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Bob Ryan

Turmoil won’t shake Francona

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 24, 2011

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NEW YORK — When it does end, the odds are it won’t be pretty. Managerial changes seldom are.

On very rare occasions a manager voluntarily leaves what he considers to be a good job in order to take what he considers to be a better one. It’s so rare I can’t even think of any. But I’m sure there’s a baseball historian or two out there to set me straight.

But the average managerial change takes place at a time when things have just gone wrong, perhaps even horribly so. We know that pretty well in Boston. Consider how Terry Francona came to be the manager in the first place.

So, yes, Grady Little, Joe Kerrigan, Jimy Williams, Kevin Kennedy, Butch Hobson, Joe Morgan — I could go on and on — all got the job because the immediate predecessor was presiding over something deemed to be bad. Look, we are a couple of  days removed from the 42d anniversary of Dick Williams being fired just two short years after he had turned in the single greatest one-season managerial job in Red Sox history. In the unsettled world of major league managing, circumstances can change in a heartbeat.

Now, as you may have noticed, things aren’t going very well for the Boston Red Sox at the present time. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the captain of this sinking ship would have his job security questioned. Two world championships or not, it can easily become a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? scenario for Francona.

The source of the current flap was an interview given by my old friend Peter Gammons on Thursday’s Dan Patrick radio show. Gammons referred to a “growing disconnect” between Francona and general manager Theo Epstein. This caused a massive arching of media eyebrows because Gammons is known to be very close to Epstein, far closer, in fact, than the next 10 media members combined.

Theo has now responded twice to the story. First, there was an e-mail in which he said, “There’s no disconnect. We’ve had each other’s support and admiration for eight years and that doesn’t stop because the team has had a very difficult month so far.”

And then there was a dugout interview late yesterday afternoon. “We joked about it this morning,” Epstein reported. “We don’t ever have to dig deeper because, as anyone who is around the team on a day-to-day basis knows, there is no disconnect. What we have here is not a soap opera. We’re having a bad stretch. For eight years he’s had my respect and admiration, and I think the feeling’s mutual, and it will stay that way.”

Francona was, as those who have come to know him during these past eight years would have expected, unflappable when asked to comment.

“I’ll say it once so I don’t have to say it again,” he said during his daily briefing. “It would be disrespectful for me to spend one waking moment worrying about my situation. The idea is to win ballgames.”

He was then asked if he were surprised to see this become a story.

“It doesn’t really matter to me,” Francona said. “I feel the way I feel, and I won’t change how I feel regardless if a story is out there.”

The X-factor, of course, is the owner. John Henry has spent too much money on this team not to want his opinion counting more than anyone else’s. Some people think he isn’t 100 percent behind his manager, preferring someone who is even more into the modern baseball math than his current skipper. Should the collapse become complete, and the Red Sox not make the playoffs after holding that nine-game wild-card lead entering September, it would not be a shock if an enraged owner accentuated the negative and found himself a new manager, would it? Or would it? The owner betrays nothing publicly.

Should the manager be held accountable for what’s gone on? His pitching has gone Deep South. He’s lost 40 percent of his original starting rotation. John Lackey has been abominable. For three months he could rely on Daniel Bard to get the ball to a closer who was pitching as well as he ever has, and then Bard messed up four games in September, three in one disastrous week. Was Terry Francona responsible for that?

Was he responsible for Kevin Youkilis getting hurt? Or Big Papi before that? (I promise you I won’t reference J.D. Drew in this context). Was he responsible for his entire team’s inability to hit anyone on the Tampa Bay pitching staff?

Was he supposed to rally the team with Knute Rockne speeches? Was he supposed to go Lou Piniella nutty before, during, and after the games? Or was he supposed to be the same manager and the same guy he was while the Red Sox were the best team in baseball over a three-month period following that 2-10 start?

Asking around, you find there is one thing Francona could conceivably have done to help the team win another game or two during this horrible slump, and that would have been to take starts away from Tim Wakefield, and especially, over-his-head rookie Kyle Weiland, and give them to Alfredo Aceves. But Francona is a modern mainstream manager in that he is very bullpen-centric. He values having Aceves available two or three times a week in his current role too much to make that change. And that’s that.

Terry Francona is the son of a 15-year major leaguer. He knows how baseball works. He knows he already has beaten the local odds by managing the team for eight years, the longest such Red Sox stint since Joe Cronin ran the show from 1935-47.

He’s a big boy. If he does have to pay the price for any ultimate collapse, he will thank the Red Sox and move on to the next job. And there will be a next job.

Just remember what Yogi said and remind yourself that it’s not over. “There is a lot of baseball to be played,” reminded Epstein. There you have it, words for both the manager and the fans to live by.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan @globe.com.

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