplified but still valid model for businesses, movements and nations. Unless team leaders are held accountable, fans of the team will conclude that success of failure just doesn’t matter to the ownership very much, and if it doesn’t matter to the team itself, why should the fans care?

Dombrowski’s fate is an especially vivid example of this cruel aspect of organizational ethics because it is so extreme. I have searched, and can find no example in the history of Major League baseball in which a team’s general manager was fired less than a year after the team he constructed won a World Series because essentially the exact same team failed to meet expectations the next year. I don’t think it has happened before. It is  not unprecedented, but very rare, for managers to be fired in such situations, but the Boston Red Sox were not going to fire Alex Cora, a popular figure with his players, the press and fans, and Boston’s first non-white and Hispanic manager.

It should be remembered that Cora’s hiring was Dombrowski’s decision. He proved to be brilliant at managing a loaded roster playing at near optimum level. This season, he proved less adept at managing a loaded roster that seemed out-of sync and snake-bit.

So the owner of the designated head to roll was Dave Dombrowki. Everyone agrees that he is likely to be hired by another team in need of a general manager who had cemented a “Hall of Fame career” with the Boston Red Sox.


28 thoughts on “One More Time: Leadership, Moral Luck, Accountability, And Scapegoating, Baseball-Style.

  1. “Unless team leaders are held accountable, fans of the team will conclude that success of failure just doesn’t matter to the ownership very much, and if it doesn’t matter to the team itself, why should the fans care?”

    I’m not a fan of this. The Sox had a bad year. Was Dombrowski a bad general manager? No. Isn’t there some inherent value in stability at the top of a management team? Have the Patriots won the Super Bowl every single year since Belichek was hired? No. Was he fired for not winning a particular Super Bowl? If any Red Sox fans dare to think ownership isn’t committed to winning, why don’t they move to any number of towns. They could be Chicago Bears or White Sox fans or Detroit Lions fans or Phoenix Cardinals fans or Cincinnati Reds fans when Marge Schott owned the Reds. Four world championships in the last twenty years after a century of frustration? Mrs. OB never, ever thought the Sox would win a World Series in her lifetime! A bad year and she goes on the warpath? No, she just stopped watching. Fans will conclude the success or failure doesn’t matter to ownership very much? Give me a break. Bostonians are in danger of starting to resemble the insufferable prigs Yankees fans think they are. Sheesh. Frankly, I think the media drove the entire narrative and have nailed Dombrowski’s marvelous silver scalp to the wall.

    Now, if ownership genuinely thinks Dombrowski is not up to the task of dealing with salary issues and there’s someone better suited to get the team over some new hurdles, fine. But don’t say, “Dave did a great job but we needed to throw somebody under the buss and none of the owners wanted to get thrown under the bus.” Is it assuring to the fan base to see ownership do something stupid for o valid reason? Isn’t there some inherent value in at least a modicum of organizational patience?

    • I agree with OB but usually it is the manager that gets canned. If the decision was based on the fact the manager was a popular Hispanic and Dombrowski was not a minority, that demonstrates the ownership is pandering and not seeking actual results which is what real managers should be concerned with.

      So this demonstration of concern for the fans desire to have a winning team is highly suspect.

      • Addendum: Accountability is of course necessary but accountability must be paired with responsibility and responsibility paired with authority.

  2. As I listen to the Sox and Jays and our announcers try to understand this firing I am not convinced yet that it is right, fair and ethical. There is no obvious better man. There was no underlying mistake by him or the players. There was a tendency toward the mean that frankly is a manager/coach issue at most.

    If he had been given a win or go contract then fine but unless it was clear that was the case then it is a poor decision of the owner. I’ll bet he was given opposite assurances after last year.

    I think your principals of accountability don’t hold. There are countervailing factors to keeping someone in such a situation and as much as it may pain me I agree with Other Bill on this. :).

  3. The way this backfires is that it creates more disarray.

    Yes, they did not live up to last year, but 108 wins is nothing to sneeze at. It is a great year. This year, they are still on track to stay above .500, a weak benchmark accomplishment. In other words, they are not having an excellent year, but they are better than half of the American League.

    Their likelihood of bouncing back next year with a new Manager is much lower now. They were not in a re-building year this year and might not be next year. Getting rid of the organizational structure at the top could force them into a re-building period.

    There is no way of saying whether they will be above .500 next year.


    • Oh, sure there is. The core is young and still getting better. The Sox get rid of a lot of salary, and improving the starting pitching is easy, because it was so bad. They also have a history of yo-yoing. They’ll be contenders next year.

      • That would be great, if they did not switch out the GM. I would agree, if they stayed the course.

        If you believe there was no good reason for getting rid of him (I agree with you on that), getting rid of him only destabilizes what is there. Maybe replacing him will be one of those fortunate occurrences.

        To draw on lessons from your despised sport, when you change quarterbacks or head coaches in football, you need to give them 3 years to adjust.

