Sports Sermon: Sox self-destruct

October 6, 2011

If a manager or coach can win a championship during his tenure with a team, he is almost always considered a success. If he wins two titles—the first breaking an 86-year championship drought and the second coming just three years later—then he surely must be considered a messiah.

Such is the story of Terry Francona, former Red Sox manager and franchise legend. Winner of two World Series, in 2004 and 2007, Francona guided the Sox to eight straight winning seasons and five playoff appearances.

But with success comes greater expectations, and few fan bases take expectations as high as Red Sox Nation. Despite his two titles, Francona failed to meet expectations this year and is no longer managing the team.

Heading into September, the Red Sox led the Wild Card race by nine games with just 27 left to play. Over the next month, the Red Sox slowly crumbled before capitulating on the final pitch of their season, with a blown save loss to the Orioles enabling the Tampa Bay Rays to sneak into the postseason by the thinnest of margins.

The Red Sox started their offseason a month sooner than they had expected to on Opening Day, when sportswriters around the country seemed to almost unanimously pick them to be American League and even World Series champions. Instead of wearing a new ring, Francona will spend his winter job-hunting after mutually agreeing with the Red Sox front office that his time was up—just seven years after having lifted the Curse of the Bambino.

The historic proportions of the Red Sox collapse have sent the organization spiraling into chaos. Despite finishing third in the MLB’s toughest division and displaying one of the finest offenses of recent memory, “the choke” has franchise officials forcing drastic change.

While they insist they don’t blame Francona, clearly something went on between him and the team’s management that led him to walk away on his own accord. It also appears to be only a matter of time before general manager Theo Epstein is “allowed to leave” as well. But the Red Sox front office restates that it is not blaming any individuals, especially Epstein and Francona, for the team’s cataclysmic demise.

I’m not buying that for a second. Prior to this season there were hardly any jobs in sports safer than Francona’s and Epstein’s. The fact that both may be gone just a week after the Red Sox were eliminated from postseason contention clearly shows the Sox are pointing fingers. After all, why make these drastic changes if they still thought they had a winning formula?

Saying you don’t blame Francona doesn’t make it true. Besides, Francona isn’t gone because of the fallout of the last few days. He said he (regrettably) wanted to leave because this whole season had been particularly deflating. After a winter that saw his squad catapult to the third-highest payroll in baseball, the incessant pressure to provide the owners with a return for their investment understandably wore him down.

The Boston fans and media have to accept considerable blame for this unfortunate turn of events as well. Francona isn’t their first victim. After all, these are the same people that turned Bill Buckner, an honest big leaguer with more career hits than Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, into a cursed man.

While Sox fans went into hiding, avoiding their Yankee-sympathizing friends at all costs, the Boston media was rapidly calling for the organization to do something, sensationalizing the whole incident as if it was something other than a storm of injuries and slumping bats that caused the Red Sox to go 7-20 in September. Under no circumstances could this collapse go unpunished, they claimed, regardless of the baseball rationale behind it.

No one really believes Francona didn’t have another good season left in him or that the he’d lost respect in the clubhouse—nothing could be farther from the truth. Nevertheless, Francona had to go after the season to soothe the wounds of a city that thought another title was already in the bag. Expectations toppled yet another hero.

So congratulations, Red Sox Nation. You have just successfully run the best manager in franchise history out of Beantown.

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Gary K

You couldn’t be more right about Francona being a terrific manager for eight years less one month.

But blaming Red Sox Nation for running Tito out of town on a rail couldn’t be more off track. The Nation doesn’t blame him a bit. And I can cite expert opinion from multiple sources: virtually all callers to boston’s two sports talk radio stations, Dennis who sells newspapers at the train station, and my own good sense.

No, we all blame the players who failed to earn half of what they were paid. And ownership is catching more than a few arrows for being so quick on the trigger with Francona. At least they could have given him enough time to line up his next job, a la Theo Epstein.

No, the fans blame overpaid, underproducing players like Josh Becket, who sat on the clubhouse couch drinking beers during games in September. That behavior dissed the coach and the teammates who were on the field giving their all, ie Dustin Pedroia. And on days he pitched, he looked as out of shape and out of place on the mound as John Daly on a PGA tee.

