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Terry Francona ends up as the fall guy

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  September 30, 2011 02:05 PM

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After their season went down in flames, a plume of white smoke has emerged from Yawkey Way, and according to multiple reports, manager Terry Francona will be the fall guy for the Sox' epic September freefall.

Barring a drastic reversal, the most successful manager in modern Red Sox history will be relieved of his command after 744 wins, eight seasons, five playoff berths, and two World Series titles. So much for nobody blaming Tito for September's end.

In the end, Francona's greatest strengths -- what made him ideally suited to manage in the cauldron of noise and negativity that is Red Sox Nation -- his ability to shield his players from scrutiny and to bond with them on a personal level were his undoing. This team needed a kick in the pants in September, and Francona provided a reassuring pat on the back.

What Francona, who never got the credit he fully deserved from Sox fandom, regarded as the consistency and stability his players needed in the face of adversity and an unraveling season, the organization has come to view as the complacency at its root. No one will ever confuse Francona with Dick Williams. It's simply not his way, and to his credit -- and ostensible detriment -- he was true to himself to the very end.

After witnessing yesterday's CSI: Fenway with general manager Theo Epstein as candid coroner for the 2011 Dead Sox and Francona as uncomfortable and reluctant tag-along, this is the only possible outcome. It makes no sense to go into next year with an uneasy partnership and a lame duck in the dugout.

You didn't need to be a Navajo code talker to decipher that Epstein and upper management felt this team suffered from an acute lack of accountability. No matter how many times Epstein tried to fall on his sword for that fatal flaw, the general manager is not responsible for comportment in the clubhouse, or conditioning, or preparation. Those are all responsibilities of the field manager, always have been, always will be, whether it's Joe McCarthy or Joe Kerrigan.

To whom else exactly could these players have been more accountable on a daily basis: principal owner John Henry, Epstein, Jerry Remy, fans who purchased commemorative bricks? No, it's their direct supervisor -- Francona.

Requiring Francona to be present at that press briefing yesterday was the equivalent of asking him to attend his own funeral and then give the eulogy. But what became clear is that there is a fundamental disconnect between Epstein and the man he hired in 2003.

Epstein had a laundry list of work-ethic issues for the Sox to fix.

"The way the clubhouse culture has evolved ... we need to be more accountable," Epstein said yesterday. "If we require our players to be in first-class physical condition and to look out across the field and we want to be in better shape and better condition than our opponents, and if that's not happening consistently, 1-through-25, on the roster, then it's a problem. We need to get it addressed."

"If we're not better prepared than the other team, 1-25, when it's game time then it's a problem. It has to be addressed. If we're not doing the little things on the field, playing fundamentally better -- 1-25 -- than the other team that's a problem."

Francona acknowledged the team's character and chemistry shortcomings, but stopped short when it came to critiquing effort, which would have amounted to self-incrimination.

It's hard to blame Francona for this team's inability to bond. The Sox have reverted to the 25 guys, 25 cabs days, except now it's 25 guys, 25 cliques.

But where Francona is at least partially at fault is being allergic to criticizing his players publicly, which is sometimes necessary for accountability. Francona obviously has an affinity for John Lackey the person. But that shouldn't have prevented him from vituperating Lackey the pitcher when warranted.

The prime example was in a 7-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 9. A lackadaisical Lackey failed to cover first base on a hot shot that should have been the third out of the inning. Instead, two more runs to scored, and the Sox were down 5-0 after three.

Francona said Lackey was "a little late getting over." That's like saying Greece is a little late paying its debt.

Contrast that to the reaction Francona had when Jacoby Ellsbury, the team's MVP and one of the few players who manned up in September, got picked off trying to steal third base with two outs and Dustin Pedroia at bat during the fifth inning of a 4-3 loss to the Rays on Sept. 17.

Francona called Ellsbury's decision "ill-advised," which it was, and said though the center fielder's intentions were good, that to run in that situation you have to be certain you'll make it. Hardly scathing stuff, but by Francona's standards it was a stoning.

The guy who leads the majors in total bases but keeps to himself gets a public admonishment for an effort error. The worst starting pitcher in baseball who is friendly with the manager essentially gets a pass for an egregious mental error defined by a lack of effort. It doesn't take Carmine or any other piece of proprietary software to know that doesn't add up to accountability across the board.

Even yesterday, Francona went to bat for the fractious Lackey one last time, absolving his eye-rolling histrionics.

Francona did an excellent job here, and he won't be out of work long if he wants to manage this year. Only Joe Cronin (1,071) won more games as Red Sox skipper. Among managers who kept the job for five seasons or more -- a notable feat in and of itself -- only Don Zimmer (.575) posted a better winning percentage than Francona (.574).

Perhaps, Francona, who managed Michael Jordan for the White Sox' Double A affiliate, will simply change Sox, going from Red to White.

But sometimes the only way is to part ways.

"There was a lot of talent in that clubhouse, and we didn't get results commensurate with that talent," said Epstein.

Someone has to take the fall for that, and it's usually the manager.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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