Francona Leaves The Ship His Own Crew Sank

Adrian Gonzalez simply couldn’t resist intoning, “It was God’s will that we not make the playoffs.” Who would have thought reaching for the sop of predestination would make Carl Crawford look better in the aftermath than he did on the field all season long?

And was it God’s will that Terry Francona, arguably the most successful manager in Boston Red Sox history, should end the season not with a sixth trip to the postseason in eight seasons on the bridge but with a walk away from the ship his own crew sank and a fall on his own sword?

Crawford never once flinched from taking the blame for failing to secure what became Robert Andino’s game-winning, season-losing RBI single. He lunged for the dying quail and the ball hit the edges of his glove. Crawford spent 2011 looking like anything but the Gold Glove-fielding, run-scoring, near-impossible out the Tampa Bay Rays let go to free agency last winter. But he spent the hour after the Rays finished what the Red Sox started with their unconscionable September slide saying, “If I should have caught it, I could have caught it.”

A good man at a bad end . . .

Now Francona has taken the fall for the Red Sox’s plunge. Statements from owner John Henry, general manager Theo Epstein, and Francona himself suggest Francona declared a new voice was needed at last and it was best to move on, leaving the Red Sox room not to invoke his 2012 option. So Francona wasn’t fired, he fell on his own sword. That may yet prove to be a lot more solid than one of his players invoking God’s will, whether or not God would have invoked it, but it doesn’t make any less painful Francona’s departure.

It was one thing to invoke God’s will over those 86 years between 1918 and 2004. Those years produced transdimensional heartbreak that came from honest effort. It’s something else to invoke God’s will over one season that ended with too many people questioning whether there was a heartbeat and an honest effort, too many people wondering whether the Red Sox—who’d shoved back when pinned to the wall facing their final strike of a likely 2004 American League Championship Series sweep-out, and who took only three years to slip a second World Series ring of the Aughts onto their fingers—became what they and theirs once despised, overly faithful in their own greatness.

Baseball may have its ways of humbling the hubris-hugged, but the manner in which these Red Sox had their hubris blown up in their faces may yet take a very long time to overcome. When you open a season leaving people to wonder at your demise, pick up and pounce and then leave people wondering only the margin by which you leave everyone else behind, and finish by leaving people to ask whether the real Boston Red Sox would please stand up, it’s going to leave marks slightly worse than the marks of 1946, 1948, 1949, 1967, 1971, 1975, 1978, 1986, and 2003.

When Leon Culberson, sent to spell Dominic DiMaggio in center field, threw a little too high to Johnny Pesky as Enos Slaughter turned the basepaths into a track meet, it might have left Pesky with the unfair image of holding the ball just long enough but nobody accused anyone of a lack of effort.

When Joe McCarthy started Denny Galehouse instead of Mel Parnell, everyone assumed the brainy McCarthy must have known what he was doing. When McCarthy lifted Ellis Kinder, only Kinder questioned the boss’s thinking but nobody else thought the great McCarthy could have suffered a brain fart. When Dick Williams sent Jim Lonborg to the mound on two days’ rest after being unable to open the World Series with his Cy Young Award winner-in-waiting, nobody questioned the move because everybody would have screamed blue murder if Williams had sent a more fresh arm not named Lonborg, a 22-game winner, to the Game Seven mound. You meet ace (Bob Gibson, in this case) with ace, right? The fact that Lonborg was gassed would have been irrelevant to the screamers.

When Luis Aparicio stumbled around third base, nobody once thought that a Hall of Famer in waiting who had done the heavy lifting in restoring the stolen base over a decade earlier wasn’t trying to get home good and strong. When Darrell Johnson lifted Jim Willoughby, there might have been some grumbles but few suggested Johnson’s brains had gone to bed. When Bill Lee threw Tony Perez an eephus, everyone knew Lee was throwing a variation of what he earned most of his living on, the slow curve, and everyone but Perez knew that Perez couldn’t hit one of those with a door. When Bucky Dent found the far side of the Green Monster, it was early enough yet that the Red Sox could come back, right?

When Mookie Wilson’s grounder took the weird hop and glanced below Bill Buckner’s mitt and through his wicket, after the Red Sox had been a strike away from breaking the actual or alleged curse, some of us reminded ourselves that there would still be a seventh game to play. When Grady Little played Johnny Keane to Pedro Martinez’s Bob Gibson in Yankee Stadium (Keane had said famously, explaining why he never thought of lifting Gibson in a hammer-and-tongs Game Seven, 1964, “I had a commitment to his heart”), only the truly sour among Red Sox Nation would (and did) condemn Little for standing by his man, who’d insisted he still had something left in his empty tank.

Little’s execution after that ALCS allowed people one and all to forget that, after the Yankees tied it up, it went to an extra-innings showdown between Tim Wakefield’s butterfly and The Mariano’s cutter, a three-inning showdown that ended only when the first knuckler Wakefield served (to Aaron Boone) was served into the left field seats. But while it was happening, and Wakefield and The Mariano threw everything they had of their single-pitch repertoires while the Yankees and the Red Sox picked and pecked gamely but to little produce until the bottom of the eleventh, nobody was complaining when a good old hair-raiser was in the works.

Now, the Terry Francona Red Sox go a second straight season without a trip to the cotillion. And for the first time since he shepherded the Red Sox through the breaking of the (actual or alleged) curse and its most successful spell (including a second World Series triumph) possibly ever, people question the Red Sox heart.

Once upon a time, Francona led the busting of an (actual or alleged) curse . . .

The evidence exhibits include the Red Sox never once winning two in a row after they swept a 27 August day-night doubleheader from the Oakland Athletics.

