Sports In Briefs

Sports rants from an industry exec who maintains the passion of a fan

Posts Tagged ‘Boston Red Sox

Stepping In It: Baseball’s Recent PR Blunders

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I’ve worked in baseball for quite a while, and much of my work has been dedicated at least in part to public relations. At the minor league level, PR responsibilities are very different than in the major leagues. Nevertheless, I find myself at times like these shaking my head at several high-profile missteps.

The Boston Red Sox have been embroiled in a PR nightmare since their epic collapse in September. (Type the words “fried chicken and beer” into Google and the top four results are about the Sox.) And it seems with every step, they manage to find another puddle. (Disclaimer: I’ve been a Red Sox fan for nearly 30 years.)

John HenrySaturday morning, one sentence from Red Sox owner John Henry gave an interview the tone of defensiveness and arrogance. When asked to explain his comments about Carl Crawford back in October, which has prompted a spring training apology from the owner, Henry said, “I don’t want to go through it again… I explained it and people seem to not want to hear the explanation.”

Would it have been difficult to just say, “I had a misconception about the makeup of our lineup, but our baseball operations team clarified it for me,” or even, “I stay out of baseball decisions and it was a knee-jerk opinion simply colored by the difficult month we went through”? Or he could have shown his support for Crawford by telling the press, “I think the world of Carl and we look forward to him having an excellent season.”

Instead, his answer expressed a defensive contempt for the media that journalists aren’t very fond of. Yes, we know they were digging for some more dirt and hoping Henry would put his foot in his mouth. The Red Sox owner, who is seeing the goodwill earned by two World Series titles after 86 years of pain slowly erode, effectively said to everyone, “Leave me alone!”

Pushing fans and media away with a “this is my team” attitude will alienate Henry and his partners just as much as those two championships endeared him.

Speaking of pushing people away, Josh Hamilton recently told the press, “I don’t feel like I owe the Rangers.” The comment was one of several eye-opening statements made by the former AL MVP about his stalled talks for a contract extension with the Texas Rangers.

Hamilton made headlines three weeks ago when reports surfaced that he was seen drinking at two Dallas-area establishments. For most players this is a non-story, but for a former first-overall draft pick whose substance abuse problems threatened his career, it was bound to be front-page news.

Josh HamiltonBoth the content and the timing of Hamilton’s comments were suspect. He is trying to put the most recent incident behind him, but aggressively suggesting his value to the team over the last few years begs media and fans to examine both sides of the ledger. Right now, the public wants to see a humble man working hard for their favorite team. The organization needs to see a player who understands the damage his latest incident does to both Hamilton and the team, not someone trying to paint over it with past achievements.

What is most troublesome about this is, Hamilton has an agent, so why didn’t he use him? He is going through a difficult period of his own doing, and he is embarking on a contract year. He has a person in his employ who is paid to represent him, especially when the business relationship between the player and organization is strained.

Players too often get suckered by the siren call of the microphones. They fail to realize the value of an agent isn’t always in the negotiations themselves, but in plausible deniability. An agent should be the hard-talking media magnet, the guy who takes the slings and arrows when the player’s stance might be unpopular. When the press shows up for the player’s reaction to his agent’s comments, he can draw inspiration from the clichés listed in Bull Durham: he’s just there to work hard and help the team.

Hamilton pays someone to be the bad, so let him be the bad guy.

Speaking of bad guys, no player has been more demonized in recent months than Ryan Braun. His reputation as a rising star and good guy took the hardest of hits when it was reported that he failed a drug test. The MVP award was being bestowed to a cheater, read the headlines.

The mandatory 50-game suspension was overturned, though, in a decision that crashed down on the baseball world this week. Braun arrived at spring training immediately after the announcement, holding a press conference that many have hailed as a lesson in crisis management and image recovery.

The trouble I have with it all is that the “vindication” Braun experienced is the result of a technicality. A procedural mistake got the positive test tossed out because it opened the door to either tampering with or degradation of the sample.

Ryan BraunIf this was a victory for anyone, it was for conspiracy theorists everywhere. There are those who believe Braun was let off the hook because he plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, the team formerly owned by commissioner Bud Selig. Others speculate baseball simply couldn’t handle another tarnished MVP.

Major League Baseball, for its part, was furious. It was the first time a player successfully appealed a suspension for performing enhancing drugs. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency called it “a gut-kick to clean athletes.”

Regardless of the arbitration result, a cloud of guilt still hangs over Braun. He continues to express that he has never taken a banned substance, but there has been no explanation as to how exogenous testosterone, or testosterone from outside his body, entered his system. His representatives did a great job of avoiding that point, because it wasn’t necessary to argue their case.

The result is a player who has been proven not guilty, but he is by no means innocent. A cloud will continue to hang over him, even as he does and says all the right things. He has no reason to revisit the issue or argue its details because he was already exonerated by baseball. The court of public opinion is not swayed by technicalities, though.

The commissioner’s office suffered a black eye that won’t heal any time soon, either. Its system was proven faulty, which will cast some doubt on any positive test, at least in the near future. The game once again has to suffer the whispers about whether one of its stars is breaking the rules. And if a perceived “good guy” like Braun can have a positive test, who else out there might as well?