        But, once in a while, you will have a Steve Young replace a Joe Montana, or Aaron Rodgers will replace a Brett Fabre, but, most of the time, you have a Dan Marino, who is never replaced. (Or, you have a Viking team that recycles old quarterbacks to give them one last bit of life; hey, between Jim McMahon and Brett Favre, the Viking have two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks! )

        Maybe the Sox will be fine next year, but they are not playing it safe with moves like this.


        • For what it’s worth, a friend who is something of a Sox insider told me that he knew this was coming, and he agrees with the move. He says that Dombrowski had accomplished what he was hired for: putting a good team over the top. Now ownership feels that the team needs
          a more innovative thinker to rebuild the farm system (decimated by Dombrowki’s trades) and to handle looming decisions involving Betts and maybe Martinez while addressing the pitching collapse. My friend also said that Dombrowski was ” kind of a dictator” and did not play well with others—I suspected something like that–and that he had pushed ownership into the Sale signing, which looked bad when Sale went on to have the worst season of his career. (That’s moral luck, of course.)

          • Then they should have simply said that Dombrowski accomplished that for which he was hired but now we are looking forward to bringing on a new GM who can develop our farm system as well as Dombrowski built our current team. Every GM has his or her strengths and we feel that a different GM will be needed to accomplish our new goals.

            • And not announced the firing immediately after a loss to the New York Yankees that essentially eliminated the team from the play-offs, linking the team’s disappointing performance to his? What a refreshing concept! Honesty! But they wanted to send that message to the fans. “It’s all X’s fault, but don’t worry, he’s gone, the bastard.” And reading various blog comments, that’s what a lot of fans wanted to hear.

            • Yep. “We felt the need to go in a different direction” would have worked just fine. Pandering to the fans is never good for business in the long run. I”m not sure which is worse for ownership: appearing gutless or cheap.

  4. The Sawks are bad this year. This year. And no one has the sense to simply say it’s a human game with heterogeneous results?

    How about: We’ll get ‘em next year if all goes well. In fact, we have every reason to believe it will go well.

    But no, they had to pin one bad year on this guy. Ridiculous and unethical.

    • I wouldn’t have fired him. But if the team had to have a head to roll, his had to be it. As I said, I could explain, going onto more detail, what I believe sunk DD. The short version is moral luck…and pandering to a fan base that didn’t like the white guy and loved the Puerto Rican.

    • Aaagh!!

      Ridiculous? Yes.

      Unethical? No.

      This may be a dividing line between Jack and me.

      Kant’s imperative was surprisingly flexible for being as categorical as it was. But, he said the vast amount of our decisions were permissive; he wanted to avoid a sort of ethical tyranny.

      Granted, Jack’s ethics and Kant’s “ethics” don’t overlap perfectly. For Kant, judgment was a huge factor. Judgment is not something that is right or wrong; judgment is good or bad.

      This is an issue of judgment. The Sox took the principles Jack mentioned; they applied them; they made a decision. It is not a wrong decision, but is probably bad judgment, for all the reasons stated.

      Again, this may be a fundamental divide between Jack and me, but he makes too many issues into ethical ones, but that may be because his use of the term is not uniform over all of the various sources of ethical thought.


  5. Just looking at the Red Sox situation from VERY far outside: Dombrowski’s firing seems to be a reflection of the disturbing cultural trend toward the “We must DO SOMETHING!” (over-)reaction to undesired and undesirable events. (I firmly believe the Houston Astros’ turn is coming for doing the same thing – perhaps sooner than anyone, even the deepest organization insiders, expects.) I hope to follow the Red Sox’ fortunes (and misfortunes) a little bit better in the 2020 season, just to see how, if at all, this change in their front office might impact the team’s performance next year. Maybe the Stros will find a way to get J.D. Martinez back on their team…

  6. In comparison, the Astros won the World Series in 2017 (after an unprecented drought), and then faltered in 2018, making the playoffs but getting waxed by Boston. They didn’t fire their manager or GM.

    This year, despite having a number of significant injuries, they are contending for best record in baseball and one of the favorites to go all the way. I am sure at some point they will throw some of their people into the lion’s den — all franchises do it — but not right after a World Series championship.

    • Yeah, that tickled me, too. I have relatives who are fanatics for the Cubs (I am a Cardinals fan), but I still have not yet heard them refer to “%$&*#!! Cardinals.”

      • Spend a little time with a Red Sox fan or sit with them and watch a network broadcast of a Yankees game and you’ll understand their hate for the Yankees. Talk about bias, there’s no bias greater than network bias for the Yankees. Live with a Sox fan for forty-six years, you’ll definitely understand it.

  7. I would love to see the letter he was sent from the front office.

    “We would like to thank you for the three American League East titles and a World series in the last 4 years. However, the ownership has decided to take the team in a new direction…”

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