They include stupefying blowouts against the Toronto Blue Jays and losses in between each and every one of them.

They include a rookie no-name named Lavarnway hitting two bombs in Baltimore 27 September, thus hitting his way into the number five slot in the 28 September lineup . . . and taking an 0-for-5 collar haplessly enough while his mates were slowly but surely finishing the deflation they’d begun almost a month earlier.

They include, reportedly, the starting rotation quaffing a few too many brewskis between starts. This one, however, is just a little bit on the side of the ridiculous. The 2004 Idiots reveled in their pre-game shots and won it all playing a script Eugene O’Neill himself couldn’t have forged. Apparently, it’s only safe to sip the spirits when you’re winning the hard way.

They include, reportedly, waftings from and around Yawkey Way that Francona was all but asleep at the tiller, or at least catching a few too many cat naps, or maybe believing a little too arduously in his own surety, while the rats were playing in his clubhouse, except maybe together. Waftings that include team chemistry broken into separate and unequal elements. Waftings that include Jacoby Ellsbury, who’d made his bones during the 2007 triumphs, and who practically carried what remained of the Red Sox offence down the stretch this time around, trusting few and confiding in one, Jed Lowrie. Waftings that include David Ortiz continuing his individual mentoring but lost for a way to pull more than factions together. Waftings that include Francona lost for making the best of what little he had in his bullpen.

He thought consistency would get them through the worst of it, and in the end it got them the worst of it. He thought he had the right clubhouse culture and in the end he had to admit he, too, was frustrated that, at long enough last, he could no longer reach his players.

Epstein spent the hours after Wednesday’s summary execution in Baltimore saying Francona wasn’t to blame but there was plenty of blame to go around, including maybe to himself. On Friday, when the eyes of the game and America should be on the division series opening, they were on whether Francona’s and Epstein’s day would finish with one, the other, or possibly both heads on plates. Someone had to be accountable for what too many people are calling the Red Sox’s sloth this season.

Epstein remained bent on making sure it wouldn’t be Francona to blame. “Nobody at the Red Sox blames Tito for what happened at the end of this season; we own that as an organization,” said Epstein’s Friday statement, which opened with Epstein proclaiming and praising his personal friendship with Francona. “This year was certainly a difficult and draining one for him and for us. Ultimately, he decided that there were certain things that needed to be done that he couldn’t do after eight years here, and that this team would benefit from hearing a new voice. While this may be true, his next team will benefit more than it knows from hearing Tito’s voice.”

Francona may have kept being himself, his becalmed and empathetic self, in the dugout and the clubhouse, but responsibility for the Red Sox’s condition begins with the manager. Epstein may have kept being himself, his cool, analytical, non-intrusive self, but responsibility for a possibly mismatched roster begins with the general manager, these days, unless Francona was allowed roster input heretofore unknown. One of the keys: Epstein’s inability to land a solid piece of pitching either at the non-waiver trade deadline or during the waiver period. He tried, but he couldn’t land it. Another: The big deals he handed troubled John Lackey and deflated Carl Crawford bit him where it hurt this year. And the Red Sox will be stuck with those deals for another few years.

The speculators are already pondering whether another long-accursed club, the Chicago Cubs—who got thatclose to facing maybe the Red Sox, of all people, in the 2003 World Series—has eyes for Francona, Epstein, or both, assuming Epstein’s might be the next Red Sox head to roll.

The Cubs are looking for a permanent general manager and may be preparing manager Mike Quade’s guillotine, never mind Quade a few days ago saying he expected to return for 2012. The problem is that Cub Country is already on their knees praying that the Cubs will reach back to Ryne Sandberg, who should have gotten the job in the first place. He bolted for the Phillies’ organisation (which reared him in the first place) after the Cub snub, and Cub Country wants the Cubs to ask his forgiveness while please taking over as the manager. Epstein would look phenomenally attractive as the man to re-tool, re-die, and re-direct the Cubs’ organisation. And he might not be as much of a mismatch to Sandberg, a teaching as well as a thinking manager, as some people might fear, if Sandberg does end up in the job he never really stopped wanting and broke his can trying to earn.

They’re not the only Chicago hunters with eyes on the Boston game. The White Sox need a manager now that the Blizzard of Ozz has gotten his apparent wish and been handed the Miami Marlins (that’s their new name, folks) tiller, after a round of shenanigans worthy of the early Steinbrenner era. (Ponder: Ozzie Guillen released from his contract, general manager Ken Williams claiming he offered to resign over the White Sox’s unproductive season, bench coach Joey Cora—Guillen’s consigliori, for all intent and purpose—named to managed the last two White Sox games, then Cora being canned before he’d even loaded his pen to write his first lineup card.) Francona is Guillen’s polar opposite. And he’s got two World Series rings to Guillen’s one.

Francona also has 2011 to overcome.  I don’t know Francona’s spiritual inclinations, but I doubt he’s the kind of man who really thinks God’s will includes his team possibly, potentially, having plain quit on themselves and on him, with only a handful if that many standing up to be counted for better or worse. But Francona also has to live with something he may never have thought possible. The very thing that made him a great Red Sox manager and maybe the greatest (only Joe Cronin won more games; only Don Zimmer has a slightly better winning percentage; however, Francona has two more World Series rings than either of them)—his ability to bond with his players, keep the heat off them as deep as possible, and let them be themselves knowing they could and usually did take care of business accordingly—has just exploded in his face.

Worse than anything Joe McCarthy, Dick Williams, Darrell Johnson, Don Zimmer, John McNamara, or Grady Little ever knew. Because Francona, a good man at a bad end, took the bridge when the ship had been merely torpedoed. Eight years later, he was compelled to yield it after he couldn’t stop his own crew from sinking it.

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