A month earlier, a manager sealed his fate by deciding to keep his best pitcher on the mound late into an October night. It didn’t work out, of course. A desperate fan base still fought with The Curse every autumn, each loss compounding the pain.
Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in during the eighth inning of Game 7 in the ’03 ALCS, and a 5-2 Red Sox lead against the New York Yankees soon left, too. The Yankees went to the World Series, the Red Sox went into another offseason like the one before, haunted by the Bambino.
Now November, the Red Sox knew they needed another big pitcher to put next to Pedro in the starting rotation. They made Curt Schilling their top priority and hoped to trade for the Arizona Diamondback. But with Grady gone, Boston also needed a manager. These two needs were not mutually exclusive.
With Schilling the grand prize, the Red Sox narrowed their managerial search to a few candidates. Schilling’s old manager with the Philadelphia Phillies, Terry Francona, became the frontrunner.
Francona flew to Boston to meet with Red Sox officials while Schilling waited at his home in Arizona. Schilling made it clear at the time that he had no control over whether or not Boston hired Francona. But he still used Boston’s despair to force the hire.
“Terry is a huge part of this, he’s the No. 1 attraction there for me,” Schilling told the Boston Globe. “If he’s not the manager there, my interest in going to Boston would diminish drastically. He’s up there with the people I played for in terms of respect factor.”
* * *
The Red Sox hired Francona and traded for Schilling, and now they had just been embarrassed again in the playoffs, this time a 19-8 loss to the Yankees that put them in a 3-0 hole in the 2004 ALCS.
Red Sox Nation wasn’t furious at Francona or the Sox. They just figured it was over, the same doomed franchise, another cold winter. The New England Patriots reigned supreme in the NFL, and that was enough to distract from another bitter baseball story.
“It starts looking a little daunting if you start looking at too big of a picture,” Francona said after Game 3.
Boston must have laughed. “Who is this guy? A little daunting? A LITTLE daunting? Yeah, no S%&!.”
Nobody remembers that quote, and for good reason. There’s nothing inherently special or interesting about it. But then Dave Roberts steals a base. Mariano Rivera blows a save. David Ortiz sends a shot to the seats in center. The hole is still large, but Boston has gotten on the board with a Game 4 win.
While Fenway Park shakes with joy and Yawkey Way rocks with disbelief, Francona would have no part of the fun. There was nothing yet to celebrate. “We just have to get to Game 6,” the manager said.
The Sox would get to Game 6. And Game 7. And four games of the World Series, too. What looked like just another Red Sox season turned into the most incredible playoff comeback anyone in that town – and perhaps anywhere else, too – had ever seen.
“(Francona’s) demeanor never changed,” catcher Jason Varitek said in ’04. “That’s a great example for him to lead by.”
You could say the Schilling trade paid off. He kind of played an important role in the comeback. Maybe just a smidge.
* * *
Late in the 2006 season, the Red Sox called up a bat boy.
Or that’s what Dustin Pedroia was called until Red Sox fans realized that, no, that was actually their future second baseman. When Pedroia hit .191 in 89 at-bats, his Boston career had been decided. The verbal spears came from all corners of Massachusetts.
“That guy sucks.”
“He’ll never be anything.”
“Hey, who left the hat at second?”
In March 2007, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy set the doom and gloom tone of the season with a spring training column about all the things wrong with the Red Sox. In March!
“And then there’s Dustin Pedroia,” Shaughnessy wrote. “Any chance the kid is in over his head?”
When the kid hit .172 in April 2007, Shaughnessy’s column held firm and Boston radio hosts held Francona by the throat for his insistence on keeping Pedroia in the lineup. But Francona pulled Pedroia into his office, ensured him that he was sticking with him, and naturally Pedroia finished the season with a .380 on-base percentage and .823 OPS.
Pedroia won the Rookie of the Year award, the Sox won their second World Series in four seasons, and suddenly the kid wasn’t so bad anymore. Pedroia, ever grateful for Francona’s loyalty, spoke out in spring training the following year when the Red Sox gave Francona a three-year contract extension.
