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Playing the Blame Game

By Michael R. Grunwald

QUIZ TIME, boys and girls.

Some background info: The Boston Red Sox didn't win the American League East this season. They finished second.

Now imagine you're Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman. What do you do?

a. Blame Matt Young. Signed to a multi-million dollar free agent contract over the winter, Young posted a pitiful 3-7 record with a horrific 5.18 earned run average. He also developed a psychological tic that has rendered him constitutionally incapable of throwing the ball to first base. (I am not making this up.)

b. Blame Danny Darwin. Signed to a multi-million dollar free agent contract over the winter, Darwin posted a 3-6 record with a 5.16 ERA. Then he blew out his elbow.

c. Blame yourself. After all, you signed these big-time busts. You shelled out $32 million of the club's money to pay a mediocre band of chronic underachievers for a year. You made the series of dunder-head trades (Dave Henderson for Randy Kutcher?) that made the Sox so lousy in the first place.

d. None of the above.

The correct answer, of course, is d. For general managers, the correct answer is always d. You're not about to blame yourself. You can't risk alienating your players. And second place is not to a tolerable result.

So you blame the manager. You fire Joe Morgan.

GORMAN IS NOT ALONE. Americans love to find scapegoats.

Did Marion Barry get caught smoking crack? Well, then it must have been a racist conspiracy. Or maybe the bitch set him up. Or maybe the devil made him do it. But it certainly wasn't Barry's fault. Just like those serial killings weren't Ted Bundy's fault (the porn made him do it) and those assassinations weren't Dan White's fault (the Twinkies made him do it).

Usually, this don't-blame-me syndrome manifests itself in that quintessentially American activity--the lawsuit. Over the summer, New York magazine told of a man who threw out his back in a refrigerator-carrying race, then sued the company that manufactured the refrigerator for failing to warn him not to run races with it strapped to his back.

A recent issue of Time had an anecdote about Christopher Duffy of Framingham. Duffy stole a car from a poorly lit parking lot, wrecked it in a high-speed chase with police, then died of his injuries. His estate sued the owners of the parking lot, claiming that they should have done more to prevent auto theft.

First, Ted Bundy. Next, Marion Barry. Now, the Boston Red Sox. Everybody points the finger at somebody else.

It's a familiar American story. We expect our lives to be perfect, and when they are not--our babies are born with nine toes, our fenders are dented, our bonds are devalued, we slip on an icy sidewalk, we get hit by a foul ball--we blame somebody (the doctor, the garage, the broker, the city, the team).

Milli Vanilli blamed it on the rain. As they sang (well, lip-synched), "You've got to blame it on something." Temporary insanity, stress, PMS--something. Even Joel Steinberg, the rich, white, coke-addicted New York lawyer who beat his wife and killed his baby, claimed that he was a "victim." Of what, I have no idea.

Milli Vanilli was onto something: "Whatever you do, don't put the blame on you." We are obsessed with rights but oblivious to responsibilities. Assigning blame has become our new national pastime.

ESPECIALLY AMONG PEOPLE involved with our old national pastime. This season, 22 teams failed to win their divisions. Thirteen of them fired their managers. The Cubs fired two managers.

A manager's job is pretty simple. He picks the lineup, makes pitching changes, inserts pinch-hitters. He usually has some sort of influence on his team's attitude.

Of course, it really doesn't matter if a manager is callow or experienced, mellow or intense. Winning matters. If you win, everybody thinks you're a genius. If you lose, you're an idiot. And you're history. Growing up in New York, I watched George Steinbrenner, that noted evaluator of human nature, decide that Billy Martin was smart, then stupid, then smart, then stupid, smart, stupid, smart, then stupid again.

Joe Morgan is another casualty of revisionist baseball history. After he was named Red Sox manager in July 1988, the Sox won 12 straight games and charged to the AL East crown. Morgan Magic was the talk of the town. When the Sox took another title in 1990, Morgan was Beantown's messiah once again.

Walpole Joe didn't do anything different this year. He went with his random hunches. Often, they worked. Often, they didn't. The Sox came in second. That's baseball. That's life.

You can argue all day about Joe Morgan's laid-back leadership style, his overuse of the bullpen, his cavalier attitude toward young prospects, his gambler's reliance on instinct. But this much is clear: He isn't a horrible manager. This season was not his fault. He's no dumber now than he was in 1988. And he did chalk up two first-place finishes--the last Boston manager to do that was Bill Carrigan in 1915 and 1916.

Yet Joe Morgan is out of a job. His only consolation is that unemployed managers tend to get smart almost as quickly as employed ones get stupid.

I SUPPOSE I should get my biases out in the open. I covered the Red Sox for a couple weeks this summer, so I've met people like Matt Young (total jerk), Danny Darwin (decent fellow) and Lou Gorman (The Establishment personified).

I also got to know Joe Morgan, and I think he's a helluva guy. He cares about his grandchildren, his garden, his job. He's friendly. He tells great stories. He keeps baseball in perspective.

Most of all, I liked Joe Morgan because he took responsibility for his own mistakes. Once, he decided to let Mike Gardiner try to pitch out of trouble. Gardiner gave up a three-run homer, but the Sox won anyway. Afterwards, Morgan was grinning big: "They let me off the hook today, huh?"

Another time, Morgan let Jeff Reardon pitch for the fourth consecutive night. Reardon gave up a game-winning homer.

"I blew it," Joe said. "Happens sometimes, you know?"

No finger-pointing. No fall guys. Joe was always willing to take the rap himself.

IN RETROSPECT, Joe was pretty incongruous on a team like the Sox, a team overpopulated with archetypes of the Great American Crybaby.

Young was only the worst offender. At various times, he blamed his horrible pitching on Morgan, shortstop Luis Rivera and the American League schedule. Remember, we're talking about a guy who cannot even throw the ball to first base. (Of course, Young insists that this psychological "disease" is not his fault. All I know is, he's getting paid $6 million and he really sucks.)

But his teammates were just as immature. After Greg Harris choked away a crucial September game, walking home the tying and winning runs on eight straight pitches, he had the gall to blame umpire Vic Voltaggio for "squeezing the strike zone." After Jack Clark, another multi-million dollar bust, struck out three times in an extra-inning loss, he blamed Morgan for being a lousy motivator. After left fielder Mike Greenwell attacked first baseman Mo Vaughn with a bat, Greenwell blamed the media for "blowing this out of proportion."

Blame the umps, the media, the schedule, the weather. Blame your teammates, your trainers, your fans, your manager. Blame anything--the manager is just the easiest option, especially when you know the manager isn't going to blame you back.

But the Red Sox don't need a new manager. They need pitchers who can get people out. The Sox have serious problems (if baseball problems can ever be serious) that need to be addressed if they are ever going to win their first World Series since 1918. They have to stop picking scapegoats and start picking some right-handed power hitters.

And I'm sure they will. As soon as Americans stop blaming our nation's problems on Japanese trade restrictions or Colombian drug lords or Korean greengrocers or some all-encompassing notion of Evil.

Because the fault is not in our stars. Nor is it in our accountants, our PMS, our Twinkies, our horoscope, our managers. The fault, dear Lou Gorman, is in ourselves.

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