And John Lackey dissed the coach, the team, and the fans with his lack of effort after being awarded his boatload contract. The only number greater than his bank balance was his ERA.

And now don’t forget about David Ortiz publicly second-guessing Francona about his pitching moves. That kind of insubordination was unheard of during the prior seven years.

Clearly it was the players who cut Francona’s knees out from under him, and the ownership cabal of john henry and larry luchino finished him off.

And one last correction: Bill Buckner deserves every iota of blame for souring his legacy. Letting that oh-so game-changing ground ball dribble through his legs stung the Nation big-time. Doesn’t every little leaguer learn in week one not to allow that? Even HE now admits that his rancid rep is well deserved.

No, Red Sox Nation doesn’t blame Francona. And we’ll still love him next year, when we beat him in the playoffs.


Reports say there could have been more going on with Red Sox manager Terry Francona this year than bad baseball. (ASSOCIATED PRESS File Photo)

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BOSTON — As the Red Sox disintegrated in what would become the worst September collapse in baseball history, some at Fenway Park grew concerned that the pain medication Terry Francona was taking after a half-dozen procedures on his knee was affecting his ability to manage, according to a report in The Boston Globe.

In a 2,500-word, front-page article headlined “Inside the Collapse,” the newspaper spread the blame on all sides: apathetic players eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games; a general manager who squandered a $161 million budget on underperformers; ownership that thought players could be bought off with $300 headphones and a party on John Henry’s 164-foot yacht, “Iroquois.”

But the most salacious revelations involved Francona, who left the team after the season when his contract options were not picked up. Since then, reports have surfaced about the dysfunction in a Red Sox clubhouse that produced a 7-20 record in September, turning what had been a once comfortable lead in the playoff race into an early offseason.

According to the Globe, team sources “expressed concern that Francona’s performance may have been affected by the use of pain medication.” The sources were not identified, the article said, saying those interviewed feared for their jobs or their relationships inside the organization.

The article also said Francona was worried about his son and son-in-law, who are Marine officers serving in Iraq. At the same time, Francona was living in a hotel, separated from his wife of more than 30 years.

Responding to the allegations that he was “distracted,” Francona noted that he was dealing with the same problems during the four-month period when the team was going 80-41. Francona’s ill health was no secret — he was taken to the hospital with chest pains from Yankee Stadium in 2005 — and he said he was taking the medication after multiple knee operations and at least five procedures to drain blood from his knee.

“It makes me angry that people say these things because I’ve busted my (butt) to be the best manager I can be,” Francona told the paper. “I wasn’t terribly successful this year, but I worked harder and spent more time at the ballpark this year than I ever did.”

Francona and second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who declined to assign blame for the collapse, were the only individuals who were willing to discuss the team’s clubhouse culture on the record. (Designated hitter David Ortiz also commented, but said, “I don’t feel like talking about it anymore.”)

Francona told the paper that he confirmed with Dr. Larry Ronan, the team’s physician, that he did not have a problem with drug abuse.

“I went and saw the proper people and it was not an issue,” Francona said. “It never became an issue, and anybody who knew what was going on knows that.”

If Francona was distracted, he was not alone.

A hastily scheduled day-night doubleheader to avoid Hurricane Irene angered players, who complained that management cared more about the money from ticket sales than winning. Sensing the “lingering resentment,” the article said, ownership threw a players-only party on Henry’s yacht and gave each player a pair of expensive headphones.

Pitchers Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Tim Wakefield also appeared — in their uniforms, in front of the Green Monster — in a music video for a country song, “Hell Yeah, I Like Beer.” Henry did not know about the appearance, he has said, and it is more troublesome when coupled with reports that Beckett, Lackey and Jon Lester were among those who would eat fried chicken, drink beer and play video games in the clubhouse during games, instead of being in the dugout with their teammates.

“The guys that weren’t down on the bench, I wanted them down on the bench,” Francona said recently. “I wanted them to support their teammates.”