A fungo bat is to Jimy Williams as an exercise wheel is to a
hamster. It keeps him busy. Every day Williams, the Boston Red
Sox' manager, loads the back pockets of his uniform pants with
baseballs, like a squirrel filling his cheeks with nuts, and
mindlessly hammers one grounder after another to assorted
infielders during pregame drills. This exercise not only feeds
his ravenous work ethic but also spares him the apparent
displeasure of having to speak to his general manager and
players, who don't mind the silence in the least.
Last Saturday was another typical day in what New England fans
call Red Sox Nation. As Williams pounded his daily grounders at
Fenway Park, general manager Dan Duquette visited the batting
cage but kept a safe distance from the skipper. Duquette did
chat with players but not with infielder John Valentin, who for
the second time in a week had refused Duquette's request to
accept a minor league assignment (this one intended for
rehabilitation). The temperature in Boston was 80[degrees], but
you had to be wearing an expedition-weight parka not to feel the
Throw in the usual mix of infirm players--in addition to
Valentin (plantar fasciatis in his right foot), starting catcher
Jason Varitek (broken right elbow), star shortstop Nomar
Garciaparra (surgery on his right wrist) and All-Star
centerfielder Carl Everett (bruised right knee) were unavailable
for the game that evening against the Toronto Blue Jays--and it
was a normal day in what has been a bizarre season for a team
that is never confused with Up With People. Red Sox Nation is
eminently divisible, a nation in which civil wars rage and e
pluribus unum sounds like a box score notation describing the
miscue of another hard-handed Boston infielder. Despite the
dysfunction, not to mention the Blue Jays' handing them their
first series loss in nearly a month, the Red Sox ended the week
in first place in the American League East, leading the
second-place New York Yankees by two games.
"Not a day goes by without something going on," reliever Derek
Lowe says. "It's a soap opera, but you know what? This is a
veteran team that for three hours every day can put everything
aside and play hard."
Says righthander David Cone, "What's important is there's never
been friction among the players. We've stuck together."
What has bonded the players, according to several of them, is a
dislike of how Williams has been running the team. That was most
obvious in an explosive closed-door meeting (the details of which
are previously unreported) before an afternoon game on May 5 in
Oakland, one in which several Red Sox shouted profanities at
That meeting in the visitors' clubhouse at Network Associates
Coliseum had been called by Williams. Boston had lost the night
before, 7-3 to the Athletics, for its fifth defeat in six games.
Williams scolded the team for what he considered unprofessional
conduct. For instance, righthander Tomo Ohka, the starter in that
game, kicked a watercooler and threw equipment in the dugout
after Williams removed him with a 3-2 lead in the third inning.
Ohka had allowed only four hits and thought he had been yanked
Williams also was angered by infielder Jose Offerman's attitude,
after Offerman had grounded out as a pinch hitter leading off the
ninth inning. Instead of remaining on the bench with his
teammates, as is the custom, Offerman grabbed his warmup jacket
and headed back to the clubhouse.
After Williams finished laying out his complaints, he turned to
walk toward the short corridor that leads to the manager's
office. He didn't make it. As one player puts it, "It was like,
Where do you think you're going? That's when it became our
Several players profanely fired back at Williams. Chief among
their complaints was Williams's penchant for using different
lineups nearly every day and posting them without explanation to
the players. "He just stood there and took it," says another
player. "I couldn't believe it."
"Wow, I've never seen a meeting like that in my life," says
outfielder Dante Bichette.
The anger had been festering. Everett had run-ins with Williams
last season and during this year's spring training. Bichette
became peeved at Williams for telling him near the end of spring
training that he hadn't hit well enough in exhibition games to
earn regular playing time. Bichette was shocked. He'd used a
heavier bat than normal in the games to work himself into playing
shape, unaware that he had to compete for a job after seven
straight seasons with at least 90 runs batted in.
A little earlier, according to another player, Williams had
told outfielder Troy O'Leary that he didn't fit into Williams's
plans. Then, after would-be outfielder Manny Ramirez strained
his left hamstring 19 days before Opening Day, Williams had to
tell O'Leary that he was needed in leftfield while Ramirez
served as the designated hitter. At the time of the Oakland
meeting, O'Leary was still seething about Williams's lack of
faith in him. Through Sunday he was batting an unproductive .260
with seven homers and 25 RBIs while spending most of his time on
the bench since June 4, when Ramirez began playing leftfield.
Following the meeting, the Red Sox thrashed the A's 7-1. Boston
won the next day too. And the day after that. Until Toronto stung
Boston with 4-3, 9-6 and 5-2 defeats last Friday, Saturday and
Sunday, respectively, the Red Sox had ripped off a 26-15 run
since the gripefest. "It was a turning point," one player says.
Says another, "Ever since then, Jimy doesn't say anything. He
hardly ever said anything before. But ever since the meeting, he
comes in, goes to his office, stays in his office, goes to the
field to manage, goes back to his office, goes to the bus--
that's it. You never see him in the clubhouse."
Word of the meeting soon reached Duquette, though his
relationship with Williams is so frigid that he says he never
bothered discussing it with him. "I heard about it from a couple
of sources," Duquette says. "Sometimes it's good for people to
get things out in the open, right?"
