The Sox, meanwhile, were the victims of hubris. On Aug. 16, with the team 12 games over .500 and five games behind the Yankees, general manager Dan Duquette finally fired manager Jimy Williams, replacing him with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. The dismissal had been coming for six months, or nine months, or two years, depending which Duquette-Williams tiff you start counting from. By the end, the Red Sox players, with Duquette's clear support, were crying to the press about their playing time, second-guessing the skipper's decisions, and cussing out the 57-year-old Williams to his face.
The only problem for Duquette was that, despite all this, Williams kept winning games. And he kept winning despite a run of injuries that should have destroyed the team: League batting champion Nomar Garciaparra missed four months with a hurt wrist; star catcher Jason Varitek broke his elbow; slugging center fielder Carl Everett missed a month with a sprained knee. The almighty Pedro Martinez, battling a sore shoulder, has been out since late June.
Yet through July, the Red Sox spent the season either in first place or just behind the Yankees. On Aug. 6, with a 10-7 comeback win against Texas, they went a season-high 17 games over .500, pulling within two and a half games of New York.
It couldn't last, though. The Sox then got swept by the hot Oakland A's, they split two games with the O's, and they dropped the first two games of a series with the nearly unbeatable Seattle Mariners. The Yankees were getting a little breathing room, and the Sox were suddenly in a 1-6 skid, two games behind the A's in the wild-card race. Duquette slapped a little chalk on his sweaty palms, hoisted the ax, and the Jimy Williams Era was over.
It may have been the most cynically timed move since Gregg Popovich, as general manager of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, fired coach Bob Hill and named himself coach the day David Robinson came back from a long stint on the disabled list. The Mariners, as some conspiracy theorists immediately noted, were about to go play the Yankees; the Sox were about to host the Orioles. With any luck, Kerrigan would get a quick two- or three-game bounce in the division standings.
There is, however, no such thing as good luck for a Red Sox manager. The Sox won Kerrigan's debut to finish their Mariners series, but the Yanks won that night too. And then, while the Mariners were taking two of three in the Bronx, the Orioles went to Fenway and sandwiched two thumping wins (combined score: 24-12) around a 5-1 loss. Monday, the Sox were still five games behind New York, and they had slipped to four behind Oakland for the wild card. See? This is what happens when you fire a winning manager in midseason.
But the firing wasn't about winning or losing. It was about Duquette's ego. The Boston GM fancies himself the sharpest thinker in baseball. He believes he has built a great team. And Williams was unworthy of that team. The manager tinkered with the lineup endlessly. He benched millionaire veterans or shuffled them around the field. He followed hunches, ignored established strategy, and never explained his moves to the press--or apparently to Duquette. "Manager's decision," he said blandly, over and over.
That should have been enough. Williams had a .540 record in four and a half years in Boston, and was Manager of the Year in 1999. This was the man who, when his bullpen went dry, made a more or less effective closer out of struggling starter Tom Gordon--and later repeated the trick with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. He let an apparently hopeless Trot Nixon keep getting at-bats, month after month, till Nixon finally got the hang of major-league pitching. Last year, the Sox led the league in ERA, despite having to use 13 starting pitchers; the stumbling O's, by comparison, used only 11.
Then there was 1999. In the wild-card playoffs, down two games to none against a superior Cleveland team, Williams juggled a collapsing pitching staff, holding back an ailing Martinez while the Sox tied the series--then bringing his ace out of the bullpen, in the fifth and final game, to win it.
In 2001, though, with free-agent superstar slugger Manny Ramirez leading a $110 million roster, Williams' scrap-heap managing style infuriated his boss. Why couldn't he just set a lineup and let his players play?
If Williams had let the Sox play, though, Duquette would have looked a lot worse. The most disgruntled Sox included Mike Lansing, Jose Offerman, and Dante Bichette, making a combined $20 million. But Lansing, Offerman, and Bichette stink. None can play a real position. And thanks to Duquette's preference for sore-armed veteran pitchers, the rotation is a shambles again--only two Sox have pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
On Aug. 19, against the O's, the Sox staff wasn't good enough to hold a 6-1 lead. Hideo Nomo gave up five runs on 10 hits, Hipolito Pichardo gave up four more runs in one-third of an inning, and Sun Woo Kim gave up four after that. The Orioles knocked out 19 hits, while Offerman and Bichette went 2-for-10 and Lansing made an error. Maybe none of Jimy Williams' hunches would have made a difference. But he wasn't around for the Sox to find out.
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