When Terry Francona was hired to manage the Red Sox in 2004, fans were justifiably skeptical – and that’s putting it lightly for the hefty portion of the Boston community that blasted the move. After four miserable years in Philadelphia and three subsequent seasons out of the skipper’s chair, there was little reason for optimism.
When he was fired – and Tito was axed, despite ownership’s insistence that he left on his own accord following the epic September collapse of 2011 – he left a smeared hero with arguably the greatest tenure of any Sox manager in franchise history.
For the first time since his messy divorce from the team, Francona returns to Fenway Park as a competitor tonight with his Central Division-leading Cleveland Indians, and boy will it be strange to see him in the third base dugout.
Sure, the media-friendly manager’s been back at the Fens a number of times since his ugly exit, whether as an ESPN commentator or to reluctantly join in the Park’s centennial in 2012.
It’s also not the first time his Indians have met his former ballclub, as the Sox swept the Tribe last month to the tune of a 19-8 overall drubbing in Cleveland.
But, location’s everything, and this evening is sure to be different when the two teams open a four-game set.
Admittedly, a star player returning to the city where he carved out a Hall of Fame career would be a bigger deal, but this is still noteworthy.
After all, he helped redefine winning for a franchise that had been championship-starved since Woodrow Wilson was in office. How about two World Series crowns during the George W. Bush era alone? Those self-proclaimed “Idiots” brought home one of the more entertaining titles Boston has ever seen.
He was at the helm as the organization reached record profits, and also unfortunately when ownership shifted its focus to ratings-driven sexiness and the dollar over winning on the diamond.
He was even in charge when the pink hat craze came to life, though you can pin that one on his bosses as well.
The Sox were the farthest thing from irrelevancy, certainly, but Francona guided them to a new dimension. Based on his track record, this might be akin to Tom Heinsohn or Claude Julien returning with other teams, which Julien may someday. There’s really no Patriots equivalent since only Bill Belichick has won a championship in New England. Raymond Berry would seem the closest.
To celebrate, there likely won’t be the sellout-caliber crowd Francona grew accustomed to from 2004-11 when the Red Sox never allowed for an empty seat – at least in the books – but fans will come out in droves. They’ll flock to the stands, complete with signs, banners and maybe even bald Big Heads, to give the man who delivered this city an eight-year run for the ages the ultimate standing ovation, just as they roared his name when he emerged from the center field garage a shade over a year ago on what may have been the last occasion he’ll ever don a Sox jersey.
Just imagine the cries if the Sox weren’t first place contenders themselves under John Farrell. Had the meeting occurred last year, Bobby Valentine may have put on the Groucho Marx disguise and booked it for his bike right after the exchange of lineup cards.
Don’t expect a video montage of his time on Yawkey Way, either. That’s too cheesy even for this marketing group. A free cribbage set to the first 5,000 fans? Maybe.
Alas, as we remember all too well, the Red Sox’ second-winningest manager of all-time was ushered out of town the scapegoat on the heels of chicken and beer and an out of shape, chemistry-less clubhouse of players who stopped listening and forgot about baseball when owners treated them like they were at Club Med. For Francona, recent memory may very well depict Boston as a place where years of service and devotion were repaid in the form of leaks to media about a pain pill addiction and marital troubles, with speculation that perhaps he was no longer fit to lead.
As we witnessed in 2012, sometimes the troubles really do start with the players. The bad managers magnify those issues, while the good ones create a mask. Francona did so through loyalty to more than a few big egos, emotional honesty, self-deprecating humor, and with an even temper.
Yes, some fans did grimace over Francona’s in-game decisions and trotted out nicknames like “Francoma” during his time here but, overall, he was overwhelmingly popular and his termination was a PR nightmare for a team that holds public image to the highest regard. The smear campaign coupled with the Bobby V hire made everything worse, and Francona look that much better.
It’s a new day in Boston and the Red Sox are on the upswing, and it's nice to see the same can be said for Tito’s Indians.
After finishing fourth in the Central in 2012 with 68 wins – one less than the Sox, if you can believe it – Cleveland’s 26-19 and a half-game ahead of the World Series runners-up Tigers. For context, the Indians haven’t made the playoffs since 2007 and have not consistently challenged since Kenny Lofton’s second tour. Plus, they’ve had their success in spite of star acquisition Michael Bourn’s nearly month-long trip to the disabled list.
The suit and tie ditched for a uniform and cap, Francona’s finally enjoying the game again and he deserves it.
Wonder if he’ll get lost on the way to the third base dugout?
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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