Duquette hired Williams in November 1996, after firing Kevin
Kennedy. In his first four seasons Williams, 57, never guided
Boston to a first-place finish, though the Red Sox did qualify
for the postseason twice as a wild card. His .544 winning
percentage through Sunday (392-329) trailed Kennedy's .559
Several times Duquette has taken a public posture contrary to
that of Williams, most famously last season, when he failed to
support his manager in Williams's feud with Everett over repeated
tardiness and other acts of insubordination. This season Duquette
mentioned on his daily pregame radio show that Williams owed the
fans an explanation as to why, after only six innings, he lifted
ace Pedro Martinez from a game against the Yankees on June 4; New
York scored four runs off five Boston relievers in a
come-from-behind 7-6 win. (Williams had told reporters after the
game, "Pedro had done his job, and it was up to the bullpen. He's
been on the [disabled list] each of the last two seasons. He's a
very important asset to this club, and we protect him when we
can.") A few days later Duquette announced on his radio show that
Martinez would have to miss a start because of soreness in his
right shoulder, a decision that Williams hadn't felt ready to
On June 15, the same day Martinez missed his start, the Red Sox
announced that Duquette had agreed to a two-year contract
extension, through 2003, worth a reported $3 million. During a
conference call with reporters about the new deal, John
Harrington, Boston's chief executive officer, scurried off the
phone line before he could be asked about Williams, who, like
Duquette, began this year without a contract for next season. On
the same call Duquette gave Williams a lukewarm endorsement,
saying, "By and large, Jimy Williams has done a good job for the
Red Sox." The next day The Boston Globe reported that Williams
had turned down a one-year extension. When SI asked that day
about such an offer, Williams said, "I don't know anything about
it." Duquette, when asked about a contract offer to Williams,
said, "I have no knowledge of that."
Williams usually is no more expansive with the media than with
his players. He typically shoves his left hand inside the
waistband of his uniform pants, in a Napoleonic sort of tic, and
deflects questions with obfuscation or his favorite rejoinder,
"Manager's decision." On Saturday, for instance, Williams put
down The Brethren, a John Grisham paperback, to meet with
reporters, but it took the same tame question being asked three
ways just for Williams to give his opinion on the condition of
Valentin, who before his foot woes had missed most of last
season with a ruptured tendon in his left knee. Williams finally
coughed up this: "He looks O.K. He looks healthy."
Of course Duquette had his own take. "We need to find out if he
can play," Duquette said on Saturday. "He hasn't played much for
the past two years, and when he did, he didn't show very much.
When he comes back, he's not going to be an every-day player, so
what's the point? It's not that significant."
When told of Duquette's comments, the 34-year-old Valentin, who
has the longest continuous service (nine years) with the team,
said, "I am a member of the Boston Red Sox. That's all I'll say."
On the field, meanwhile, the Red Sox have survived since Opening
Day without Garciaparra, last season's American League batting
champion who started light throwing on Friday, and since June 7
without Varitek, who'll be lost for two more months. On June 12,
Boston obtained catcher Doug Mirabelli in a trade with the Texas
Rangers; three days later Scott Hatteberg, Varitek's backup for
two years, met with Williams to express concern about losing
playing time to Mirabelli. Through Sunday, Hatteberg was batting
.198. The Red Sox aren't proficient at turning double plays (with
51 in 73 games, they ranked last in the American League), don't
take enough walks (only two American League teams had fewer) and
have almost no speed (a major-league-low 20 stolen bases). "What
we have is the best pitching staff in baseball," Bichette says.
"Our pitchers keep us in games every night."
Boston's 3.34 ERA through Sunday was the best in the majors by
nearly half a run. Duquette's signings of free-agent righthanders
Cone, Frank Castillo and Hideo Nomo added depth to the rotation,
and the Red Sox were 22-15 in games that the trio had started.
Duquette made an even bigger score with the addition of Ramirez,
the Triple Crown candidate (.347, 23 home runs, 72 RBIs) who on
Saturday smashed two gargantuan home runs, one estimated at 463
feet and the other--pending confirmation from NASA experts after
the bomb hit a light tower 128 feet above ground--at 501 feet.
Says Martinez, "We're in first place, but imagine how sweet it
would be without the injuries. We'd be like the 1998 Yankees or
the Seattle Mariners this year."
Attendance (a near capacity average of 32,274) and anxiety have
reached record highs in Red Sox Nation. The urgency is palpable.
The team is up for sale. Martinez's shoulder is a reminder of the
fragility that lurks beneath his domination. The Yankees are
giving off their strongest scent of vulnerability in six years.
Goodness, Garciaparra's little game of catch was front-page news
in The Boston Herald! The tiny home clubhouse at Fenway, with no
lounge for hiding from the media, bubbles like a flask of
chemicals over a Bunsen burner, with reporters and players
jostled about like molecules. "The dynamic is very different than
in New York," says Cone, the former Yankee, "and the size of the
clubhouse has a lot to do with it. The media in Boston have
raised eavesdropping to an art form. You can have a conversation
with the guy next to you, and the next day it's in the papers."
Says outfielder Darren Lewis, "From all the lineups we've had to
deal with, through Jimy's situation, through everything, we've
kept the focus on winning. We have mostly guys in the
middle-to-late parts of our careers who know how sweet it will
be to be the Red Sox team that wins a World Series."
Lowe was almost right. The Red Sox are a bit like a soap opera,
but they are more like a reality show. Jimy and Carl. Dan and
Val. Jimy and Dan. The players and Jimy. The reporters and the
players. Put enough people in a small enough room, and you get
conflict every week. Still, you opened the morning newspaper last
week and shook your head at the most unusual development of all:
The Red Sox were in first place.
players," says Cone. "We've stuck together."