- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- It never ceases to amaze how an employee's termination notice can be spun to sound like a winning lottery ticket.
Terry Francona, loyal to the end, went along with the charade, too, until he was asked whether the owners of the Boston Red Sox ever told him Friday morning, "Hey, Tito, we'd be much obliged if you'd return next season and the season after that, because we'd like nothing better than to pick up the two option years on your contract -- the one we gave you for winning two World Series in four years."
Well, no, Francona said at his farewell news conference Friday night, right around the time he had planned on being in uniform for the first game of the American League Division Series. They never did say that.
Come to think of it, he admitted, he had some doubts about whether ownership had his back at all. Why did he choose not to come back, instead of deciding, dammit, I'm not letting one bad month dictate my future?
"Some of it may be personal," he said. "I thought it was time. And again, to be honest with you, I didn't know, I'm not sure how much support there was from ownership. And I don't know if I felt real comfortable. You've got to be all-in in this job, and I voiced that today. It's got to be, everybody has to be together, and I was questioning some of that a little bit."
Now, understand, there are two separate issues in play here. One is to pretend this all was Francona's call. It's true that Francona, when asked in the morning meeting whether he was prepared to "saddle up," hedged and said, well, can't say that I am, according to someone familiar with the play-by-play from that session.
"He told me directly to my face, 'I'm taking some responsibility for this, I wasn't able to reach these guys, I think it's time to move on,'" general manager Theo Epstein said in the nightcap of the news conference twinbill, Epstein and chairman Tom Werner and CEO Larry Lucchino filing in after Francona had his say.
(Silent John Henry would have been there, too, but he reportedly fell on his yacht and sustained a minor injury, one that required an ambulance ride to the hospital, a neck brace and a free pass to miss the onerous task of explaining why he'd let his manager go.)
"It surprised me," Epstein said, "that his feeling was that extreme about it."
It takes a lot to lobby to lose your own job, and here's why Francona did:
(1) He was already convinced ownership didn't want him back, which is why he was telling members of the organization he was finished the day before he was officially gone.
(2) He had reason to feel that way, not the least of which was the radio silence the team's owners maintained while the team was in free fall. Henry did not deign once, Francona said, to offer a word of encouragement to the manager of the hometown nine in the final month. At least Henry, on those rare occasions when he sat in his box next to the dugout, didn't hold his nose when Francona came out.
(3) There was a personal, off-field component that might have made it attractive for Francona to decide he'd be better off to make a fresh start somewhere else.
But as we said, there are two separate issues here. The second is whether Sox ownership had probable cause to press for a change. Given the stories that have surfaced in the past couple of days -- the kind of stories that tend to stay underground unless a team pulls off the greatest collapse by a seemingly playoff-bound team in history -- the answer is an unequivocal, how-was-this-allowed-to-go-on yes.
Starting pitchers drinking in the clubhouse during games on days when they weren't pitching, which can leave one boozily indifferent to the plight of teammates after they've just lost in extra innings? Originally reported in the Boston Herald, it was not only confirmed here, but with the added twist that it has been going on the past two seasons.
Francona didn't want to go there Friday afternoon, reasoning that if, as manager, he'd never singled out players before for petty crimes and misdemeanors, including the poster boy for such behavior, Manny Ramirez, he wasn't about to start now. Fair enough, although a public spanking might have been just desserts for Josh Beckett setting such an embarrassing standard for the other starters on the team.
"Josh has some real leadership qualities, but this time he didn't lead left, he didn't lead right, he led wrong," one uniformed member of the team said.
Lucchino said after Friday's news conference that he had a "quite low" level of awareness "until very recently" that this had been going on. His reaction when he did find out? "Surprise," he said.
And? "Yeah, there were some other emotions, but I'd rather just leave it at that," he said.
An indifference by some players to conditioning. "Gluttony," one Sox executive called it, although he stopped after just one deadly sin.
"A sense of entitlement," Francona said.
No sense of urgency during the September apocalypse.
No clubhouse leadership. "They don't need a leader," one prominent Sox player said Friday. "They need a babysitter."
Add them all together, and suddenly you have an inmates-running-the-asylum environment. Throw in a manager more detached than usual, perhaps in part because of his own personal issues, and you don't need Lucchino's law degree to make a case for fumigation.
The player who will miss Francona most, cribbage partner Dustin Pedroia, railed at what he perceived as the injustice of the manager taking the rap.
"It's not the manager's fault," he told ESPNBoston.com's Joe McDonald. "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."
Francona spoke Friday about how he placed "explicit trust" in his players. Clearly, some of them betrayed that trust. It's on them, but it's also on him.
"When things go bad, your true colors show, and I was bothered by what was showing," Francona said. "It's my responsibility to fix it."
Yes, it is. And Francona didn't.
As long as the team was winning, it was easy to look the other way. Lose in epic fashion, though, and someone has to pay.
In baseball, it's usually the manager.
Perhaps mindful of a potential populist revolt by ticket holders turned off by such tawdry displays by the nouveau riche, Epstein hastened to say what a swell bunch of guys the Sox are.
Lucchino, meanwhile, didn't even want to contemplate the question of whether Epstein might be following Francona out the door.
"You don't have a full enough plate right now; you're going to raise another question like that?" Lucchino said when asked what position the organization will take if another team asks for permission to talk with Epstein, hardly a far-fetched notion in Chicago, where the Cubs are looking for an Epstein type to transform that franchise.
"We're not prepared to answer that question here," Lucchino said. "This is a press conference about the contributions Tito has made to this franchise. And besides, Theo is under contract with us. That's an issue that has nothing to do with this."
No, not directly. But about that lottery ticket
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.