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Dan Shaughnessy

Ignore that spin from the brass - he was fired

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / October 1, 2011

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Terry Francona was fired yesterday. The longtime manager and the Red Sox brass used a lot of polite words and tried to make it sound mutual, but Francona turns out to be the first victim of the greatest collapse in baseball history.

On a bizarre and historic Friday at Fenway, the Sox and Francona generated more spin than the Harlem Globetrotters.

Francona blamed himself, worked hard to stay on message, but late in his goodbye press session, he veered off the rails and threw John Henry under the team charter.

“To be honest with you, I’m not sure how much support there was from ownership,’’ Francona offered. “You’ve got to be all-in on this job. It’s got to be everybody together, and I was questioning that a little bit.’’

Bingo. Henry has had Francona in his crosshairs for a couple of years. Ultimately, Francona was not enough of a numbers guy to satisfy Boston’s Moneyball boss.

All summer long, even when the Sox were rolling, the ball club steadfastly refused to trigger Francona’s contract extension. The 7-20 finish made Francona a perfect scapegoat.

There were plenty of real issues that led to Francona’s demise. With a $161 million payroll (third highest in baseball) and 15 former All-Stars, the Sox finished third for a second straight season. Francona lost the clubhouse. He loved his players, covered for them, and they turned Fenway Park into Delta House. It was Pete Carroll Redux. Treat them like men, they run all over you, then say, “You messed up. You trusted us.’’

Based on Francona’s non-denial, it’s apparently true that some of the Sox’ starting pitchers were drinking in the clubhouse during games they were not scheduled to start. A report in yesterday’s Herald broke the story and Francona rejected an opportunity to say that it was untrue.

Still, the Sox will want you to believe that Francona was not fired. They’re going with a fairy tale that the front office and the manager of eight years simply decided to part ways. It was the theme of the 5:30 p.m. press release announcing the change, and team chairman Tom Werner and general manager Theo Epstein kept the charade going last night - less than an hour after Francona effectively acknowledged he was not invited back.

It was ridiculous. Like the cataclysmic end of the season, this whole day was ridiculous.

“It’s my decision,’’ Francona said. “I think it was time for a new voice here . . . I wanted our guys to care about each other on the field and I didn’t think we were doing that.’’

Epstein said Francona “decided that there were certain things that needed to be done that he couldn’t do . . . and this team would benefit from hearing a new voice.’’

But ultimately it was a disconnect between Henry and Francona that prompted this change.

Henry did not appear at last night’s press conference. Lucchino and Werner said Henry “wanted to be here,’’ but reported that Henry had sustained a minor injury during the day.

Like everything else in Henrytown, Francona’s dismissal was rooted in the numbers. Eight years is a long time for anyone to manage the same baseball team. A 162-game season provides thousands of potential second-guesses for a stat-crazed owner. The longer Francona managed here, the more decisions Henry questioned.

Certainly there were some head-scratchers at the end. Maybe letting Tim Wakefield make nine tries for win No. 200 was a mistake. Pinch running Lars Anderson for Adrian Gonzalez last Sunday was interesting. Francona’s decision to bat Ryan Lavarnway (second big-league start at catcher) in the No. 5 spot behind Gonzalez Wednesday played right into the hands of Orioles manager Buck Showalter. Showalter intentionally walked Gonzalez three times and Lavarnway made the final out three times, stranding six runners. This was not God’s will. This was a blunder by the Boston manager.

Francona represented a nice blend of old school and Moneyball. He always had a computer on his desk, but had reverence and respect for the baseball lifers who played when his dad played in the 1950s and ’60s. But it was hard to deal with daily lineup suggestions delivered by everyone from Bill James to new stat guru Tom Tippett. Epstein and the minions were relentless.

Francona knew this day was coming. So he forced the issue, then spoke from his heart . . . just once.

“I was actually puzzled by that comment,’’ said Lucchino. “I must confess to being a little puzzled by what was different than in previous years.’’

Too bad Henry was not there to answer the charge.

Francona might go down as the best manager in the 111-year history of the franchise. Only Joe Cronin managed longer. Only Don Zimmer had a higher winning percentage (among those who managed here for at least five years). And when you break an 86-year-old championship drought, win two World Series titles in four seasons, you don’t have to worry about your legacy.

It’ll be interesting to see who the Sox can hire. Henry and Co. like big-name talent, but they also like someone who’ll go by their book. Bobby Valentine is not going to let sunshine-starved stat geeks dictate the lineup.

Maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman is available.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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