BOSTON -- Terry Francona epitomized the term "players' manager" because his players respected him and he did whatever was needed to make sure the team succeeded as a unit.
When news broke that Francona, a two-time World Series champion and arguably the greatest manager in franchise history, was leaving the Red Sox, current and former players and staff members were disappointed and shocked.
Among the most stunned was Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. A former rookie of the year and MVP, a three-time All-Star, a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award winner, and a World Series champion, Pedroia said he owes everything to Francona.
"I love him. He's given me every opportunity in the world and given me the respect to play the game with a freedom, and that's what he allows us players to do," Pedroia said. "Geez, man, he's done everything for me and everything for my family, and he's done everything for me in the five years I've been in the big leagues. My heart's broken for him, and I wish he was back and I wish I could have played my whole career for him. It's going to be hard. I'm sure he'll come back a better manager and a better person for it. Us, as an organization, we're going to move forward together."
It's no secret Pedroia and Francona are close. The two continually joked with each other in the clubhouse. They would stand next to each other during batting practice on a daily basis. When Pedroia was a rookie and struggling in a big way, Francona stuck with him, seemingly knowing he would turn out to be one of the best and toughest players in the league.
Pedroia had surgery Friday night to remove the screw in his foot that was inserted last offseason. After the procedure, he spoke about his feelings and frustrations regarding the entire situation.
"It's hard, man, with the way we played this year, but by no means is it Tito's fault," Pedroia said. "We get paid a lot of money, and the biggest thing that I am upset with, and I think a lot of guys are upset with, is the accountability of each other. It's not the manager's fault. We need to hold ourselves more accountable as a team, as players. There are a lot of things that went on that were disrespectful, and we played like it. That's basically it, but Tito's had every single guy's back in that clubhouse from day one.
"This is tough. He's had my back; he gave me a chance when I was struggling as a rookie. I was hitting .150, and he stood by me and helped me become the player that I am today. I'll forever remember that. I'm sure there will be tons of offers for him because of what he's accomplished and what kind of guy and manager he is. He's going to move on, and I'll definitely be following him.
"I wish him the best, and I hope he gets a job in the National League for a team that we don't get a chance to play because it would be like playing against one of my family members."
Former backup catcher Kevin Cash, who spent parts of three seasons with the Red Sox (2007-08, 2010), said he couldn't believe Francona was leaving Boston.
"I'm shocked. It's unbelievable," Cash said. "Obviously I'm now looking from the outside in, but for the three years I spent with him, I'm just shocked. I've said it to just about everyone who has asked me, the best thing about him was the way he treated and handled his players. Whether you were David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia or the 24th, 25th guy on the roster, which was me, he did everything in his power to make you feel like you were equal with everyone with the way he treated you. He just made you confident and showed you the value you had with this club."
It's quite clear at this point that the clubhouse culture in 2011 did not mirror that of 2004 or 2007. It's simply not Francona's fault. It's those players who did not live up to those Red Sox standards.
During Francona's tenure in Boston, the Red Sox clubhouse always was loaded with superstars. He always had been able to handle all the different personalities and cliques behind closed doors.
"It was all right," one Red Sox player said, talking about the atmosphere in the clubhouse this season. "Some guys had some issues, and everybody was on their own program. It was different [than other years]. People were taking stuff more personal. Sometimes it got out of hand, but we've got good guys."
This season, especially in the last month, Francona said he felt he wasn't being helped in his efforts to stop the tailspin.
"Don't forget, a month ago, this team was on pace to win 100 games," Francona said. "When things started to go, I wanted desperately for our guys to care about each other on the field. I wasn't seeing that as much as I wanted to. I tried to help make that better, the coaches also, it just wasn't ever comfortable. You've heard me talk all the time about going in one direction and getting through challenges and meeting them together, but I just didn't think we were doing that. That's my responsibility to get them to do that, and it wasn't happening to my satisfaction."
Francona always has preached the importance of consistency. Without it, there's no way a team can be successful. Red Sox clubs in the past had that consistency and dedication. We've learned over the past few days that not everyone on the 2011 roster conformed to the Red Sox way.
"He did everything he could to put every player in a position to succeed consistently," Cash said. "I don't see how you're going to find a better guy to deal with the constant drama that's always going on in Boston because it is the Red Sox. He was incredible at handling all of it."
Even before the collapse in September was complete with a loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday in game No. 162, a team source said Francona felt his job was in jeopardy.
"It is time for a new voice," Epstein said at a news conference Friday evening. "But whereever he goes next, the team that's lucky enough to have his voice be the one coming out of the manager's office, gosh, they are really going to benefit because he's got a unique voice and he inspires a lot of loyalty and a lot of hard work from his players and it's going to lead to a lot of success."
No matter whether the decision was mutual or whether the organization allowed Francona to walk on his own as a reward for his success and dedication, it won't take Red Sox ownership long to learn the best man for the job just walked out the door.
And the players know that, too.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.