IT is well known that Liverpool FC’s owners are based in Boston, they own an iconic Major League Baseball club and that, in the 16 years they have been in that position, they have achieved substantial success with three World Series wins between 2004 and 2013 — an unprecedented record given the 86-year drought the Red Sox endured prior to 2004, writes STEVE TANCOCK.
It is also, in my perception, the view of the majority of Liverpool fans that The Reds are the poor relation in this ownership arrangement. I don’t agree and will show this by examining in detail what has happened in Boston since they took over and examining what has been good and bad in that ownership in the eyes of the match-going members of “Red Sox Nation”.
To start off I’m going to look back over baseball’s recently concluded off season and Fenway Sports Group’s position at the beginning and end of that period as spring training (pre season) begins.
To recap on last year; Boston won their division for the second year running ahead of the Yankees to qualify for the end of season playoffs, but lost for the second year running in the first round, this time to the eventual World Series winners, the Houston Astros.
For Boston fans, qualification for the playoffs is seen as the minimum requirement for a successful season, but the manner of the defeat to the Astros was unsatisfactory to the fans, who had suffered a season of underperformance by the team. The widely held view was that the other teams in the American League East lost the division, as opposed to Boston winning it.
Imagine qualifying for the Champions League in fourth on the last day of the season, despite losing at home to Middlesbrough, before getting knocked out in the qualifiers by Hoffenheim.
Baseball, like American Football, is designed — through its draft system, its revenue sharing arrangements and salary caps — to ensure the 30-team league does not see the same teams winning each year. On the whole, this has been successful. The aforementioned Astros win last year was the first in their history, but less than three years ago they were one of the worst teams in the league.
The so-called big market teams — the New York Yankees, LA Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Boston — tend to dominate because they attract the biggest media and sponsorship revenues, and so can afford to pay the biggest wages.
One of the most enjoyable parts of being a Red Sox fan since 2004 has been to watch the tortured failure of the Dodgers, Cubs and, in latter years, the new kid on the block the Washington Nationals. The ebb and flow of a baseball season has added to the agony these teams have suffered either failing to make the playoffs or falling short within them.
New York, for who success is defined as a World Series win, were, after two seasons of serious underperformance, clearly going to make big moves over the winter and the Red Sox would need to do likewise. So the off season began with a mixture of anticipation as to what the ownership would do to bolster the squad, and trepidation as to what would happen in New York.
Within days of the season ending, the Sox fired their manager John Farrell, who was seen as a dead man walking from the mid season onward (in football parlance, he had clearly lost the dressing room) and hired Alex Cora, a former Red Sox player with no Major League managerial experience to the top job in his place.
Cora was bench coach for the Astros in 2017 and is widely regarded as a modern, progressive manager. A move not dissimilar to the hiring of Brendan Rodgers in 2012. But throughout the autumn and into winter (the fabulously named “hot stove season”) no player acquisitions materialised in Boston.
The trade system in baseball is very different from football’s transfer system. Teams do not pay each other transfer fees but instead agree between each other to move players around. Anachronistically, the players have very little say in this process while they are under contract.
It is quite common for a player in such a situation to move at very short notice with no say in the matter, as happened in 2004 for the Red Sox’s star player, who found out on his way to that day’s game that he has been traded, he had no choice but to pack up his locker, jump on a plane and meet up with his new team — and even play for them that same evening.
When a player’s contract ends and he becomes a free agent, all the power switches the other way and he can choose where he goes and command vast salaries of upwards of $25million per year over a five or seven-year period with a new team. It is here that the rich teams are able to accumulate the proven talent and their position as World Series contenders.
So everyone expected the Sox to make a big move to bolster their offence — having ranked last in home runs in the majors in 2017. The anticipated target was free agent JD Martinez, a late developing power hitter thought to be ideally suited to Fenway Park. Martinez’s agent anticipated the deal was going to happen sooner rather than later and expected a seven-year deal worth in excess of $25m per year. This was especially surprising since the Red Sox’s general manager, who is famed for his big-name, big-price signings, had signed Martinez when he was GM at Detroit and is known to be a fan.
But nothing happened. The Red Sox were not comfortable with the seven years Martinez was demanding given his age and the anticipated fall off for hitters of his type in their mid 30s. On the flip side, the baseball world agreed Martinez and the Red Sox were the perfect match and pretty much advised FSG to pay what it takes to get him to Boston.
Meanwhile the arch-rival Yankees, were making their move. On December 8, they signed Giancarlo Stanton, the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2017, to a “blockbuster” contract from under the nose of the St Louis Cardinals. (Imagine Manchester City signing Harry Kane for £250m.) Heads fell off in Boston, while the hated Yankees anticipated the beginning of another dynasty. The pressure on ownership in Boston was mounting by the day.
All over the Christmas period in Boston, in the media, among the fans and especially on their sports talk radio (which is a joy to behold in itself) heads were falling off. FSG were under immense pressure to make a signing, any signing. “Forget Martinez just get someone because the Yankees have,” was the gist of the Boston airwaves. But FSG refused to budge, they made hardly any comment in the media and no serious links to other players emerged.
Roll forward six weeks to February 19. Spring training is about to start and the Yankees are parading their new superstar when out of nowhere Boston announce, subject to a medical, that they have signed Martinez on a five-year $110m deal with a two-year break clause.
This is clearly a deal where the Red Sox have come out better and that is clearly because ownership were prepared to wait and allow market forces to work in their favour. Remember John Henry made his fortune out of anticipating market movements and this experience, together with him being a disciple of moneyball, underpins the Red Sox strategy.
This week, the baseball media have been lauding the Red Sox for the deal they have done while the mood in Boston has, as it tends to do in Liverpool fan base from time to time, flipped from the depths of despair to excitement, anticipation and a belief that the Red Sox and Yankees are very well matched for the coming season.
So what does this tell us in terms of Liverpool’s approach to the summer? How can the off-season experience of Red Sox fans help Reds manage their expectations through until August?
The parallels between the Red Sox off-season dealings, the Virgil van Dijk signing, the apparent refusal to pay over the odds to get Naby Keita early, and the position on Riyad Mahrez and Thomas Lemar are striking. It seems to me that in both Boston and Liverpool, FSG are sticking to a strategy which is to identify their targets and use the market movements to put the buyer in the best position.
FSG are clearly not afraid of paying the big bucks as the van Dijk and Martinez signings testify but the fit has to be right. So if Liverpool supporters are expecting acquisitions for the sake of it, it will likely not happen for the reasons set out above.
The more I think about it, the more value I see in analysing what is happening in Boston and trying to translate this into predictions of what will happen in Liverpool.
In conclusion, one thing is abundantly clear. Until Liverpool win some silverware even the most ardent advocates of Henry’s ownership group will have to continue to work hard to retain their belief and convince the more sceptical among us.
I hope they are able to turn doubters into believers.
On this week’s FREE show we asked social media for talking points to discuss, and it’s fair to say there was a lively debate on a wide range of issues about Liverpool FC. If you enjoyed and don’t already subscribe to TAW Player, why not give it a go for a just £5 a month?
“I think [Klopp is] a genuine world class talent. I think he’s built a team shaping to be a fantastic team, that plays some of the best football i’ve seen Liverpool play.” 👊
“I think he can take us where we want to go.”
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 20 February 2018