By JON KRAWCZYNSKI, Associated Press
FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — John Henry was walking off the stage after a television interview during his team's first full-squad workout of the spring when the Boston owner was confronted by a lifelong Red Sox fan holding a bright red sign with white letters.
"All we ask is that you make us proud again to be a Boston Red Sox fan," the sign read.
"We're trying," Henry told her.
From banning alcohol in the clubhouse to apologizing to a wronged player and planning to be "more present" this season, the Red Sox ownership group called the 2012 season "a new chapter." The last one was a doozy, one that included a stunning collapse on the field and embarrassing conduct in the clubhouse that brought about sweeping changes to the front office and managerial staff and sullied the team's image with its devoted fan base.
Team president Larry Lucchino and chairman Tom Werner addressed the team on Saturday before the workout, hoping to turn the page on last season, once and for all. Henry was present for the meeting but did not speak to the team.
"I would say we feel collectively that we have something to prove in 2012," Lucchino said.
The Red Sox blew a nine-game lead in the AL East over the final month of last season and afterward reports swirled of starting pitchers drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse on their days off rather than cheering their teammates on from the dugout, prompting ownership to get more involved in the day-to-day operations of the club.
New manager Bobby Valentine has banned alcohol in the clubhouse and the owners have taken on a higher profile with the team this winter.
"We said that we accept our share of the responsibility for perhaps not having a more open-door policy," Werner said. "I think we'll be more present this year. ... This is a new chapter. We've accepted some collective and individual responsibility."
General manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, the tandem that led the long-suffering franchise to two World Series titles, did not return, replaced by Ben Cherington and Valentine, and the Red Sox were not their typical aggressive selves in free agency over the offseason after spending hundreds of millions on Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzales last winter.
Francona raised eyebrows after he parted ways with the Red Sox when he said he couldn't get Henry on the phone to talk about it. Henry said Francona never left a voice message, and he contacted the manager recently to "clear the air."
"We had a long conversation a few days ago when I found out he was trying to get in touch with me and it was a great conversation, one that we should have had prior to this," Henry said.
Henry has been hounded by nervous Red Sox fans throughout New England who worry that he has turned all of his focus, and financial muscle, toward Liverpool, the famed English soccer team that was purchased by the Red Sox parent company last year.
"It's difficult because I'm not here today. I'm somewhere else," Henry deadpanned, poking fun at those who say he isn't around the Red Sox enough. "If I were here today, I'd say this is about baseball. Today is about baseball. With us, every day is about baseball. We have other things, too. But every day, pretty much, I think we speak 365 days a year, maybe 364. But virtually every day there's something related to baseball."
All three tried to dispel the notion that the team is cutting costs, with Henry vehemently stating that the Red Sox have the second-highest payroll in baseball. Lucchino called the team's $190 million payroll "a gigantically large commitment because there's a gigantically large commitment to winning in this organization. And if we haven't proven that to you in 10 years, then shame on us."
Cherington will have to be mindful of the luxury tax, Henry said. He also hinted that there should be a change in mentality back to the ownership group's earlier days.
"When we first came in, I think there was a fear that we were going to have a small-market mentality," Henry said. "But I think that was an advantage. It's an advantage to have a big payroll and a small-market mentality. I think we have to be more careful with how we spend our money. There's a lot to consider with baseball economics going forward."