Terry Francona was no longer the right fit for these Red Sox
Terry Francona will not return to the Red Sox in 2012, the team announced Friday. The reason might have less to do with Terry Francona than the Red Sox team that has changed around him.
There will be those who say the expensively assembled team needed a scapegoat after losing a nine-game wildcard lead on the Tampa Bay Rays in the space of a month. And they may well be right. You can't spend like Louis XVI, come away with nothing, and not expect a little revolution. Someone had to lose their head.
Yet in the wake of a collapse that even number-crunching computers thought virtually impossible, there is something else altogether more necessary than a scapegoat at Fenway. And that could be the bigger reason Francona is not coming back.
That is leadership.
There is no doubting that Francona is a great man. And there is little doubting that Francona, in the past, has been a great manager of men. But there are doubts that Francona was a great manager of these men.
Doubts shared, not least, by Terry Francona.
In perhaps the most illustrative comment yet made from inside the Red Sox sunken ship, Francona on Thursday mentioned a team meeting he called on Sept. 6. The Sox (surprisingly) had just beaten the Toronto Blue Jays, 14-0, but Francona was seeing bad signs about the direction the team was headed.
"Teams normally... as the season progresses, there are events that make you care about each other, and this club, it didn't always happen as much as I wanted it to. And I was frustrated by that," he told reporters.
Is this the manager's job? Should Francona have brought pom poms to the dugout? Should he have thrown the Gatorade tub onto the field in anger once in a while? Should he have suplexed John Lackey during calls to the bullpen?
Consider the 2004 World Series-winning team.
The Red Sox had lost the first three games of the American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees. No team in major league history had ever come from 3-0 down to win a best-of-7 postseason series.
First baseman Kevin Millar's response: to taunt the Yankees. "Don't let us win tonight," he chirped, because if they did, the Sox would come back to win the series.
It was cocksure. It was absurd. It was brash.
But it was confident.
And the Red Sox won.
Pitcher Pedro Martinez of the 2004 team once said this of the feared "Curse of the Bambino." "I don’t believe in d*** curses. Wake up the d*** Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the a**."
Cocksure. Absurd. Brash.
This September? Fill-in-the-blank boilerplate. A bunch of mumbled, We've got to play betters, and, We're a better team than thises.
David Ortiz, full of swagger and vinegar in 2004, uttered this team's late-season motto on Sept. 11: "H***, yeah, you've got to panic."
What does all this have to do with Terry Francona?
He was the right man for the Idiots – 2004's band of brothers that needed only a pat on the rump and someone to stop them from bringing kegs into the clubhouse.
He might not have been the right man for the Uninspirables – 2011's fantastic collection of talent that ended up being more a museum piece than a baseball team.
Someone needed to take this team by the stirrups and drag it, kicking and screaming, into the playoffs.
It wouldn't have taken much. September was, by many measures, the worst month in the history of the Red Sox. The most losses in a month, ever. The highest earned-run average for its starters in a calendar month, ever. The most errors in September by any team in Major League Baseball this year.
Even a poor September would have qualified them for the playoffs.
But tail-kicking is not in Francona's toolkit. He is a manager of professionals, and the Sox of September were anything but.
Unable to press the reset button on his high-priced team, Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein has to go about looking for leadership by other means.
The free-agent market? Perhaps. But any money he spends there will be openly mocked after the way he opened the checkbook – to build this infamous team – last offseason.
No, the easiest way to hit the reset button on the tone of a team is by starting at the top. Sometimes it is scapegoating. Sometimes it is a sign of something deeper.
There is not doubt that this Red Sox team is a baseball club full of wonderfully talented individuals.
There is no doubt that Terry Francona is an accomplished manager.
That, however, does not mean the two were still the right fit.