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With Terry Francona’s Return to Boston, a Reminder of Vindication for Two Red Sox 'Scapegoats'

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COMMENTARY | It's funny how much one person can erase the pain of two completely isolated incidents.

When former manager Terry Francona returned to face the Boston Red Sox for the first time Thursday night, both parties couldn't help but be reminded of accomplishing the seemingly impossible together.

If Theo Epstein was the engineer of one of the greatest runs in Red Sox history, Francona was its conductor, guiding the franchise to its first World Series in 86 years. That victory less than a decade ago vindicated two different men whose only commonalities were being employed by the Red Sox and directly causing them to fail where Francona flourished.

Bill Buckner infamously--and single handily, depending on who you ask--blew Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets. The image of a routine grounder rolling through his legs in the bottom of the 10th has become unfortunately iconic in Red Sox lore.

It didn't matter that closer Calvin Schiraldi blew the lead two innings earlier, or that Game 7 was still to be played. As far as Sox fans were concerned, Bill Buckner was the "Curse of the Bambino" embodied.

Seventeen years and an an 8-22 postseason record later, the Red Sox found themselves in a familiar spot against a team from New York, victory within their grasp. This time, however, the guilty party wasn't a player but the manager in charge--Grady Little.

Though Little's "achievement" was purely the result of a decision rather than a blunder, he received no less criticism for it. In Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the rival New York Yankees, Little left starter Pedro Martinez in the game well past his expiration date. The three-time Cy Young winner had convinced his manager that he still had something left in the tank despite throwing well over 100 pitches, a number where his skills diminished significantly.

Martinez would go on to allow three runs in the bottom of the 8th, and Aaron Boone's walk-off home run broke the hearts of an entire city just three innings later.

Both Buckner and Little have drawn the ire of Red Sox fans, with Buckner even receiving death threats and quite literally being run out of town. Little was mercilessly mocked in the media and around baseball. One minor league team went so far as to introduce "Grady Little bobble arm dolls"

But Francona's march to a title in 2004 helped heal the hurt. 86 years of suffering had ended, and fans had little reason to hold contempt for either man.

As evidenced by the nearly four-minute standing ovation he got after throwing out the first pitch in the 2008 home-opener, Buckner was eventually forgiven.

And he forgave the hatred. "I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media," Buckner said. "For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I've done that and I'm over that."

It didn't hurt that the team was raising its second World Series banner in four seasons that day.

While the Red Sox and Little haven't "officially" made up, they did invite him to Fenway Park's 100th anniversary celebration last year. Fans seem to harbor no ill will towards him, but Little cannot be blamed for his apprehensiveness after the way he was eviscerated in the media and humiliated on his way out of the city.

Prior to 2004, Buckner and Little may have been considered among the biggest goats in Red Sox history, if not Boston sports. With both absolved following 2004, fans can enjoy the more positive memories in franchise history rather than relive the negatives. Buckner was a talented hitter, twice recording over 100 RBI for Boston while Little's two-year tenure saw the team win a combined 188 games.

In a different world, both men could have been beloved through the years rather than labeled the "scapegoats" that they had been. Thanks to Francona--though he may not be with the team anymore--we may now be in that different world.

Andrew Luistro has followed the Red Sox for over 20 years. He also writes for the Sunbelt Hockey Journal.

Follow him on Twitter @ndrewL7.

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