Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sad days for Red Sox Nation – the end of the Francona era

Boston is a great town. One of, if not the best place to live, if you’re a sports fan. The devotion of Red Sox fans to their team is legendary. The team has sold out over 700 consecutive games. Team owner John Henry and his partners, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner, have done a remarkable job in owning the team.

In 2004 the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years and followed that up with another World Series in 2007. They’ve added to, and enhanced Fenway Park, beyond what many Red Sox fans and New Englanders believed was possible.

They’re not afraid to spend either, which fans love. The Red Sox 2011 payroll was $161 million, the third highest in baseball. They’ve earned the respect of Red Sox fans and the right to make decisions they feel are in the best interest of the ball club.

So it was on Friday, following the greatest September collapse in baseball history, Terry Francona was fired as manager of the Boston Red Sox. He will go down as arguably the most successful manager in Red Sox history, and a class act.

"We met this morning to look back on the 2011 season and to consider the future of the Boston Red Sox, including my involvement with the club. I passed along my frustrations at my inability to effectively reach the players,” Francona said. “After many conversations and much consideration, I ultimately felt that, out of respect to this team, it was time for me to move on. I've always maintained that it is not only the right, but the obligation, of ownership to have the right person doing this job. I told them that out of my enormous respect for this organization and the people in it, they may need to find a different voice to lead the team.”

He continued, “in my eight seasons as manager of the Boston Red Sox, I have developed a tremendous appreciation for Red Sox Nation. This is a special place with some of the most knowledgeable and passionate fans in all of baseball. They packed Fenway Park for every game and because of them, I had a special sense of pride coming to work every day.”

“I want to thank John, Tom, Larry and Theo for giving me the opportunity to manage this team through some of the most successful years in this franchise's history. I wish the entire organization and all of Red Sox Nation nothing but the very best."

Theo Epstein, who hired Francona soon after becoming general manager, was visibly shaken by this decision as he spoke to the media.

"Tito and I didn't know each other when he was hired eight years ago, but over time we developed not only a great working relationship but also a personal friendship that will always be important to both of us,” said Epstein. “He proved to be an unflappable leader for our major league club, displaying consistency, calmness, hard work, thoughtfulness, a sense of humor, and faith in the players even at the most difficult of times.”

“Without Tito's commitment over eight years, we would not be the organization we are today. Nobody at the Red Sox blames Tito for what happened at the end of this season; we own that as an organization. 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. I will miss seeing Tito every day in the manager's office, and I wish him and his family nothing but the best in their next chapter."

Boston’s two all-sports radio stations were ablaze with Francona talk Friday. Much of the anger was directed at John Henry and his two partners. Numerous media outlets reported Francona’s release would be announced soon after his 10 AM meeting with the higher ups.

That didn’t happen and at one point early Friday afternoon it looked like Francona’s future with the Red Sox wouldn’t be determined until early next week. Francona returned to Fenway twice after he left Friday morning the third and final time led to Henry and company releasing this statement:

"We met with Terry Francona, Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington Friday morning to discuss the 2011 season, ways to improve the club in the future, and Tito's status. During the meeting, Tito, Theo and Ben agreed that the Red Sox would benefit from an improved clubhouse culture and higher standards in several areas. Tito said that after eight years here he was frustrated by his difficulty making an impact with the players, that a different voice was needed, and that it was time for him to move on. After taking time to reflect on Tito's sentiments, we agreed that it was best for the Red Sox not to exercise the option years on his contract.

We have enormous respect, admiration and appreciation for Tito and the job that he did for eight years, including two World Series Championship seasons and five playoff appearances. His poise during the 2004 post-season was a key factor in the greatest comeback in baseball history, and his place in Red Sox history will never be forgotten. We wish him only the best going forward."

Francona didn’t feel he had the full support of management.

“To be honest with you, I’m not sure how much support there was from ownership,’’ Francona offered. “You’ve got to be all-in on this job. It’s got to be everybody together, and I was questioning that a little bit.’’

One report claimed ownership had decided two weeks ago that regardless of how the Red Sox finished their 2011 season they believed a change was needed. Another report said Henry and Francona hadn’t even spoken the last two weeks.

Francona’s beliefs appeared to verified when John Henry chose not to appear at Francona’s press conference Friday. Maybe, as Francona suggested, they weren’t on the same page.

Larry Lucchino was quick to respond, “I was actually puzzled by that comment,’’ said Lucchino. “I must confess to being a little puzzled by what was different than in previous years.’’

We’ll never know for sure if Francona is right. All we know is that on September 3 the Red Sox had a nine game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League wild card. It appeared to be a foregone conclusion they were going to clinch a playoff berth.

However, cracks began to show. Multiple media outlets reported Francona had lost the Red Sox clubhouse. They cited reports of starting pitchers drinking in clubhouse during games they weren’t starting.

Players were said to be physically out of shape and were complaining about the conditions of the team bus. Other players were upset about the teams’ schedule and other things out of Francona’s control.

The 2011 season was an unmitigated disaster and someone had to take the fall. It just happened to be one of the nice guys in baseball, it just happened to be Terry Francona. Rest assured though, while he may have been the first to fall, he surely won’t be the last.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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