This is the one case where I don’t have any PR advice except this: move on. The commissioner’s office needs to learn from its mistakes and not make them again. The press may ask about the procedure for every positive test in the next few years, and it needs to answer them politely and appropriately. It made a mistake, after all, and getting defensive like Henry will do no good whatsoever.

And Braun just needs to continue trying to be the good guy. He held his press conference, he answered the questions. Eventually, the questions will slow, though they may never stop. For his benefit, I hope he has a good season, because a drop in production will simply fuel discussion that he was an MVP-caliber player only until he was caught cheating.

But sometime soon, another player or executive will put his foot in his mouth, and my PR antennae will go up just as quickly as my fan’s heart sinks.

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Written by sportsinbriefs

February 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Johnny Damon Blew It

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Johnny Damon how Sox fans remember him - if they choose to

Johnny Damon blew it.

And not by signing with the Detroit Tigers a few days ago. That was just more fallout.

No, Damon blew it in December 2005, when he agreed to sign a free agent contract with the New York Yankees.

Let me start by saying this: I’m a Boston Red Sox fan, but this isn’t a fan’s rant about how Damon turned his back on Red Sox Nation to join its most hated rival. The thought never really crossed my mind.

This is simply a practical look at a short-sighted decision made by Damon and his camp four years ago, one that will haunt him for years.

The Red Sox were a year removed from a miraculous World Series title when Damon’s four-year contract concluded. Of course, this wasn’t just any World Series championship, and in New England, it wasn’t just any miracle. This was the championship that ended “The Curse,” the victory that soothed years of heartbreak, the title that had eluded generations. That the Red Sox downed the hated Yankees in a first-of-its-kind comeback only made the win that much sweeter.

It was won by a team of personalities. Manny was being Manny, Big Papi was clutch, and Bronson Arroyo was in cornrows. Curt Schilling was forging a legend with his bloody sock when he could pull himself away from calling in to local radio shows.

Damon was one of those leading personalities. Popular in the clubhouse and the stands, his moniker for the team – “The Idiots” – was embraced by Red Sox fans everywhere. But he was more than just long hair and a caveman beard. Batting leadoff, he finished in the AL top ten in hits, walks, and runs. His two home runs, one a grand slam, helped clinch Game 7 of the ALCS and seal the history-making series against the Yankees.

Had Damon never done another thing in his life, he would have been revered in Boston and throughout New England. He could have retired on the spot and made a living doing endorsements, signing autographs, and simply being Johnny Damon.

I grew up outside Philadelphia, and I remember Tug McGraw. Tugger was a Philadelphia institution after he retired, appearing in commercials and getting a regular gig with a local TV station. He was everywhere – and Tug never even won a World Series! Imagine the life Damon would have had!

But Damon wanted to keep playing. I don’t begrudge him for that. In fact, he wanted to keep playing for a while, more than the three years the Red Sox were offering. Scott Boras, Damon’s agent, was asking for five years or more. With the Boston front office in relative disarray after the resignation of Theo Epstein, Boras wasn’t getting it. The Yankees swooped in and offered four years. What was a guy to do?

Damon did the unthinkable.

Just months after famously saying, “I could never player for the Yankees,” Damon was looking for a barber so he could conform to New York’s dress code. He said about his decision, “They [the Yankees] showed they really wanted me… I tried with Boston.” And then, in classic Damon fashion: “I wasn’t quite sure what happened.”

To a fan base where the Red Sox are religion, Damon’s desertion was blasphemous. Discussions of years and dollars did nothing to explain away the betrayal, even in this modern age of sports as a business.

Red Sox fans weren't shy when Damon returned to Fenway

When Damon returned to Fenway Park as a Yankee in May the following season, he was met with an outpouring of vitriol that only Judas would have known, had he ever played center field. Red Sox fans made it quite clear to Damon that they didn’t want him anymore, ever.

Fast forward four years to the end of his Yankee contract. Damon is richer, and he won a world series in New York. Still, I imagine he’s come to the private realization that it was nothing like the title in Boston. It was historic in that it was a championship, but it wasn’t an achievement that changed the psyche of city, if not an entire region. It’ll get him invited back for Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium, but he’ll be just a role player, not a marquee attraction.

This off-season, Boras bungled Damon’s negotiations and misinterpreted the market for his client. He kept Damon in the news in all the wrong ways until the sad merry-go-round stopped with the Tigers. Detroit was “where I wanted to be, from Day 1,” said Damon. Really? I mean, really?

In watching all of this unfold, and reading Damon’s comment, I couldn’t help but think. If there were a place Damon should have always been able to return, a ballpark that always should have welcomed him, it was Fenway Park. Whether his trademark locks were flowing as he rounded third or he crept across the grass with the aid of a walker, Damon would have always been at home with Red Sox fans.

I could picture Damon throwing out first pitches for years, visiting the Sox television booth to offer absolutely nothing of substance but a smile and fond memories. He’d be doing commercials for products he couldn’t comprehend and companies he couldn’t pronounce. No one would care.

When Damon passed away, we would have wistfully recalled a season that changed anyone who experienced it. We’d have talked about the man who bestowed upon us “The Idiots.” We would have recalled a grand slam that, by then, we’d probably say actually left Yankee Stadium.

Instead, he’s just that guy who played center field before Coco Crisp. And he has no one to blame but himself.

Written by sportsinbriefs

February 22, 2010 at 11:11 pm