It was not, technically, a firing, but it wasn't a happy parting of ways.
The manager -- now former manager -- of the Red Sox held one press conference, his employers another, to explain the sequence of events and conversations that led to the end of Terry Francona's career at the helm of the Red Sox clubhouse and dugout. After eight historic seasons in Boston, the second-winningest manager in franchise history has moved on, and everything about the final note of that tenure seemed tragically removed from everything that had characterized it.
In his final two press conferences -- a forum in which he had always performed so brilliantly, and in which he had often seemed to take great pleasure -- Francona seemed like a defeated man. He slumped in his chair, confessed to distress borne of a clubhouse that had presented him with unprecedented challenges and, in the end, bolted from the sessions like a man who could not wait to make his exit, like a cartoon character who leaves contrails in his wake.
It was a sad ending to a glorious tenure. Francona will be remembered as one of the greatest managers in Red Sox history. The fact that his exit -- a mutual decision between the manager and the team that his two-year option would not be picked up -- occurred in the wake of an epic September collapse will not alter that legacy.
All the same, the exit did leave plenty to digest. On a day when Francona met with principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner, CEO Larry Lucchnio, GM Theo Epstein and Assistant GM Ben Cherington to discuss the state of the team and his future -- or lack thereof -- with it, a great deal came to light about the present and future of a Red Sox organization still reeling from the incredible array of dominoes that were so freshly toppled.
TERRY FRANCONA WAS READY TO LEAVE
In the end, the disconnect was not between Epstein and Francona. It was between Francona and the club. And the manager knew it.
In his eighth year, the skipper simply felt that his message was falling on deaf ears, even with players who had listened in the past. And given that communication is the cornerstone of the ability to work with a group of players in order to, as Francona often put it, “pull in the right direction,” that meant that the Red Sox skipper who had so often been so brilliant in that regard was no longer in position to do his job effectively.
The results during the 7-20 month of September -- a still-unfathomable stretch that will leave many Red Sox scratching their heads for months if not years to come -- were bad enough. But when the Sox responded to a team meeting called by Francona on Sept. 7 by going 5-16 down the stretch, and amplifying the very behavior that the manager had meant to address, the conclusion became clear to all parties.
Francona felt that he had been tuned out, a reality that wore on him during the month of September, when he started mulling the possibility that it was time to move on. While he noted that it felt as if the support of team ownership had waned during this final season, it is unclear if a greater show of support would have led him to a different outcome than the one that arrived on Friday.
“It’s my decision. It was my decision,” said Francona. “I felt frustrated, like I just said, with my inability to reach maybe guys that I had been able to in the past or affect the outcome a little bit differently. And that bothers me. …
“I think it’s time for a new voice here. I was frustrated with some of my inabilities to get some things done here. After talking to ownership and Theo at length, multiple times, I think it’s the right thing to do for the organization and myself.”
THE TEAM WASN’T PUTTING UP A FIGHT TO STOP HIM FROM GOING
It was like a game show, in which the contestant knows the answer but the host leaves a pregnant question to hang in the air almost as an exercise in prolonging the inevitable:
“Is that your final answer?”
This was not a hatchet job. Francona was not savaged on his way out the door, nor did the team push him out of it. But certainly, no one got in Francona’s way -- either by suggesting that his two-year option would be picked up prior to or during the season, nor at the end, once Francona opened the door to the idea that he believed that change might be in the organization’s best interest. The owners' stance had the feel of a passive-aggressive denouement, with the team not wanting to say that it wanted Francona out, but also not wanting to proclaim that it wanted him back.
The Sox did not ask Francona if he would return. They asked if he wanted to return without ever putting an offer for him to do so on the table.
“I think they wanted to know about how I felt about coming back, I think that’s a fair way to put it,” said Francona. “And I told them a lot of things that were on my mind – obviously a lot of things about the organization, then the team, what went right, what didn’t go right and then I told them I thought it was time for a new voice. And it’s not an easy thing to say. But I thought it was the right thing to do.”
The owners offered Francona time to reflect on that concept and to ask himself whether he truly believed it. Epstein said that he had told Francona that he could take “a couple weeks off … to look himself in the mirror” and determine if he could be the voice to reconnect with the clubhouse.
But the manager felt that he did not need the benefit of additional time to draw his conclusion.
“We tried to slow the train down a little bit and ask Terry to think about it over the weekend,” said Werner. “As he said in his press conference, I think he made up his mind and, so, that’s how this was resolved.”
Indeed, whereas the owners offered to leave the matter open, Francona wanted to get immediate resolution on it. And that, in turn, led to the agreement that the team did indeed need a new voice. With no indication that Francona could provide that himself, the agreement to part ways was reached with little difficulty.
And while the Sox offered the manager time to slow the decision-making process, no one -- whether a member of the baseball operations department, a member of the ownership group or Francona himself -- felt compelled to make a strong stand to suggest that the two-time World Series winner was that man.
