Athletes age and lose their competitive fire. Can the same thing happen to owners?
John Henry long ago cemented his legacy as the man who reversed 86 years of misery by bringing four World Series titles to Boston. His arrival in 2002 heralded a new age of smarter, bolder, more innovative decision-making, from hiring 28-year-old general manager Theo Epstein to renovating Fenway Park instead of razing it to building some of the greatest teams in franchise history.
But Henry has changed course in recent years. After firing Dave Dombrowski in 2019, he let slip that he intended to drop below the luxury tax. He hired Chaim Bloom from Tampa and traded MVP Mookie Betts rather than pay him. At the team's recent Winter Weekend, he was booed for lamenting that baseball players are expensive.
Tomase: John Henry is missing the point about Red Sox fans' frustration
In interviews with The Athletic and Boston Sports Journal on Monday, Henry decried "false narratives" about his unwillingness to spend and complained about baseball's broken economic system, even as everyone from the Padres to Rangers to Phillies to Mets spends wildly in a bid to contend.
It's specifically worth comparing Henry's recently declared sentiments and general overall moodiness to one of his fellow MLB owners -- John Middleton of the Phillies.
The 73-year-old Henry is only a couple of years older than Middleton, but whereas one sounds like he has lost his joy for the game, the other appears to be just discovering it.
In an interview with Scott Lauber of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Middleton laid out his ambitions and they're absurdly grandiose: He wants the Phillies to rank among the game's greatest organizations of all time.
He's willing to spend in that pursuit. After last year's surprising World Series run, he splurged on more than $400 million worth of players, led by All-Star shortstop Trea Turner, who joined former MVP Bryce Harper in the $300 million club. The Phillies also paid free-agent Kyle Schwarber last winter, and this spring they're planning to push 19-year-old pitching prospect Andrew Painter to win a spot in their rotation.
They're going for it, and Middleton's motivation is simple.
"How much money did the '27 Yankees make? Or the '29 A's? Or the '75-76 Big Red Machine?" Middleton asked Lauber. "Does anybody know? Does anybody care? Nobody knows or cares whether any of them made any money or not. And nobody cares about whether I make money or not. If my legacy is that I didn't lose any money owning a baseball team on an annual operating basis, that's a pretty sad legacy. It's about putting trophies in the cases.
"If your ambition is to be good, you don't make those decisions [to sign Turner]. If your ambition is to be great, you make those decisions. It's about desire, really. I just want to win."
Henry already has his trophies, and there was a time when nothing stopped his pursuit of a player. Now? He lowballs Xander Bogaerts and watches him leave with an LOL joke that he should've offered 12 years. He falls short of Jose Abreu in free agency. He prioritizes smaller, shorter deals with solid veterans over taking big swings for talent.
Contrast that with Middleton, who doesn't bat an eyelash at the thought of Turner's deal expiring when he's 40 and Harper's at 39.
"But that's what the market requires," Middleton told the Inquirer. "People say, 'Why are you doing that? That's just stupid.' Well, I did it because that's what it took to sign the guy. If I had stopped it at seven or eight years, I wouldn't have signed them. So, that's your choice.
"And if you're overpaying 10 years from now for an athletes who got you a couple, three World Series titles, I mean, what do I care? Seriously. What do I care? And I can guarantee that none of our fans would care."
The Red Sox under Henry appear headed in the opposite direction. Far from building a team that can contend for a World Series, they're focused on managing costs, developing minor-league talent, and hoping to hit on a 2013- or 2021-style one-off veteran resurgence.
Such an approach would've once been unacceptable, but that was four World Series trophies ago, and no one stays hungry forever.