Red Sox turn Francona into scapegoat

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The Red Sox had only seven wins in September

NEW YORK – These men are hired for these jobs in baseball, to manage ballgames for a few hours a night and try not to do anything so stupid that it gets in the way of the actual baseball players.

For the other 21 hours, well, that's the hard part.

Following a Thursday press conference (that followed a 7-20 September) in which Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein admitted there were issues with player conditioning and preparation, numerous outlets reported Friday morning that manager Terry Francona would not return for his ninth season in Boston.

The confirmation came later in the form of a statement.

"We met with Terry Francona, Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington Friday morning to discuss the 2011 season, ways to improve the club in the future, and Tito's status," the statement read. "During the meeting, Tito, Theo and Ben agreed that the Red Sox would benefit from an improved clubhouse culture and higher standards in several areas. Tito said that after eight years here he was frustrated by his difficulty making an impact with the players, that a different voice was needed, and that it was time for him to move on. After taking time to reflect on Tito's sentiments, we agreed that it was best for the Red Sox not to exercise the option years on his contract.

"We have enormous respect, admiration and appreciation for Tito and the job that he did for eight years, including two World Series championship seasons and five playoff appearances. His poise during the 2004 post-season was a key factor in the greatest comeback in baseball history, and his place in Red Sox history will never be forgotten. We wish him only the best going forward."

Francona was not fired, technically, but his option for the 2012 was not exercised.

Francona left Friday's meeting without comment for waiting reporters.

Francona and Epstein had sat shoulder-to-shoulder Thursday afternoon in a small room at Fenway Park. Each was bent a little at the neck, each crossed his arms across his chest, each blinked at the table too much.

They were miserable. One, or both, seemed on his way out. For good. That much was clear.

Out there, past the old brick of their ballpark, across the ruins of their season, the New York Yankees – the stinkin' Yankees – were readying for October, like seven other teams.

But not the Red Sox, the $165-million Red Sox, the hugely favored Red Sox, the collapsible Red Sox.

[Related: Red Sox collapse rocks team's foundation]

They'd sit in a press conference room and explain to Boston what the hell just happened, and whose fault it was, how it all got so soft and bloated, and when exactly it was supposed to be fixed.

Epstein got this job at 28, back in 2002. He hired Francona, who'd just spent four difficult seasons as the manager in Philadelphia, a year later, after Grady Little had screwed up the first rule of field managing, which is to try not to over-think the damned game.

As luck would have it, the Red Sox would win their World Series in 2004. They'd win again three years later. Under Epstein and alongside Francona, who'd win 744 games in eight seasons, the Red Sox had themselves a decade.

Or most of a decade, anyway.

But, now the Red Sox weren't smarter than everybody anymore. They'd taken to black-topping their bad decisions with money, which granted them the freedom for more decisions, which led to more spending, which turned them into the Yankees.

[Related: Crawford's slide falls short for Red Sox]

Hey, it happens, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. It just has been lately. The Red Sox haven't won a playoff game since Oct. 18, 2008. That's three years, going on four. They've posted back-to-back third-place finishes in the AL East, in part because the Tampa Bay Rays are smarter, more streamlined, and hungrier.

You know, all the things people used to say about the Red Sox.

Want to know the difference between the Red Sox and Rays? A few days ago, there were reports Epstein hoped to acquire Chris Capuano(notes) or Bruce Chen(notes) for a possible one-game playoff against the Rays. Yesterday, the Rays, sort of in a jam for a Game 1 starter against the Texas Rangers, announced they'd give the ball to 22-year-old left-hander Matt Moore(notes).

Ultimately, the Red Sox – and Epstein – boxed themselves in. The climate they'd created to chase down and then overcome the Yankees had dissolved into a talent grab, a revenue grab. Screw tomorrow, the Yankees are out there.

And so on a late September day, Epstein leaned into a microphone and granted that, yes, somewhere along the line, the Red Sox had misplaced their clubhouse chemistry. Players, he said, were out of shape.

"Nobody blames Tito for what happened in September," Epstein said. "That would be totally irresponsible and totally short-sighted."

But, in the 21 hours that surround the game, what the manager is in charge of is chemistry and preparation. Instead, Epstein seemed to be saying, the Red Sox were disconnected and fat.

The next morning came reports that Francona would not be back, then confirmation that team and manager were parting ways.

Totally irresponsible, meet totally short-sighted.

Now Francona, about the best thing to happen to the Red Sox in eight decades, is free to find work with the Chicago White Sox, if he so chooses. And the Red Sox owners, along with Epstein, have their scapegoat, much as they'll try to think of other words for it.

The Boston Globe reported Friday morning that the decision came from "ownership level" which is Henry.

Presumably now the Red Sox will seek the antidote to Francona's player-friendly managing style, a man with a harder edge and a passion for sit-ups and wind sprints.

Maybe that'll work for a while, too.

What the Red Sox experienced was complete institutional failure. While that became most evident for those three hours every night, it was the other 21 they messed up.

The harder 21.

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