Sports Nut

New Knocks on Sox Doc

Uh-oh. The plot thickens in the case of Red Sox third baseman John Valentin vs. Sox doc Arthur Pappas. When we first weighed in on this subject a few weeks ago, we noted that Valentin, like many veteran Sox players, had chosen to avoid having his knee operated on by Pappas, who is not only the team doctor but a part-owner of the Red Sox. Shortly after the surgery, Sox management sent Valentin and his agent a letter stating that the team had not been informed about the operation and that Valentin was therefore in violation of “the terms and conditions” of his contract.

It turns out, according to an article in the Boston Globe last week, that the Sox had been informed about the operation. Dr. David Altchek told the Globe that once Valentin chose him to do the operation, he called Pappas: “We talked about [what Pappas had found in Valentin’s knee] and what we would probably do.” Altchek, who is the team doctor for the New York Mets, added that this was not in any way unusual. “The way we do this is a gentleman’s agreement kind of thing,” he said. “We don’t stamp each other’s forehead, ‘You are hereby authorized to do this surgery.’ We call each other up and say, ‘just saw your player, this is the situation.’ “

After the operation, Altchek again reported in to the Sox. Again, standard procedure. “I thought it was shocking that they made a statement saying they didn’t have any information,” Altchek told the Globe, sounding, well, shocked. “I told them everything I normally do.”

It seems clear, in other words, that the Red Sox are lying about what they knew—or didn’t know—about Valentin’s knee operation. But why? Tag Team offers four possibilities:

1) Pappas is acting out because Valentin rebuffed his “offer” to do the operation. Altchek seemed to imply as much when he said of Pappas, “He probably was not happy that the player was going to see someone else for surgery. No doctor is.” But we doubt that is what is going on here. Pappas, after all, gets passed over regularly by Red Sox players who get seriously injured. He’s got to be used to it by now.

2) The Red Sox are going to use this incident in an effort to void Valentin’s contract. Certainly, the legalistic language of the letter would suggest such a move. But we think it is unlikely. The powerful Major League Players Union would undoubtedly fight it—and would undoubtedly win. Even the Red Sox don’t have the stomach for such a potential public relations debacle.

3) Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette, a control freak of the first order, was miffed that he was not in full control of this situation. This strikes Tag Team as plausible, and it is backed by the following astonishing tidbit (also reported in the Globe story): When former Sox reliever Tom Gordon needed Tommy John surgery last season, Duquette refused to allow Gordon to use Dr. James Andrews, the man who invented Tommy John surgery! Incredibly, Gordon wound up having to negotiate with Duquette over who would perform the operation. (It wasn’t Pappas, in case you’re wondering.)

4) Duquette is in the midst of a Machiavellian ploy, the purpose of which is to get Valentin so mad that he’ll demand a trade—and Duquette will be able to get rid of a popular player he no longer wants around. Having followed the Red Sox his whole life, Tag Team is convinced this is what is happening. Consider: Valentin is 36 years old. Despite his popularity among the fans, and his heroics in last year’s playoffs against Cleveland, Valentin’s numbers have been declining for several years. He’s just suffered a season-ending injury, which doesn’t help. A younger player, Wilton Veras, has shown he is ready to step in. And Duquette has a history of running off marquee players he inherited when he took over the team a few years ago—and then placing the blame for their departures on the players themselves. Remember l’affaire Roger Clemens? Remember the Mo Vaughn debacle? Now it’s John Valentin’s turn. In Boston, the real hardball games are the ones they play off the field.

On another subject entirely …

If Gregg Easterbrook and I were the kind of guys who bellied up to the bar, threw back brewskies, and spent hours debating whether Larry Bird was a good coach—do such guys still exist?—I would have made the following arguments against Easterbrook’s piece and in favor of Larry Legend:

1) Yes, it’s true that the Pacers record has been only marginally better under Bird, but that misses a much bigger point: The team would have declined precipitously without him. The Pacer mainstays when Bird took over were Rik Smits, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, and Antonio Davis. Three years later, Smits is a shadow of his former self, Davis has been traded, and Mullin’s skills have eroded to the point where he rarely gets off the bench. Reggie Miller can still be an electrifying performer (witness Game 3 of the finals), but those kind of performances have become the exception rather than the rule. Only Jackson’s skills have stayed the same—but then, he was never one of the league’s premier point guards. Sizing up the situation, Bird realized he had a potential franchise player, Jalen Rose, wasting away on the bench. He not only put Rose in the lineup but insisted that a fair amount of Indiana’s offense begin revolving around Rose. He did the same with backup point guard Travis Best, who went from languishing on the bench to playing the fourth quarter in place of Jackson. And he slowly brought along Austin Croshere, who was a rookie during Bird’s first year as coach; now Chroshere is also someone Indiana relies on for serious minutes every game.

2) What’s more, he had done this—reducing the role of former stars while adding playing time and instilling confidence in former benchwarmers—while keeping the team cohesive, upbeat, and reading from the same playbook. (If they had a playbook, that is.) This is extraordinarily rare in professional sports; most teams have to trade their declining stars—who will otherwise whine publicly about their diminished status—and insist that they should still be the team’s focal point. (I offer up Patrick Ewing as Exhibit A.) If there is a reason why Indiana is in the finals, it is because they all accept their roles on the team, even as those roles have changed. That’s no small thing, and Bird deserves credit for making it happen.

3) As for his lack of play calling, how does this make Bird any worse than any other NBA coach? In fact, the lack of plays in pro basketball is hardly new; plays pretty much went out with the 24-second clock. What was different in the 1980s was not that the Lakers, Bulls, and Celtics had lots of plays—they didn’t—but that each team had an extraordinary player who could take your breath away. Indiana has no one who can do that. Is that Bird’s fault?