THE INMATES WILL BE ASKED TO RUN … SOMETHING THAT’S NOT AN ASYLUM
The leadership issue for the Sox reached beyond the disconnect between the manager and his team.
While Francona was no longer an effective messenger for the clubhouse, it also appears that the players did not effectively police themselves. To the contrary, the idea that pitchers were not merely drinking during games (a practice that is more prevalent in the game than most would care to admit) but doing so the point where it became a factionalizing clubhouse issue suggests that there was a far-reaching leadership void.
Francona’s departure undoubtedly will stir the pot, something that, in turn, the team hopes will help alter the culture in a way that players will hold each other to a higher account.
“I’m confident in this group of players and their character,” said Epstein. “I think there are guys who are leaders now who are really going to step up and really lead this club in the face of what we just went through. There are guys that are talented enough on this club to be leaders who haven’t demonstrated active leadership in the clubhouse who are moving into a phase in their career where they’re going to do that. Tito would agree with me.
“We have an opportunity now, coming off as as disappointing a month as there’s ever been in baseball history, as disappointing a last day of the season as there’s ever been in baseball history, for players to step up and take the reins a little bit.”
AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MANAGER
For just the third time under the guidance of the Red Sox ownership group, and the second time under Epstein, the Sox must now conduct a search for a new manager.
Immediately, that lends itself to wild speculation about potential candidates, most of it unfounded. The Red Sox have barely begun to contemplate how their search will proceed. The matter of who will come to Fenway to take part in a thorough vetting process has not yet been explored at any length.
The Sox do, however, have some sense of how the process will go. Just as was the case when they hired Francona after the fall of Grady Little in 2003, a process that concluded almost five weeks after Little’s firing, the team will prioritize a thorough process over a speedy one.
“As for the process and timetable, we haven’t even begun to tackle that,” said Epstein. “Obviously, this just came down today. Obviously, we’ll do a thorough job. We want to get the right guy. That’s more important than doing it quickly.
“With respect to what qualities we’re looking for, this is a tough job. I’ll use the same process we used eight years ago when we identified and hired Tito. Looking back at that process eight years ago, we found the right guy and hired the right guy. He did a remarkable job, and this organization is forever changed because of the job he did here.”
Epstein said that the Red Sox would prefer a manager with big league experience, but that they will not rule out candidates who lack it. Clearly, tremendous clubhouse skills will be at or near the top of the list in terms of credentials given the circumstances of Francona’s departure.
The Sox, noted CEO Larry Lucchino, had not yet started a list of candidates to replace Francona because they had not been expecting his demise. Even so, there will be a fascinating balancing act between finding a player with both the resume and mix of skills -- a great communicator who is able to command the respect of the clubhouse even while protecting it from the chaos of Boston, a strong in-game tactician who can also act in the long-term interests of the organization and who can create an environment conducive to player development, someone who buys into organizational philosophy rather than reshaping it -- to succeed Francona.
For instance, given that Don Wakamatsu was fired as the manager of the Mariners because he was at the helm of a clubhouse mutiny, rumors of his candidacy may have been overblown. The idea of Bobby Valentine also seems like a longshot, given both the fact that he is not afraid to espouse philosophies counter to those of the organization and his reputation as someone who sought rather than deflected credit.
On the other hand, while someone such as Blue Jays first base coach Torey Lovullo -- an individual with tremendous interpersonal skills and whose player development background (he managed the PawSox in 2010) would fit many traits that the Sox seek -- he has only one year on a big league coaching staff to his credit.
It is notable that in the Sox’ last managerial search, the three top candidates -- Francona (A’s bench coach), Joe Maddon (Angels bench coach) and Bud Black (Angels pitching coach, who declined to be interviewed) -- were all big league coaches with significant front office and/or player development backgrounds. The only one who had big league managerial experience was Francona, who was labeled a failure in Philadelphia.
And so, the reality is that the Sox will surely look for managers with big league experience, but they’ll almost as surely find few viable candidates who have had such jobs, and there’s virtually no chance that -- barring an effort to plunder a manager who remains under contract to another club -- the Sox will find someone who fits such a profile.
Instead, this will likely assume the dimensions of the Next Great Manager Search, in which the Sox will find the best candidates to be ones who either have not managed or have not won, but are poised to do both.
THIS ISN’T THE END OF THE CHANGES TO THE STAFF
Francona is the first, but he won’t be the last. Others will see their jobs end or at least be changed within the organization in the aftermath of the calamity.
Francona will not be the band-aid who will be removed and replaced, with everything healing under him. The issue was broader than him, and the effort to address it will also spread beyond him.
First, a new manager is always given leeway to shape his coaching staff. And, of course, given the fact that Epstein said it would be necessary for the Sox to examine everything about the organization’s pitching infrastructure in Thursday’s year-ending state-of-the-team press conference, it would seem that pitching coach Curt Young faces a particularly uncertain future.
