Boston Red Sox, Terry Francona and the message of “Catching Hell”

The look spoke of agony and helplessness. You should have seen it. Head down, eyes straight, voice low.

He answered questions the best he could without being rude, but his words were empty and, well, what could he say? The media scrum could have passed for a public lashing, and all Terry Francona could do was stand there next to the wall and bear it.

His Boston Red Sox had just lost 4-3 to the Baltimore Orioles and blown a nine-game lead in 25 days. Minutes before and some 1,000 miles south, Evan Longoria had homered to send the Tampa Bay Rays to the postseason. The Red Sox were out of the playoffs, done for the winter, see you in February. As reporters tried to pry quotes for their stories out of the manager, Francona looked numb. Imagine what he felt like.

When asked if he saw Longoria’s homerun, the bullet that pierced Boston’s fleeting playoff hopes, Francona sounded concussed.

“I … I, uh, no… I, I don’t know,” Francona mumbled to the simple yes or no question.

It’s because Francona did know. He knew what the backlash would be, knew the sharp tongues from the Nation would come quick to spit venom his way. Not even 10 minutes after Francona’s interview, the hosts of NESN’s postgame show lit the fuse. “Should Terry Francona be fired for this?” the NESN crew asked.

The question is four David Ortiz homeruns short of fair, but it was certainly timely. The night before, a documentary called “Catching Hell” debuted on ESPN. It was about Steve Bartman, the man who was blamed for losing Game 6 of the NLCS – and a World Series berth — for the Chicago Cubs after interfering with a foul ball that Moises Alou may or may not have caught. You may have heard of him.

Bartman and that painful Chicago memory was the sell, anyway. The real purpose of the documentary, the lead foot driving the plot, was to look at scapegoats and examine why our sporting culture tends to seek them out in losing times. The film paralleled Bartman with Bill Buckner and his 1986 World Series nightmare.

Until the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, Buckner was blamed for blowing a shot at a ring by letting a groundball sneak through his legs. There was still a Game 7 to be played, other errors occurred on the diamond in Game 6 – such as a wild pitch that allowed the tying run to score – but none of that mattered. Buckner was the guy. He was the sound block, and Red Sox fans mercilessly swung a gavel of wrath.

Now, the same bunch is swinging at Francona, because feelings are hurt, dreams are dashed, lifetime memories never even got to take batting practice, and there needs to be a release. That fury is uncontrollable, and so our response is to beat it into the flesh of those we feel are responsible.

The disappointment and frustration in Red Sox Nation today is not concerning. It’s justifiable. Boston lost 21 of its last 29 games, went 7-20 in September and Tampa Bay’s resurgence made for the greatest September comeback in MLB history. In the final month, Boston’s starting pitchers had a 7.08 ERA and accounted for five quality starts in 27 games. Twenty-one times in September Boston’s opponent scored first. Perhaps most painfully, the Red Sox lost Wednesday after taking a lead to the ninth inning. When leading after eight innings this season, the Red Sox were 76-0. Now 76-1, and we can understand the outrage.

But what is concerning is the source of this question that will now haunt Francona as he cleans out his Fenway Park office: Is it for the last time? Francona has a nearly impeccable track record as Boston’s manager, a track record that includes the only two titles the city has seen in the last 90-something years. There is no logical case that can be made for his firing. None.

And yet, there are those who are attempting to make them, and it goes against the pure foundation of what we believe sports are about. We say that sports are an emotional endeavor, life’s nook to lose ourselves and our senses. We claim that sports are more than just silly games, that they mean something substantial to families, towns and countries. We tell ourselves that a ballgame provides balance – and sometimes healing – to many.

This was on full display in St. Petersburg, where two career-defining homeruns for Longoria were briefly interrupted by a Dan Johnson shot with the Rays down to their final strike. As Tampa Bay rose from a seven-run deficit in the eighth inning to win, Twitter exploded with joy.

People who don’t usually watch baseball tuned in and were tweeting about it. Every third entry on my timeline included an f-bomb or some other series of expletives. I don’t believe this is because I follow the most vulgar mouths on the internet – although that may be true – but rather because all explanation dissipated. I laughed, only because I couldn’t find words that held enough weight for the moment.

Nobody would deny this, and nobody would want to. We would rather get lost in the inexplicability of it all. We could all agree that something happened in baseball Wednesday evening that is better left without trying to categorize. It’s more fun that way.

And then Terry Francona stood near the wall mumbling answers, talking heads wondered if this was the end of his Boston career, and we were all exposed as frauds. If there are great moments that can’t be explained, aren’t we guaranteed to experience some lows that can’t be explained, as well?

Why do we turn positively emotional in moments of victory but solely irrational in moments of defeat? That’s the question I suspect “Catching Hell” really wanted to answer.

As Francona trudged through his interview and the sound of items being hurled against walls ricocheted in the background, I couldn’t come up with an answer. I just knew that both responses come from the same place.

A place where all misdeeds must be accounted for, and illogical scapegoats are crowned in the name of temporary disgust.

Teddy Mitrosilis is an assistant editor for ESPN Insider. You can follow him on Twitter and reach him at tm4000@yahoo.com.

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