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Francona is toughest loss yet

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 30, 2011 10:34 AM

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It's all over but the finger-pointing, the whispered anecdotes of behind-the-scenes dissension, the internal bickering over the divvying of the blame pie. Terry Francona, the best manager the Boston Red Sox have had in my lifetime, yours and your granddad's, will no longer be the manager of the Boston Red Sox.

There was no sudden and stunning change of heart. All those mysterious returns to Fenway this afternoon didn't keep him from driving away. Tito is already gone, and all that's left to do is settle in, await the weeks of aftershocks, and try to spot the precise moment where the Red Sox ownership lost its way.

The sad rumor that Wednesday's season-ending debacle would stand as the final game of Francona's tenure took a sharp turn toward the inevitable during the postmortem press conference yesterday at Fenway. The tenor was even grimmer than expected after the evaporation of their season, a feeling of finality in the words and expressions of Francona and general manager Theo Epstein.

Now that his departure is confirmed, make no mistake: the moment it became official is the moment it should be declared that the first major decision of this crucial offseason has been as botched as badly as the Red Sox players botched September.

Call Francona's departure after eight seasons, five playoff berths, and two World Championships the collateral damage for the Red Sox' 7-20 meltdown in September. Call him a scapegoat, call it Steinbrenneresque, and absolutely call it the most foolish, shortsighted baseball decision by John Henry and the increasingly tone-deaf Red Sox ownership has made during its stewardship of this franchise.

With word coming from that tried-and-true transparent public relations stand-by for bad news, a press release late on a Friday afternoon, it was spun as a mutual decision initiated by Francona's sense that he couldn't get through to the players. Maybe there is genuine truth there. Maybe Francona is tired of this city, certain whiny and oblivious players, meddling from management, the effects it all has on his health. He's certainly tired of something; he wears the stress on his face. Maybe he's decided this is for the best, too.

But I refuse to believe he felt this way a month ago, when the Red Sox had a legitimate claim as a championship contender. Oh, we know how it came to this -- the Red Sox suffered a collapse for the ages this September, one that dragged on right down until the final batter of the final inning of the final game of the season. You know the timeline. On September 1, the Red Sox were in first place in the American League East, nine games up in the wild-card race on the Tampa Bay Rays. Today, phenom Matt Moore takes the mound for the Rays in Game 1 against the Rangers, while the Red Sox settle in to the offseason as a punch line for the ages.

Still, the magnitude and speed of the collapse doesn't explain how it came to this, how Francona went from as secure in his job as any manager could possibly be to a former employee of the Boston Red Sox in the matter of a month. The fallout is as ridiculous as the fall itself. You don't bid farewell to the best manager you've ever had in these grim circumstances. You support him, embolden him, while also telling him what he can improve upon, whether that's disciplining players or following the wisdom of numbers a little more often.

This is not meant as a suggestion that Francona was flawless. Such a thing as the perfect manager does not exist, other than perhaps in a Diamond Mind game or Bobby Valentine's mirror. But Francona was -- ugh, past tense -- the closest thing we've ever seen in Boston to an ideal manager, not only strategically, but also when it comes to the enormous and varied demands of managing a baseball team that is so much more than that to the region. He's communicative, wry, fair, forthright and logical in his reasoning, and those attributes helped him appease the fellowship of the miserable as much as any manager can. He's a second-generation baseball lifer with, it seems anyway, a reasonably open mind toward statistical analysis. Oh, and he was 28-17 in the playoffs, with eight wins in the World Series without a single loss.

titofinncard.jpgI'm not naive enough to believe there are lifetime managerial gigs; they almost always end badly. But I did believe his accomplishments would make him something of an exception, that he would someday exit on his own terms, with a thank-you and a salute rather than a shrug and a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. That there will be two straight Octobers at Fenway without playoff baseball should not diminish what he accomplished or the perception of his capability. Around the game, it won't. He's not going to lack for suitors. If the Cubs want to end their decades of futility, they should empty the vault for Epstein, whose support of Francona yesterday and again in today's press release ("his next team will benefit more than it knows from hearing Tito’s voice'') was telling, and let his first act be to hire the manager with whom he helped end an 86-year drought. If they could win there after winning here, the final stop for both will be in Cooperstown, New York.

It is fair to say that Francona's main failing -- a loyalty to his players that often extends beyond the point when they no longer deserve it, though not hardly in the Pete Carroll realm -- is in part what is hurting him now. Francona lamented yesterday that there were clubhouse issues -- a telling, out-of-character public admission of discord -- and when Jim Rice, who was complicit in the "25 players, 25 cabs'' culture of the '70s Red Sox, outright states that the Red Sox clubhouse is a "spa,'' you know the days of the affable, all-for-one "Idiots'' are even longer ago than they seem. Often, Francona was rewarded for his belief in his players, whether it was Mark Bellhorn in 2004 or young Dustin Pedroia in 2007 or so many others along the way. Believing in these particular players hastened his downfall.

Who would have suspected a month ago that this team -- I should say, so many individuals in this group, since this apparently was not a team by any stretch by the bitter end -- was so unlikable? They were soft around the middle and soft in big moments. There were countless innings and anecdotes that suggested complacency. There was David Ortiz second-guessing Francona about using Alfredo Aceves as a reliever, and Carl Crawford shooing away reporters asking about his latest hiccup by saying, "Go ask the captain.'' There are reports of cliques among the pitchers, of resentment among teammates, of a culture of entitlement, of complacency. What is this, 2001?

So let's get this straight: The players became divisive and lackadaisical, and they get to stay while the manager whose first championship predated the arrival of most of them has to go? Sure, that's going to solve the problem. That's likely to have the opposite effect, to embolden them, and don't tell me a hard-nosed manager is the cure to changing whatever issues there are in the clubhouse.

Dick Williams rated as the Red Sox' greatest modern manager until Francona came along, kicking Yaz and the rest in the rear-end and setting a tone of accountability that helped spur the Impossible Dream. He also wore out his welcome with the players in his third season, and that was more than 40 years ago. Imagine how the players of today would react to that approach. John Lackey would have to invent a whole new repertoire of contemptuous sneers just for the manager.

I wish I knew where they go from here, but I don't. I just have suspicions. I'm certain Pete Mackanin does not replace Terry Francona under any circumstances other than insubordination or a sudden onset of insanity. Joe Torre? No chance. He's more passive than Francona. A relatively obscure loyalist to sabermetrics? Could be on to something, though a search to fit that profile comes up empty here. Valentine . . . now that's interesting. He has extraordinary knowledge, and his sharp analysis on ESPN certainly could enhance his appeal to a particularly fickle owner. He's also a confirmed know-it-all who would make Kevin Kennedy seem demure. I like Bobby V., and I can say without hesitation that he would be a disaster here.

Then again, it's teetering on disaster here already. The problems -- bloated bodies, bloated paychecks, bloated egos -- remain, while Terry Francona, the man who managed them as well as anyone could, has left the ball park, a terrible error marking the end of an era.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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