NEW YORK – The perfect metaphor for the Boston Red Sox's season came straight from their manager's mouth. In crimson streams of spittle.
Terry Francona is not in good health. His knees, repaired by surgeons 20 times, still ache. His brain, worn by the fatigue of a disappointing season, the lymphoma diagnosis of pitcher Jon Lester, the heart palpitations of David Ortiz, the antics of Manny Ramirez and any other number of daily annoyances, pulses mercilessly. And on Aug. 27, following a sweep of the Red Sox by Seattle, his cheek started to bleed.
Four years earlier, following a pulmonary embolism, Francona had started taking blood thinners. Somehow, Francona mistook his blood thinner, Coumadin, for a sleeping aid, Ambien – both have doses delivered by oval-shaped pills – and when he bit his cheek, it gushed like a geyser. Not wanting to gurgle his own blood, Francona held a white washcloth to his mouth.
It wouldn't stop bleeding.
Such an affliction was dooming his team, which had suffered a five-game sweep at home by the Yankees and would endure another three-game sweep at Oakland following the Seattle series. The Red Sox, leaders of the American League East most of the season, World Series champions two years ago, had hemorrhaged.
And from then on, through Oct. 1, when the Red Sox play their last game, Francona will be there feeling the same way he has felt since his 47-year-old body started to wail and his team started to fold.
"Like (expletive)," he said between doubleheader games Sunday, when the Red Sox swept the New York Yankees and finished the series taking three of four games. "When the season's over, you can collapse. Up until that point, you just put it in overdrive and go.
"I mean, I'm supposed to check my blood every couple of days, and I had gotten lazy with that. By accident, I took a couple extra blood thinners. I cut my mouth and I bled for two days. You get caught up in things. I need to pay attention to what I need to pay attention to.
"I've got to take care of 25 guys. I'm last."
Managing the Red Sox is about as forgiving a job as tightrope walking, and for this reason Francona carries a container of Metamucil everywhere he goes. The fans are microbiologists, dissecting every decision, and psychologists, breaking down the reasoning, and sharpshooters, firing verbal or written bullets if the first two don't add up. They are pessimists, fatalists and narcissists, allowing themselves to be defined by what happens to the Red Sox. When they win, life is good; when they don't, life ain't.
Even so, Francona has escaped, at least thus far, relatively unscathed. Most of the blame for Boston's collapse filtered past Francona and toward general manager Theo Epstein, who less than a year ago could have won a mayoral election in Boston – unanimously.
Epstein sat pat at the trade deadline while the Yankees acquired Bobby Abreu and a few other pieces and parts. Epstein said the Red Sox never would be able to compete monetarily with the Yankees, which riled up the fans even more not only because it seemed to show weakness but also because they knew it was true, and any concession to New York feels like Israel praising Palestine.
In the meantime, all Francona had to do was sit through losing streaks of five, six and six. On Aug. 4, the Red Sox were 65-43 and one game behind New York. By Aug. 30, they were 71-62 and eight back. He called team meetings and patrolled the clubhouse to rouse his team and tried to understand Ramirez, a futile activity if there ever were one.
"My job is to be the manager and the leader of this team," Francona said. "So it's easy when things go well. Now that they haven't, it's my responsibility to make sure we don't fall apart. We bust our ass trying to do that. We had a tough stretch. If I hang my head, it's not going to work."
Francona doesn't like comparisons, so he's not going to call this his worst season as a manager. He spent four years in Philadelphia, a meat grinder itself, and never won more than 77 games. Boos became the Phillies' soundtrack.
Since "Sweet Caroline" has been rather sour, perhaps an image better defines the 2006 Red Sox than a song. And for all of Ortiz's late-inning heroics and the team's disheveled look following the Yankees' sweep, the enduring one came from Seattle.
During a meeting with Francona that night, Epstein wanted to talk about the game, about September call-ups, about anything. He couldn't help but notice another bloodied towel.
"Can you please stop bleeding?" Epstein said.
He said you.
He meant we.