BOSTON — The Terry Francona era in Boston began with the Red Sox first championship in 86 years. It ended after one of the worst months in club history.
Players who didn’t listen to him needed “a new voice,” he said, and his employers agreed.
The team announced Friday that it was not exercising its contract option for next season and wouldn’t hurry to name a replacement for the manager who rarely criticized his players publicly. That loyalty may not have been returned.
“I trusted them explicitly and things weren’t getting done the way I wanted it in the end,” Francona said, “and I was frustrated because of that. If that’s letting me down, maybe it is.”
But, he said he liked his players and “I actually feel I let a lot of people down.”
In a statement, the Red Sox said they wouldn’t pick up the option for a ninth year as manager following the team’s September collapse in which they blew a nine-game lead in the AL wild-card race. They went 7-20 in September, capped by a 4-3 loss to Baltimore, as Tampa Bay beat them for the playoff spot on the final night of the regular season.
Owners John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino acknowledged a change was needed and thanked Francona, who led the franchise to titles in 2004 and 2007. But the statement also mentioned that Francona was ready to head in a different direction.
“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,” the statement said.
The decision was part of a whirlwind day at Fenway Park that saw the principal parties shuttle in and out of the facility. Francona was in the building three different times.
As Francona drove away once in his Cadillac Escalade, a fan on the street clapped and gave him the thumbs-up sign. Later, after Francona had returned, the driver of a passing ambulance asked a reporter, “Did Francona get fired?”
A day on which talk shows in baseball-crazy Boston were filled with Tito talk took a strange turn later when Henry fell on his yacht moored in downtown Boston and was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital to be examined. WBZ radio reported that he walked off his boat wearing a neck brace.
“He’s fine,” Werner said at an evening news conference with Lucchino and general manager Theo Epstein. “He wished he could be here tonight so his absence, don’t read anything more than just he suffered a minor fall this afternoon.”
He said that at Friday morning’s meeting, management suggested Francona take the weekend to think things over. But he said Francona had made up his mind. He didn’t directly address a question of whether the team would have exercised the option had Francona wanted to stay.
“I was looking forward to hearing Terry’s point of view about how things could improve,” Werner said, “but I think it became clear to us that we couldn’t convince him to remain and I think that’s best for all of us.”
Boston missed the playoffs despite its nine-game lead with 24 left on Sept. 4. It went 6-18 after that amid reports of conditioning and clubhouse problems. The Red Sox did not win consecutive games all month.
“I didn’t feel like the players need to go to dinner together, but they need to be fiercely loyal on the field,” Francona said at a news conference after the announcement. “I didn’t always get that feeling and it bothered me.”
Epstein said Francona was frustrated with clubhouse issues before the September swoon. But that didn’t keep the Red Sox from going 82-44 between a dismal 2-10 start and the 6-18 finish.
“When you’re winning, a lot of that stuff gets covered up,” Epstein said, “and then in September when we started to lose, some of our warts were exposed.”
Francona said it was his decision to leave, although the owners seemed to want to make a change.
“I’m not sure how much support there was from ownership. I don’t know that I feel real comfortable,” said Francona, wearing a long-sleeved dress shirt instead of the red Boston pullover he wore during games and postgame news conferences. “It’s got be everybody together. I was questioning that a little bit.”
Lucchino said, “I was actually puzzled by that comment. We have done nothing differently this year than we have done in previous years.”
Werner gave a vote of confidence to Epstein, who has been criticized for giving long-term deals to underachieving John Lackey and Carl Crawford and is still under contract.
“He’s one of the best general managers in baseball and has been integral to the success of our club the last 10 years,” Werner said.
The official announcement praised Francona.
“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,” it read. “His poise during the 2004 postseason 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.”
The statement also quotes Epstein as saying, “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.”
Francona said he didn’t know what he would do next but wants to stay in the game. He could be interested in the managerial opening with the Chicago White Sox. He was a manager in their minor-league system, even handling a team on which Michael Jordan tried his hand at baseball, before becoming manager in Philadelphia in 1997.
He said he supports his bench coach, DeMarlo Hale, to replace him but there has been little speculation about who would take over. Hale has never managed in the majors and Epstein said experience in that job is preferable but not required.
Asked about reports of drinking in the clubhouse during games by starting pitchers not playing that day, Francona said, “I’d rather talk about generalities.”
In Francona’s four seasons with the Phillies, they had a 285-363 record with their best coming in 1999 at 77-85.
The Red Sox failed to make the postseason in Francona’s final two seasons but sold out every game since he replaced Grady Little after the 2003 season.
At Friday’s meeting, “I passed along my frustrations at my inability to effectively reach the players,” Francona said in the statement. “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.”
The decision came as both of the American League Division Series were set to begin. So, obviously, the Red Sox were a hot pregame topic in Texas and New York.
“I know how well liked he is by his players and that city and in baseball in general. He’s a great guy; he’s not just a good guy,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s not easy.”
Maddon’s Rays, and Joe Girardi’s Yankees both made the postseason out of the same division as Boston.
“These jobs are precious, there’s no doubt about it. There’s expectations. A lot of times they’re extremely high expectations when you’re in certain towns,” Girardi said. “We understand that when we take the job. High expectations are better than no expectations. You do enjoy it and you enjoy your time when you’re there.
“Tito has done a great job there.”
Francona was the second winningest manager in Red Sox history with a 744-552 record and an 8-0 mark in World Series games, sweeping the Cardinals and Rockies. He became the first manager to win his first six World Series games. They were 90-72 this season.
“I’m going to miss Tito,” Epstein said, “but I am excited that we’re going to get the right guy and that under his leadership these players are going to come together and form a winning team next year, a really good team.”