“It just shows what kind of guy he is and how he defends his players and sticks by us through any situation,” Pedroia said, who would go on to win the AL MVP that season. “He’s the only manager I’ve ever played for up here, but he’s the only one I’d want to play for.”
* * *
The best hitter to wear the Boston uniform since Ted Williams couldn’t decide which knee hurt.
He just knew that it was one of them, dang it, and he couldn’t play against the Yankees on July 25, 2008.
When Manny Ramirez brought that steaming handful of feces to his manager, Francona called him on it. Ramirez, wanting an extension on his current $160 million deal, decided to turn to hardball with his club. If there had been unsubstantiated claims that Ramirez was a morally corrupt teammate, well, guilty as charged.
When the Red Sox ordered Ramirez to have a MRI on both knees since he “couldn’t remember” which one hurt and the results came back clean, Francona went to GM Theo Epstein and the two decided to craft a letter outlining intention to suspend Ramirez. It was clear Manny didn’t want to remain in Boston without more dollars, and it was clear that he had become cancerous to the club.
So Francona made the decision he should have made – he helped the front office ship Ramirez out. When Ramirez was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, he had 20 home runs and an OBP just less than .400. The Red Sox got Jason Bay in return, but Bay wasn’t Manny.
It didn’t matter. Francona saw the engine was leaking oil, and if the Red Sox were going to ride through October, there needed to be a remedy. The Red Sox won 95 games that season and got to Game 7 of the ALCS before losing to a Tampa Bay Rays team that was on a dream ride of their own.
But to get Boston to that Game 7, it needed something during the summer. It needed something when Ramirez threatened to dismantle the clubhouse.
It needed a kick in the ass, and so Francona laced up his boots.
* * *
“Kick in the ass.”
Those are the words Red Sox fans are muttering today. Francona should go, he lost the clubhouse, they are saying.
With multiple media outlets reporting that the Red Sox and Francona are indeed parting ways, it seems that the Nation is getting what it wanted. It’s getting a fresh start. It’s getting its scapegoat.
It’s getting the reason everything went wrong this September, and it’s getting it served neat, no water back. Every ounce will burn going down, and that’s what Red Sox fans want at this time. Don’t give them excuses, give them scalps.
In a weird way, the Nation wants to be that sympathy figure again. There was an identity in the losing. No, they wouldn’t trade the titles, but they long for the edge the losing Red Sox teams had. So when Francona’s even-keeled tactics didn’t work – the same tactics that he used to push Boston past The Curse – the Nation jumped on him.
There is no denying something about this club needs to change, but it’s hard to see from here how that something is Francona.
Francona didn’t give John Lackey a mammoth contract and then order him to post a 6.41 ERA while leading the league in throw-up-your-hands-and-let-everyone-know-your-teammates-are-terrible moments.
Francona didn’t throw bags of money at Daisuke Matsuzaka only for him to slowly combust. Francona didn’t give Carl Crawford a nine-figure deal and then tell him to take 2011 off.
Francona didn’t take a bat to Josh Beckett’s ankle or Kevin Youkilis’s thumb. Francona did what he’s done since 2004. He put Boston in a position to win, and – wait for this novel idea – then hoped the players would come through.
But there had to be a fall guy, right?
Boston is using “loss of clubhouse chemistry” as the reasoning for parting ways with Francona, but it’s doing so without realizing that unless the cancers are cut, too, then the club just got worse.
If the selfish players who wrecked Boston’s chemistry this season are still there next spring, it doesn’t matter who the next manager is. The Red Sox ain’t winning.
On Grantland.com yesterday, Jay Caspian Kang wrote a love letter on behalf of Red Sox Nation. The piece began, “You know what? F— these guys.” Kang took six words to let you know what the next six months would be like in Boston.
In eight seasons, Francona brought more to the Boston Red Sox that anybody had in the previous 80. Most of those eight seasons were built around winning, an idea not engrained in Red Sox fans older than 12.
“Winning was nice, but man, I miss the bile,” Kang wrote.
Is that what you want Boston, the old times?
Once Francona cleans up his things and leaves Fenway for good, you got it.
Teddy Mitrosilis is an assistant editor for ESPN Insider. You can follow him on Twitter and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.