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.