On Terry Francona's way out of Boston, Red Sox management shoved his reputation down a flight of stairs, dragged it outside and curbed it for good measure. If he was going to run a toothless clubhouse, they were going to render his character just the same. Little did they know Francona's emergence from the beatdown – and what it says about the Red Sox organization – would serve as the focal point for baseball's greatest melodrama today: the managerial carousel whirring for three of the game's biggest jobs.
Francona, it turns out, has been in contact with Theo Epstein, his former boss in Boston, the new president of the Chicago Cubs and filler of the second gig in the manage-a-trois. Their conversations show the respect accorded to Epstein and, by extension, a Cubs job that prior to his arrival would’ve been looked upon as rather dead-end. Moreover, they affirm that Francona lays blame not on Epstein but the Red Sox ownership that has to convince the next manager it won't similarly defile him whenever his tenure ends.
Epstein intimated that Francona likely doesn't fit with the Cubs right now, which takes us to the third team: the St. Louis Cardinals, who won a championship a week ago, saw their manager retire three days later and began interviews to fill the job Thursday. Francona, who seems to make every bit of sense for the Cardinals, is expected to interview with them in the near future.
How much the Cardinals make sense for him, of course, is the ultimate question he must ask himself as he weighs their opening against the Cubs'. Because of Francona's history with Epstein, perhaps St. Louis looks more appealing.
The Cubs' job is the best one open. Better than the defending champion Cardinals'. Much better than the $170 million-payroll Red Sox's.
This is not crazy talk. The quality of a job isn't simply about present-day talent, a category in which the Red Sox and Cardinals run parallel (provided Albert Pujols(notes) re-signs, of course), both eons better than the Cubs. Nor is it all about future talent, with the Cardinals' farm system among the best in baseball and the Red Sox's and Cubs' skewing bottom barrel.
The allure of the Cubs is in what could be – the same what could be that drew Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker and dozens of dreamers before them. If winning the World Series is baseball's apex, winning the Cubs' first World Series in more than a century is nirvana. Epstein wasn't leaving Boston, where he won two championships, for just any job. Jed Hoyer, the San Diego Padres' general manager, wouldn't trade a great job in the most gorgeous city in baseball for frozen winters unless he saw Chicago's GM job as a monster upgrade.
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Once the Cubs clear their payroll of the previous regime's short-term thinking that turned into long-term burden, they truly can start anew. The next manager will have a long leash accordingly. He can wait for Epstein, Hoyer and scouting savant Jason McLeod to restock the cupboard via free agency, amateur scouting and international aggressiveness. If Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has his way, the taxpayer-funded Wrigley Field renovation will be under way by then, turning a cash-cow franchise into a golden calf.
So when the Cubs came along, the choice for Epstein was rather obvious: It's better to be Neil Armstrong with them than any old astronaut with Boston.
Granted, the Red Sox have won two championships in the last eight seasons and are far from barren talent-wise. There are only 30 major league managing jobs, and someone qualified will want it, no matter how toxic a situation. And, yes, that is the proper way to describe what Red Sox ownership has done to their reputation in all of two months: turned themselves into hazmat.
No matter how forceful their denial of leaking Francona's use of prescription painkillers – use, Francona told the Boston Globe, that doctors deemed safe – the stigma around the game is palpable. "Who would work for them?" asked an executive from a competitor. "Win two World Series, handle yourself with class, get along with the Boston media and leave as a drug addict. Nice."
Still, nobody has turned down Boston's overtures publicly, nor is anyone likely to. Despite missing the playoffs two of the last three seasons, including this year's meltdown and the beer-and-fried chicken embarrassment that followed, Boston is a great job with an asterisk, which has one name for each of its six points: Larry, Lucchino, John, Henry, Tom, Werner.
Winning in Boston, still the sort of thing that can cause hysteria in one of the few baseball cities left, is a high. Losing there is a barbiturate, the Debbiest Downer possible, as Epstein and Francona can attest.
Ultimately, the Cardinals end up what an old, historic, classic franchise in the Midwest should: the safe bet. While the Red Sox and Cubs are working from what seems to be the same candidate list – no surprise, considering Epstein and his successor, Ben Cherington, developed one for Boston before Epstein moved on – the Cardinals' candidates have no crossover with the two others' public ones aside from Francona.
Tony La Russa occupied the throne in St. Louis for so long, succeeding him comes with the sort of comparison that shouldn't exist for Francona's replacement and won't for Mike Quade's in Chicago. For nearly two decades, the Cardinals patterned themselves after La Russa. And whether St. Louis' next manager is in his image (Jose Oquendo, Mike Matheny and Chris Maloney), partially so (Joe McEwing) or independent (Francona and Ryne Sandberg, a Hall of Famer with the Cubs), elements of La Russa and his two championships will hover over the franchise as much because his cult of personality as his exiting on top.
St. Louis presents a comfortable opportunity: the most stable present, the likeliest future success, minimal downside for losing, what with Cardinals fans loath to boo opponents, let alone those wearing red.
All are potentially great jobs, the sort that should come along once a decade. And here they are, all open, all intertwined, all riding the carousel that could stop any day.