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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Josh Beckett: Transitioning From Pitcher to Scapegoat

Even the most optimistic Boston Red Sox fans would be hard-pressed to classify the team’ last 60 or so games as a slump because a slump implies an anticipated return to an expected level. Since blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead for the wildcard in the final month of the 2011 season, the team has looked fragile and distracted as they have continued their disappointing play in 2012. Like all great debacles, scapegoats must and will inevitably be found as a way to exorcise the demons currently afflicting the team. For a time it appeared like John Lackey would be that person, but his injured arm deposited him into the land of obscurity (for now). The Boston front office tried to make deposed manager Terry Francona the public face of their failure, but despite the mudslinging, he has maintained his reputation and integrity. At this point that leaves just Josh Beckett, whose name keeps popping up in the most unfortunate ways- not a good thing for a team struggling as mightily as the Red Sox.

Although Beckett won 84 regular season games and a World Series title during his first six full seasons in Boston, it is fair to say he has been somewhat disappointing. Lauded as the next Roger Clemens when he came out of the draft, Beckett never took that next step to super stardom and it is hard to understand why. He had some of the best pure stuff for much of his career, and while he has lost some speed on his fastball, he still knows how to pitch. Given some of the stories he has been associated with over the years, it is reasonable to speculate that he might lack the competitive fire of some of his peers and predecessors who have surpassed him in production and accomplishments.

The intense expectation from Boston fans for their team to win at all costs is not a great environment for a player like Beckett. He has done enough in the past to escape most vitriol, but now that the team is struggling, his inability to be a true ace and team player becomes more noticeable. His cause is not being helped by his increasingly frequent association with negative stories emerging from the Red Sox clubhouse.

Beckett was first mentioned as a ring leader of the group of pitchers sipping beer and gnawing on drumsticks as the Red Sox frittered their promising 2011 season away. There is no way to quantify what impact, if any, such snacking habits had on the team, but those who were outed as participants were cast in the same light as Nero, who as legend has it, played his fiddle while Rome burned.

Contrition is often the better part of valor, but that is a memo that Beckett apparently did not receive. Instead of making the obligatory public apologies in light of Chicken and Beer-Gate, he instead went on a rampage to express his outrage at the clubhouse “snitches” he believed to be the true culprits. That reaction only reinforced the impression that he might be a “me-first” or “paycheck” guy.

Word has now been leaked that Beckett was seen playing golf last week, after having been scratched from his a start the day before in order to nurse a balky lat muscle. At this point nothing about this has been confirmed or even explained, but the damage has already been done. In a game where stories of players playing with all manners of broken bones and mangled appendages are glorified as Arthurian heroes, the illusion of somebody dogging it elicits sneers and disgust. Beckett could ill afford another black mark on his record, and this story will be received with even more outrage by Red Sox fans because of the team’s struggles, particularly with the pitching staff.

Before long somebody is going to have to take a bullet for the malaise of the Red Sox. Any time expectations run as high as they do in Boston, answers are demanded when things don’t go as expected. It may not be fair but Josh Beckett appears to be a serious contender for the role of the scapegoat. None of the situations he has been linked to have been fully vetted to the public, but where there is smoke there is fire. If Beckett does end up on the chopping block (with over $40 million remaining on his contract it remains to be seen what exactly could be done) he will have nobody to blame but himself. If Boston eventually talked themselves into getting rid of the likes of Manny Ramirez and Francona, they will have no trouble turning on Beckett. Putting the bulls eye on Beckett might not change the direction of the team, but  it would buy the Red Sox a little more time to get things straightened out, and for better or for worse, that is how things work in professional sports.


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