Right now, the organization has informed the coaches that their future roles are up in the air given that a managerial search impends.
“It’s always the case, when you hire a new manager, not every manager of the coaching staff’s job is secure. You always want to make sure the new manager has the ability to bring in some of his own guys,” said Epstein. “I told the coaches how much I appreciate their effort, and they’re going to get my strong recommendation to the new manager, but that we can’t have final resolution on the coaching staff until we get the new manager in place.”
AS FOR THE GENERAL MANAGER…
In the last two days, the question has been asked of GM Theo Epstein as well as Chairman Tom Werner and CEO Larry Lucchino. Will Epstein be back with the Sox in 2012, and does he want to be?
The answers have been strikingly non-commital. Epstein said that when the Red Sox are at their best, there is no better organization in baseball … while noting that the organization was not at its best this year.
Asked if another team had asked for permission to talk to Epstein (the Cubs having been rumored to harbor interest in the Sox GM), CEO Larry Lucchino suggested that the Sox were “not prepared to answer that question here. This is a press conference about the contributions that Tito has made to this franchise. Besides, Theo is under contract with us, so it is an issue that has not been addressed or discussed.”
“Nor do I hope to address it,” added Werner, “because I think we feel collectively that he has been one of the best general managers in baseball and has been integral to the success of our club the last 10 years.”
There is no indication to this point that Epstein wants or plans to leave. To the contrary, given his interest in the long-term strength of the organization, the way in which the season ended may have made it even more difficult for him to leave.
Even so, given the striking non-comments on his desire to remain in his current job, it appears safe to say that Epstein has been giving thought to his career beyond the expiration of his current contract following the 2012 season, which will mark his 10th as the general manager of the Red Sox. And at this point, whether his next move is in his current organization or to a new one, some industry observers would be more surprised if next season wasn’t Epstein’s last as the Red Sox GM than if it was.
IT’S STILL A GOOD TEAM
The unmasking process would be far less thorough had the Sox managed a 9-18 record in the final month of the season. But, whether fairly or not, the 2011 Red Sox are going to be remembered as the team that had such a poisonous clubhouse atmosphere that it led to a historic collapse and Francona’s demise.
The way in which the year ended made it seem as if success is hopelessly distant, and that after two years without postseason baseball, the Sox are a team and organization in chaos. But despite Francona’s departure, that’s not entirely accurate.
Put it this way. Next spring, even if the Sox made nothing more than changes at the margins, they would still enter the season as a favorite to reach October. Despite a succession of events that went horribly awry, the team still feels like it has the makings of a club that can fulfill its considerable expectations.
A return to health by Clay Buchholz and Kevin Youkilis alone would be sufficient to improve the team’s outlook to that of a team capable of reaching the mid- to high-90s in victories. It is for that reason that, despite the drama surrounding the managerial change, the idea of detonating the core of the team has not been floated.
Entering the year, the Sox believed that they had the makings of a winning team for the long haul. The franchise still feels that way.
“We feel this is a great bunch of guys down there,” said Werner. “I think everybody in this room thought that we were one of the best teams in baseball until the last month.”
AND, IT’S WORTH REMEBERING, FRANCONA PLAYED A HUGE PART IN AN EXTRAORDINARY PERIOD
It may well be that no manager except Terry Francona would have allowed the unique and chaotic ensemble of talent to coalesce in a fashion that led the Sox to their first World Series in 2004. He was the perfect fit for that unforgettable frat house of personalities, and his tremendous run of in-game decisions in the postseason played a huge role in allowing the Sox to rip off an 11-3 record that October, as well as a 27-18 mark in his six postseasons.
It was an incredible run, and for most of it, Francona represented the perfect fit for Boston and for the Red Sox clubhouse. The sad reality is that all managerial relationships eventually run their course, but that should not obscure what was a glimmering era in Red Sox franchise history.
Nor, apparently, did it do so for Francona. At the conclusion of a few days that had been crushing, the Red Sox skipper nonetheless could allow himself to reflect on the moments that had brought him unparalleled joy in his career, and in the lives of many people who were involved in and bore witness to them.
“I think the biggest thing I’ll always remember is watching guys jump on the pile,” said Francona. “[Those are] my favorite memories, because you have guys from all over different parts of the world that have fought through frustration and you can see the pure joy on their face, that means we accomplished what we set out to do.”
And while the end of Francona’s tenure came abruptly and miserably, it is fair to say that his career in Boston accomplished what it set out to do. For eight years, Francona presided over a team that harbored championship aspirations and that twice (in five trips to the postseason) fulfilled them.
And so, in contrast to many of his predecessors who will be remembered for their demise, Francona’s tenure will be remembered for the very celebrations that he took such joy in watching from the dugout where he made his home for eight remarkable seasons.