BOSTON — A devastating choke. The manager is sent packing. And the Boston Red Sox put the pieces together to win a World Series title the very next year.
The Red Sox are hoping they can recover quickly from this season’s unprecedented September swoon — just like they did in 2004, when Terry Francona replaced Grady Little after a catastrophic playoff collapse and led the team to the championship in his first year.
“This might be a good day for Terry as he goes into his next chapter. It might be a good day for the Red Sox,” chairman Tom Werner said at an ownership news conference at the end of another strange chapter in franchise history. “I think it was clear to us by the end of our days of conversations that we would look forward to a new leader.”
Francona’s tenure as Red Sox manager ended on Friday after eight years, five playoff appearances and the ballclub’s only two World Series titles since the 1910s. It was just two days after the team, which led the AL wild-card race by nine games on the morning of Sept. 4, was eliminated from the playoff race by the Tampa Bay Rays.
Technically, Francona wasn’t fired; the team had an option to renew his contract for two years, and it chose not to. But both sides insisted it was because Francona had grown frustrated with his inability to get through to the players and thought it was time for a new voice in the clubhouse.
“It was my decision,” he said. “I don’t know what I want to do (next). I know I want to stay in the game. This is all I’ve ever done. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. … It’s a little fresh to start thinking about other things.”
Although much has changed on Yawkey Way since Francona arrived — the ballpark has undergone a total makeover, with two shiny new World Series banners as the showpiece — the scene brought back memories of from decades past, when stunning collapses were followed by finger-pointing and blame.
One of them led to Francona’s hiring.
The Red Sox were five outs from beating the New York Yankees in the 2003 AL championship series when Little decided not to pull Pedro Martinez from the game and a 5-2 lead turned into a 6-5 loss. Little was not retained — much like Francona, he wasn’t exactly fired — and the team moved to put the fiasco behind it.
The next year, under Francona, Boston beat the Yankees in the ALCS and then the St. Louis Cardinals in the Series to win its first title since 1918. Another championship three years later seemed to give Francona lifetime tenure in the manager’s office at Fenway Park, but a 7-20 record this September cost Boston a playoff spot and, ultimately, Francona his job.
Unlike Little, Francona’s problems were behind the scenes.
A player’s manager who rarely criticized his players in public, Francona gave his 2004 team the leeway to behave like the “idiots” they called themselves because he trusted veterans like Curt Schilling and Johnny Damon to keep things from going too far. When the Red Sox won in 2007, the frat-house culture had been replaced by the more serious and subdued demeanor of players like Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew.
But this year’s team seemed to lack the leadership that could have helped turn things around when the Red Sox were on their way to the biggest September collapse in baseball history.
Jason Varitek, the team’s captain, was relegated to backup duty at catcher and may no longer fit in the role; David Ortiz is heading for free agency and doesn’t seem to want to lead; Adrian Gonzalez is perhaps too new in town to assert himself; Kevin Youkilis was injured down the stretch; Jacoby Ellsbury has five tools but leadership doesn’t appear to be among them, and Dustin Pedroia is more likely to lead by example even though this team needed someone to call a team meeting or call a teammate out.
Francona recognized that there was a void, calling a meeting himself early in September after a 14-0 victory — yes, victory — reportedly because of pitchers drinking on their off-days and players griping about the quality of the team bus. It was an unusual step for him, but it did not have the desired effect.
“That’s the big question and that’s what I was beating my head against so much,” Francona said. “I didn’t feel like the players need go dinner together but they need to be fiercely loyal on field. I didn’t always get that feeling, and it bothered me.”
Although the end came suddenly, there had been hints it was looming. After losing to the Rays in the ALCS in 2008, a year in which Francona was worn down by health issues, he said the job “almost sucks the life out of you.”
“But if there’s ever a day where I don’t feel like I can do my job,” he said, “I won’t do it.”
But that was not the problem this year.
“I don’t think this job helps my health,” he said with a laugh on Friday. “I wasn’t in great shape when I got here. I’m healthy enough to manage. I don’t have to run a whole lot. I have a lot good people taking care of me. I’m OK. Physically I’m fine.”
As with Little before him, the Red Sox praised Francona on his way out the door and said he would make a good manager — somewhere else.
“Wherever he goes next, the team that’s lucky enough to have his voice be the one coming out of the manager’s office, they’re going to really benefit from that,” general manager Theo Epstein said. “Because he’s got a unique voice and he inspires a lot of loyalty and a lot of hard work from his players.”
Epstein said the team would take its time to find the right replacement, just as it did eight years ago.
“We hired the right guy and he did a remarkable job,” he said. “And this organization’s forever changed because of the job he did here.”
Among those expected to be interviewed for the job are Red Sox bench coach DeMarlo Hale, who interviewed for the job when Francona was hired.
“I hope he gets serious consideration — if not here, somewhere else,” Francona said. “I think he’s a tremendous manager-in-waiting. … I hope he lands somewhere. He will be very good.”
Asked if he had a message for his successor, Francona said, “You have to be true to yourself. That’s kind of an easy one.”
“It’s a tough place, especially when you care a lot, as we all do,” Francona said. “It’s a wonderful place, but it’s a difficult place to be a manager, and it does wear on you. That’s just part of it and when I wears on you to the point that it affects you, time to move on.”