Best of BSJ Free Preview

Clubhouse drama compounds recent slump

[get_snippet] [theme-my-login show_title=0]
(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

SEATTLE – As if their dispiriting play (5-7 since the All-Star break) and shrinking lead in the standings weren’t enough of a concern for the Red Sox, the foundering club now finds itself unable to shake off a month-old off-the-field controversy.

A confrontation on the team’s charter flight between pitcher David Price and Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, now a broadcaster working for the team-owned network, thought to be over with, surfaced again two days ago when additional details of the incident surfaced in the Boston Globe, casting Price again in a poor light and leading to speculation that the club has internal issues when it comes to focus and leadership.

In the media, among the fan base and throughout the industry, the Red Sox’ “brand’’ has been sullied, and if that doesn’t have the full attention of everyone in the organization from top to bottom, it certainly should.

Manager John Farrell was asked about the incident in his pre-game meeting with reporters prior to the series opener here Monday, and it became the focal point of Farrell’s weekly interview on WEEI Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday and again Tuesday, Farrell attempted to downplay the issue, maintaining repeatedly that the team had “moved on.’’ But try as he might to put the matter in his team’s rearview mirror, the topic won’t recede.

Instead, it’s seen as evidence by some that the team is dysfunctional. And the timing – with the offense slumping mightily and the attendant anxiety typically associated with the approaching trade deadline – couldn’t be worse.

[caption id="attachment_339595" align="aligncenter" width="640"] (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)[/caption]

At the center of the controversy sits Price, who by virtue of his contract and his history of underwhelming post-season performances has become a fan target. In both Tampa and Detroit, Price showed a penchant for being thin-skinned when it came to media coverage, but that’s escalated during his stay in Boston.

Some club sources are “mystified’’ over the depths of Price’s displeasure with his life in Boston, and multiple meetings with club personnel – at the staff and executive level – have yet to change things much.

Price has had two publicized blowups with members of the media in the last two months – one with CSNNE’s Evan Drellich, and the more explosive one with Eckersley.

The matter with Drellich could be easy to dismiss, as player-reporter dustups are far from rare. Further, the fan base isn’t naturally protective of the media. But Price’s dressing down of Eckersley — an immensely popular figure in Boston thanks to his long career and his breezy, entertaining on-air style — in front of the rest of the team, and according to the Globe, a profane mocking of Eckersley and his career, shocked some around the game.

According to two sources, the Red Sox have had multiple conversations with Price about ignoring external criticism, with little avail. Price is the team’s most veteran starter and his influence is considerable on the rest of the clubhouse, leading to fears that he could negatively impact some of the club’s core of younger players.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that Farrell finds himself uncomfortably in the middle of the matter, unwilling or unable to criticize Price, perhaps out of fear that such a move would cost him in the clubhouse. It’s clear, too, that Price is far from alone in the Boston clubhouse for his distaste for Eckersley’s sometimes irreverent and direct on-air style. Such is the world of professional sports in 2017, where stars’ fragile egos must be protected at all costs.

That said, it was possible for Farrell to disagree with how Price chose to get his displeasure across. Then again, it’s entirely possible that that very message has been communicated to the pitcher in private. Farrell’s predecessor and close friend, Terry Francona, was masterful at publicly defending his players while delivering a far sterner message behind closed doors and away from prying eyes.

(As for the suggestion that Farrell himself owes Eckersley an apology, that seems a stretch. Price is a grown man, and if he’s uninterested in apologizing, an apology-by-proxy would ring particularly hollow.)

It’s possible that a leadership vacuum exists in a clubhouse that finds itself without the formidable presence of David Ortiz for the first season since 2003. In 2013, an underappreciated aspect of the team’s unexpected championship was the impact made by a number of veteran free agents (David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli) who provided the team with direction and served as unofficial liaisons with the coaching staff.

The current edition of the Red Sox, while nowhere near as dysfunctional as, say, the 2001 Sox (toxic Carl Everett coupled with declining and unhappy veterans such as Mike Lansing and Dante Bichette made life miserable for all), nevertheless appears to be a team in transition, with its most senior, highest-paid and accomplished pitcher dominating the internal conversation.

One baseball source indicated that Price’s behavior toward Eckersley was far from condoned by other players. But his voice remains the loudest, and the one that fans hear about the most.