As a peck of mainstream baseball guys report that Terry Francona will probably not return as manager of the Boston Red Sox – possibly by mutual consent – I can tell you that early in the week I was told by one source that it was a foregone conclusion. There was only the one indicator, so obviously I didn’t say anything, but I will note that all of the murmurs about people not being on the same page, and the Sox thinking Francona’s light touch with his players had somehow contributed to the September collapse, did not come out of thin air. I got to visit with my friend Tito over the weekend here in New York and while it was two friends talking and should remain that way, I have to say that all the stuff you’ve heard, he’d heard.
I think the Red Sox will regret the move. I’m wildly biased here – I think Francona’s got one of the great hearts in the game and he has never been anything less than amazingly kind to me and my family (as outlined below) – but there is the small detail that he remains the only manager to guide the inevitably flawed Boston team through the inevitably land-mined world of Boston sports media to a World’s Championship in the last 93 seasons (and twice). I don’t think he put together that pitching staff, I don’t think he made the fatal decision that Carl Crawford was a Pennant Race Pressure-ready player, and I don’t think he did anything but become a victim of his own success.
I’ve quoted the line so often that I think I owe its originator at least a flower basket. My former colleague at WCVB-TV in Boston, Clark Booth, told me 25 years ago that to understand the mindset of the Red Sox fan you must be very Calvinist, very bleak, very hopeless. “If the Red Sox win today,” Clark said, “it is only because losing tomorrow will hurt more.” Thus you heard actual adults in New England say that this month’s collapse was the worst thing they’d ever felt, which I guess is testament to the ability of Francona and his teams to wipe out the inherited memories of 1986 and 1978 and 1967 and 1946 and all the rest. In some respects, Tito’s a victim of that. Before him there had been no success – now there is evidently not enough of it.
This is a good place to tell a story from the 2008 All-Star Game. Early in the season we were cracking wise on the bench at the old Yankee Stadium when Tito suddenly observed that he was going to get to manage a game there from the home dugout. In fact, he would be the first Red Sox skipper ever to do so. “Tell me you’re going to come see me manage from the Yankee dugout!” I told him I would; that, in fact, I was going to bring my sister and my nephew down from upstate to see it. “How old is he?” I said he was going to be 10, and it would be his first major league game. “Remind me! I’ll do something special for him. Throw him a ball. Somethin’.”
Comes the day of the All-Star Game and the field is more packed with media than at any event I’ve ever attended. I couldn’t have found Francona with a GPS. No chance to remind him. What’s worse, my nephew has been told (not by me) that Uncle Keith had something special planned for him. Oops. The game, of course, dragged on into the 15th inning and until nearly 2:00 AM and my nephew and I were now in the front row behind Francona’s dugout, and with the indefatigability only a 10-year old can muster, he was still asking about that ‘something special.’ Finally it all ends, Uncle Keith is about to drop off the kid’s radar, and out of the dugout Francona bounds to do an interview, escorted by a friend of mine who was working for ESPN. I gesture to my pal to tell Tito just to wave or something.
Now, in the middle of the night, Terry Francona won me for life. As he starts to run back into the dugout my friend taps him on the shoulder, points to me, and makes the waving gesture. Instead of doing that, Tito runs over to us, doesn’t even look at me, and says, “You’re Keith’s nephew? You came down from upstate just for the game? I’m Terry Francona, I’m the manager of the Red Sox. Good game, huh? I hope you don’t mind, we heard you were coming so we did something special for you and played some extra innings. You ok with that?”
He managed that way, too. If he’s going, I think they’re going to miss him more than they know. I sure as hell will.