Pride goeth before the fall. That’s how the saying goes, anyway. But this week, I think pride has done well for Terry Francona and hurt the Boston Red Sox.
As a fan of the Red Sox, it hurt to see them fall short in September 2011. Far worse than the collapse was the aftermath that played out in the newspapers and radio stations locally, with everyone from ownership down to the clubhouse attendants drawing blame for the September swoon. Of course, the lion’s share of the blame was placed on Francona and the team’s twin aces (Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, along with free agent bust John Lackey). The “chicken and beer” antics of the pitchers were childish at best and unprofessional at worst. The real damage was done to Francona’s reputation.
Players (including Lester, who had no room for input given his role in the shenanigans) whispered and confided in reporters that Francona had lost the clubhouse and the respect of his players. There were rumors that Francona’s divorce had negatively impacted his performance. Scurrilous accusations of prescription-drug abuse swirled around Tito long after he left the team by “mutual agreement”, and bad feelings between him and Red Sox ownership persisted.
That kind of atmosphere stayed strong throughout 2012, with Bobby Valentine taking the reins for the Red Sox as manager and Francona switching to a role as analyst for ESPN. Of course, we saw what happened: Tito grew his profile on Sunday Night Baseball while Bobby V absolutely flamed out in Boston, to the point where he embarrassed the franchise more in one season than anyone had in ages (possible argument for Eric Gagne here, but let’s leave that aside). By the end of the 2012 campaign, with the Red Sox finishing dead last in the AL East and 12 games under .500, most Boston fans were openly pining for Francona to return to the team as manager after Bobby inevitably got canned.
That, though, would never have happened even IF Francona didn’t parlay his year off into the managerial position with the Cleveland Indians. Fact is, two of the people most responsible for Francona’s character cut-down (Sox owner John Henry and team president Larry Lucchino) are still with the club, and there’s no chance Tito would be willing to come back to the team with the people who steamrolled him still in charge. Francona had no incentive to return to the Sox, and could build something new in a place with less pressure than the charged atmosphere of Boston.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox may yet emerge with a terrific manager from what’s available to them. But the whole episode goes to illustrate the importance of professionalism. Had the players merely taken responsibility on themselves, had the club brass not aimed to cast blame on Francona, had the local media not perpetuated the narrative, Francona might be more willing to return (or may never have been forced out in the first place). It’s too bad for Boston (and all Red Sox fans) that all that didn’t come to pass.