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Intentional walk

Francona says it’s time to go

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By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / October 1, 2011

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Terry Francona spent his last day as manager of the Boston Red Sox coming and going from Fenway Park.

Francona’s eight-year tenure had more highs than any manager in franchise history, winning World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 and compiling a 744-552 record.

But it came to a jarring conclusion late yesterday afternoon when the team released a statement announcing the 52-year-old Francona had decided to part ways with the club after he presided over one of the worst collapses in major league history.

“The last month has been pretty tough, as everybody knows,’’ said Francona, who said he had private conversations with general manager Theo Epstein over the last month about his growing discontent with the team and his frustration over how to best get through to the players.

“We agreed to talk this morning with ownership and I felt like it was time for a new voice here,’’ he said. “I think it’s the right thing to do for the organization and myself.’’

After stumbling to a 2-10 start this season, the Red Sox and their $161 million roster, bolstered by high-priced free agents Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, rebounded by going 81-42 over the next four months.

Then came a September swoon in which the Sox went 7-20 and squandered a nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League wild-card race.

The Sox finished 90-72 and in third place in the AL East, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year - and third time during Francona’s tenure.

Francona met yesterday morning at Fenway Park with principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner, president Larry Lucchino, Epstein, and assistant GM Ben Cherington to discuss his future with the club and whether the team would exercise options on his contract for 2012 and 2013, worth $4.5 million per year.

Francona made it known he believed that it was time to move on.

And with that, the Terry Francona era in Boston was over.

“We want to profess our thanks, our gratitude, our respect and appreciation for Tito Francona for the job he’s done for this franchise over the last eight years,’’ Lucchino said in a joint press conference held last night with Werner and Epstein. “We owe him a debt of gratitude for the work that he’s done here with this franchise. He was a central component in the historic success this franchise achieved over these last eight years.

“He leaves with our respect and our deep appreciation for his accomplishments.’’

Asked what he would miss about managing the Red Sox, Francona replied, “Oh, I loved the games. The competition is for me, and doing it with people I care about. I’ve been so fortunate here to coach with guys like Brad Mills, and John Farrell, and DeMarlo Hale. You could go on and on.

“Standing with people that you respect and you admire is important to me. And there’s been so many players who have come through here, you can’t help but admire and care about them. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.’’

Hired in December 2003 as Grady Little’s successor, Francona took on a daunting assignment after spending the 2001 season as a special assistant to the GM with the Cleveland Indians, 2002 as the Texas Rangers bench coach, and the following season as bench coach of the Oakland Athletics.

Francona managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 1997-2000, going 285-363.Ed Wade, the former Phillies GM who fired Francona, still calls the move one of the greatest mistakes of his career.

It was a sentiment that came in hindsight as Francona, in his first year at the helm, guided the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years. As the wild card, the Sox swept the Anaheim Angels in the Division Series, then overcame a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, winning four in a row in the greatest comeback in baseball history. The Sox went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

Dealing with Manny Ramirez, who was named Most Valuable Player of that series, proved to be one of Francona’s greatest challenges.

“Thank you for brightening my day,’’ Francona joked, when asked how he managed to handle Ramirez. Yet he was unable to reach this year’s group of players, some of whom he’d known since he first arrived.

“When things started to go, I wanted desperately for our guys to care about each other on the field,’’ Francona said. “I wasn’t seeing that as much as I wanted to, and I tried to help make that better, and the coaches did also, but it just wasn’t ever comfortable.’’

The stressful nature of the job seemed to take a physical toll on Francona. In 2005, he was hospitalized with severe chest pains. Tests showed he had significantly clogged arteries. He had already suffered a pulmonary embolism in 2002 and had been undergoing treatment for blood clots as well as dealing with balky knees.

“Well, the job certainly aged me,’’ Francona said. “When I came here I thought I was weathered, but now that I look back, I looked like a teenager. It’s a tough place, especially when you care a lot, as we all do. It’s a difficult place [to manage] but it’s a wonderful place to be the manager.

“There’s no other way to get around it, it wears on you, but that’s just part of it.’’

In 2007, Francona presided over another World Series championship, cementing his legacy among the franchise’s greatest managers.

After going 96-66 and clinching the only division title Francona would win in Boston, the Sox swept the Angels in the Division Series before dropping three of the first four games to the Indians in the ALCS. The Sox, however, won the next three to advance to the World Series, where they swept the Colorado Rockies.

Francona, who compiled a 28-17 record in postseason play, became the only manager in major league history to win his first eight World Series games. In doing so, he became the second manager to guide the Sox to a pair of World Series titles, after Bill Carrigan led Boston to back-to-back championships in 1915 and 1916.

After he took the Sox to the 2008 ALCS, where Boston was defeated in seven games by the Rays, the team extended Francona’s contract through 2011 with two club options, guaranteeing him $12 million over the first three years between his salary and a $750,000 buyout if the team did not exercise its options.

Francona became the fourth person to manage 1,000 games with the Red Sox on May 6, 2010, and he recorded his 1,000th career victory July 23.

Francona said the 48 hours following the season-ending 4-3 loss at Baltimore Wednesday had allowed him little time to reflect on his tenure in Boston and what ranked as his lasting memory with the Red Sox.

“As you can imagine, it’s been an up-and-down couple of days, an emotional couple of days for me,’’ Francona said. “But the biggest thing I’ll always remember is [watching] the guys jump on the pile. That’s my favorite memories, because you have guys from all over different parts of the world who have fought through frustrations and you see the pure joy on their face. It means we accomplished what we set out to do.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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