Eighteen years ago, in his first press gathering as the owner of the Florida Marlins, John Henry held up a placard that read “In Dave We Trust.” It was meant to be a visual vote of confidence for Dave Dombrowski, the team’s incumbent general manager.
If Henry had attended Wednesday’s news conference at Fenway Park, he might have felt compelled to dust off the old sign.
Dombrowski, now the president of baseball operations for a Boston Red Sox team that is owned by Henry, decided to fire manager John Farrell this week after the Sox were booted in the first round of the playoffs for the second season in a row. But before he could break the news to Farrell, he needed to clear it with Henry.
“John basically said, ‘That decision is up to you,’ ” Dombrowski said.
In Dave he trusts.
Henry appears to be asking the same from Red Sox fans. Dombrowski offered strikingly little in the way of an explanation for why now was the time to cut the cord with a manager who won three division titles and a World Series in five seasons. He claimed it wasn’t a direct response to another postseason flop but rather an accumulation of “a lot of different factors.”
“I’m not going to share facts,” Dombrowski said. “Those are things I keep to myself.”
That’s Dombrowski’s prerogative. But his lack of transparency about a decision that was solely his — the absence of both Henry and chairman Tom Werner from Wednesday’s news conference only supports the notion that Dombrowski made this call on his own — also means the pressure is all on him now.
Without Farrell to absorb most of the slings and arrows, the Red Sox are Dombrowski’s mess now.
“When you don’t play well, when you don’t win a world championship, it’s not all on the manager by any means,” Dombrowski said. “Some of the players didn’t play as well. Could I have given them some better players? We all share in those responsibilities.”
The fact is, Dombrowski didn’t supply Farrell with nearly enough offense to win a World Series. He chose not to pursue Edwin Encarnacion, the top slugger on the free-agent market last winter, as a replacement for retired David Ortiz. Instead, Dombrowski signed first baseman Mitch Moreland to a one-year deal and traded for Chris Sale in an attempt to bolster the pitching staff.
After seeing the Red Sox score 93 fewer runs than last season, Dombrowski can’t afford to sit out the derby for soon-to-be-free-agents J.D. Martinez or Eric Hosmer.
But the Sox missed more than Ortiz’s bat. It was assumed Dustin Pedroia would take the leadership torch from Big Papi, but he has never been comfortable in that role. Dombrowski passed on signing high-character veterans who were available in free agency. Carlos Beltran wound up with the Houston Astros and Matt Holliday with the New York Yankees, and both teams were better for having them in the clubhouse.
Ace lefty David Price stepped into that leadership vacuum, but his method of unifying the team — declaring war on the media, dressing down broadcaster Dennis Eckersley on the team plane, deriding Farrell by calling him “Manager John” — set the wrong tone.
If Dombrowski isn’t careful about choosing the next manager and surrounding Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers and the rest of Boston’s impressionable young core with proven leaders, the clubhouse culture could turn even more sour.
“I think it’s a situation where we went through a transition,” Dombrowski said of the team’s makeup after Ortiz’s retirement. “You can always get better. We look to get better. I think young players’ growth will make a difference in that regard. A new manager coming in will provide just an overall different dynamic, a change. And we’ll see what happens in that regard.”
Dombrowski already has a partial list of managerial candidates, a sign that he contemplated letting Farrell go long before he actually did it. Astros bench coach Alex Cora, who played for the Red Sox from 2005 to ’08 and has a relationship with Pedroia, probably will get an interview. Ditto for longtime former Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who spent the season as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bench coach. Brad Ausmus, hired by Dombrowski in 2014 with the Detroit Tigers but recently fired, also figures to get a look.
Two full seasons into his tenure with the Red Sox, Dombrowski continues to marvel at the intensity and passion of working in Boston. Farrell was subject to unceasing criticism from fans and media. Every manager gets second-guessed for how he handles the bullpen and other in-game moves, but few deal with it on the same level Farrell did.
Dombrowski surely will take that into consideration when it comes to hiring a manager.
“It’s just like a general manager’s spot that they’re open for questions and debates and second-guessing,” Dombrowski said. “And even more so than a general manager because they’re making moves when you can bunt, or hit and run, or steal.”
That might have been true for Farrell. But when it comes to scrutiny, the new Red Sox manager will take a back seat to Dombrowski in the upcoming season.
After all these years, Dombrowski still has Henry’s trust. But if the Red Sox don’t get closer to their goal of winning another World Series, it eventually will begin eroding.