Thursday is Opening Day for the 2021 Major League Baseball season. Boston Red Sox fans certainly hope that this season will go a lot better than ten years ago. Late in the 2011 season, the Red Sox lost 18 of their final 24 games and blew a sure shot at the postseason in one of the cruelest September collapses in baseball history. As it turned out, it was a miracle they were even in the hunt to begin with.
The 2011 Boston Red Sox looked like the “best team ever”
On paper, the 2011 Boston Red Sox looked like they had everything a team needed to reach the World Series. During the offseason, general manager Theo Epstein picked up two key free agents: outfielder Carl Crawford and infielder Adrian Gonzalez. This added to a cast of veterans from the World Series-winning days, as well as a pitching rotation considered the best in baseball. One anonymous NESN pundit declared that these Red Sox would be the best team since the famed 1927 Yankees.
Eventually, the Red Sox entered the month of September with a game-and-a-half lead over the New York Yankees in the American League East. That lead later eroded, and so too did their comfortable nine-game lead in the AL wild card. The Red Sox fell apart, befallen by a string of poor play, injuries, and bad luck. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays got hot, forcing a wild card tie on the final day of the regular season.
This forced one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history, as the Red Sox lost their final game to the Baltimore Orioles in walk-off fashion. Making matters worse: free agent acquisition Carl Crawford fumbled the line drive to left which sent home the winning run for the O’s. Minutes later, Evan Longoria hit a walk-off home run to put the Rays into the playoffs, cementing the Red Sox collapse in legend.
The 2011 Boston Red Sox clubhouse lost all discipline and focus
Shortly after the season, the Boston Globe published a scathing expose of the culture within the 2011 Boston Red Sox clubhouse, entitled Inside the Collapse. Just 2,500 words long, the article is packed with enough tantalizing tales to fill a whole novel.
The juiciest and most finger-lickin’ story of all relates to the Red Sox starting rotation. The top three pitchers — the leaders on the field, the ones who were supposed to set the attitude for everyone in the clubhouse — distanced themselves from their teammates, slacked off, and did not pull their weight at crucial moments.
During games when they were not scheduled to pitch, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey were not in the dugout with the rest of their teammates. Instead, they reportedly sat in the clubhouse, played video games, ate fast-food fried chicken and drank beer. This was technically allowed under team rules, but it certainly violated an ungodly number of baseball’s “unwritten rules”.
This habit was reflected in both their weight gain and their results late in the season. Across September, the three combined for a 2-7 record and a 6.45 ERA.
Where was Terry Francona when all of this happened?
Manager Terry Francona, who led the Red Sox to two World Series titles, was in no position to manage any of this chaos. Throughout this season, he found himself too consumed with personal troubles to put his focus on the Red Sox. Francona was in the late stages of a bitter divorce with Jacque Lang, his wife of 29 years. He spent much of the season living in a hotel room.
In his own words, “I spent more time at the ballpark this year than I ever did.’’
Both Francona and Epstein left the team after the 2011 season. Their paths crossed in the 2016 World Series, this time on opposite sides. By then, Epstein had reformed the Chicago Cubs, and Francona had become manager of the Cleveland Indians. This time it was Epstein’s team who would emerge victorious, snapping a 108-year title drought.