Sunday, October 2, 2011

Francona's Departure Not All That Mystefying (If You've Been There)

By now even baseball refuseniks like my friends know that the erstwhile Manager of the Boston Red Sox, Terry Francona, officially ceased to hold that position on Friday, September 30, 2011. The news broke less than 48 hours after his team became the first in Major League Baseball history to blow a nine-game lead in the month of September, missing the playoffs in suitably eviscerating fashion, when their star closer blew a lead over the worst team in the league and, a mere seconds later and half a country distant, the hard-charging Tampa Bay Rays won on a walk-off home run, to pass the Sox in the standings for the first time all season in its very final instant. The Red Sox players, presumably, were relayed the news of the corresponding Rays' victory literally as they strode down the dugout steps, clearing themselves from a celebration-choked Baltimore baseball stadium in which all they'd needed to do was take two-out-of-three from an Orioles team playing at a 0.350 pace. The storylines were replete with that perfect, baseball-only recipe of pluck, elan, pathos and schadenfreude. "Football is an action movie," I tell the unwilling audiences in my economics classes, disparagingly. "...Baseball is a *horror* movie." Never more so than last Wednesday night.

Indeed such well-positioned pieces for the excruciating thrill of last-man heartbreak and heroics have rarely graced even baseball -- the sport so famous for them, after all, that its only exhibit of ubiquitous literature is a poem about a Herculean slugger who can't manage the otherwise automatic feat of routinely making contact with the ball. Re-tell the poem today, and presumably for more-or-less ever afterward, and some audiences will surely presume the whole thing to be a metaphor for the bulging, even-Yankee-intimidating, 2011 Boston Red Sox. After a then-infamous 2-10 start, the team with the second-highest payroll in baseball had done what everyone knew they would and righted the ship, playing the middle 123 games on their schedule to a paint-peelingly awesome 81-42 record -- easily the best in baseball.

And then?

Well, then this muscular, stare-down juggernaut simply and unceremoniously imploded, finishing its 162-game season with a 7-20 month of September -- culminating with a 4-3 loss to the aforementioned Orioles on a night during which they'd led for basically the whole game, while the Rays (who had trailed the Yankees in Tampa at one point by 7-0), were coming back against a B-list Yankee bullpen to win in extra innings. In the last half of the ninth in Baltimore, after a tension-heightening rain delay that proves once again the extent to which God himself is a baseball fan, the Sox ran out their 97MPH-throwing (and presumably slightly lunatic) closer, Jonathan Papelbon, who got the first two outs without fanfare, bringing his floundering teammates to the two-out, two-strike brink of assuring themselves at least a one-game playoff, before surrendering three straight doubles, the last of which would probably have been scored an error on $143Million free agent outfielder Carl Crawford, had the game been played in Boston. It was a tough play to be sure, but really -- with this much on the line, at this level of professional excellence, and *certainly* at that kind of money -- the former Tampa Bay Ray superstar shoulda caught that one, folks. Point being: he didn't. The Sox lost, the Rays won, and the best team in the American League, talent-wise, rode a pin-drop-quiet charter flight back to Fenway, to clean out their lockers for the year. Mighty Casey had struck out.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a sighing, thunderstruck closure on the book about the 2011 Red Sox' collective impression of Greg Norman(1), Yana Novatna(2) and E.J. Smith(3) rolled together: The story didn't end there after all. Instead, after a day and a half of increasingly galvanized rumor and semi-anonymous speculation, the team's stoic and unimpeachably credentialed Manager, Terry Francona, called a press conference to announce that he would no longer head the team he'd guided to its first (and second) World Series Championships in eighty-six years. The man who'd single-handedly broken the Curse of the Bambino and brought the biggest trophy in baseball to the biggest baseball city in the world, was leaving. The question on the minds of sportswriters from coast to coast was the same: had he quit, or was he fired?

In some ways we'll never know for sure. Francona was at the end of his guaranteed contract with two years' of options left available. By not exercising them, the team's front office could characterize the situation as a mutual one -- Francona feeling drained and winded by the 24/7 hothouse of the Boston baseball media, and the team recognizing that even the man who broke the curse will start to repeat himself in clubhouse speeches after eight years. Perhaps it was just *time*, and perhaps everyone mutually, amicably, knew it. Certainly this is the impression that Sox General Manager Theo Epstein would have had us gather on Thursday morning, in his first post-collapse press conference, given jointly with Francona before the rumors of Francona's imminent departure were confirmed. "[The matter of the Manager's job] will be discussed with owners John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino in the next few days, when emotions have cooled and judgment isn't clouded," he said, suggesting that the owners would listen to Francona's assessment of what had gone wrong and who was to blame, before coming to any decisions about picking up his contract options, one way or the other. Cooler heads would prevail. We're all grown-ups here.

The usually narrative-conscious Francona, meanwhile, was sounding ominously dissonant notes from a folding metal chair not three-feet beside him. "Managing this team became challenging at the end," Francona said, ominously. "I called a team meeting in Toronto [after a 14-0 *win* -- one of their few W's in September] because there were some things that did concern me," he added, ominously. "I was frustrated with some of the things that happened," he said. Ominously. Asked to elaborate, the usually narrative-conscious Francona, did: ""You don't need to have a team that wants to go to dinner off the field," he said. "You do want to have a team that protects itself and backs each other up fiercely, on the field."

Not everyone reading these words is accustomed to the empty-calorie ritual of the big-time sports press conference. "I tell my team they have to take it one day at a time," in the business, is code for, "blah blah blah blah blah." By contrast, "We know we've got the heart, and we know we've got the players, now we just have to execute," is instead code for, "blah blah blah blah blah." When a baseball manager says, "We left it all on the field tonight," he is saying, "blah blah blah blah blah," and when he says, "We're going to need quality starts from our rotation," he is saying, "blah blah blah blah blah; can I go now?" For a baseball manager -- under *any* circumstances -- to toss-out the kind of red meat that Francona was tossing, was to invite (and ultimately to receive) massive extrapolation and anonymous rumor-fanning: These guys hated each other, phoned-in their defense, were in some cases badly and increasingly out of shape, and didn't listen when they were warned. There was even talk of starting pitchers consuming beer in the clubhouse (BEER!) on days when it wasn't their turn to pitch. Francona's pleas were falling on deaf ears, and he was about to be scapegoated. Film at eleven.

Remarkably, things would get worse from there. On Friday the owners (minus principal owner John Henry, who'd curiously injured -- of all things -- his neck, in a sailing mishap), GM Theo Epstein, and Francona, met at 10 o'clock in the team's vaunted, hallowed, Sistine-Chapel-like-significant Front Offices at (say it with me) Number Four Yawkey Way. The meeting lasted for about an hour, by which time the news that Francona was leaving was all but confirmed. When he emerged for his second press conference in two days, however, Francona didn't leave the matter at both sides being ready for a fresh start, blah blah blah. He tried to. Goodness knows he tried to. But he didn't. "Some of it may be personal," he said, after thirty some-odd minutes of far more typical, time-to-move-on platitudes. "To be honest with you, I don't know... I'm not sure how much support there was from ownership," he said, somberly, arms crossed in front of his chest. "You've got to be all-in in this job, and I voiced that today," he continued. "It's got to be, everybody has to be together, and I was questioning some of that a little bit."

Not since Gus Grissom had used the word 'scared' has a press corps been caught so flat-footed or been so uncertain of exactly how to play the bombshell news that they were hearing. Francona was being fired in just such a way that the team's top brass wouldn't have to say so; Francona was leaving of his own accord, in a huff, because he hadn't had the support of the owners; Francona was preempting any scapegoating. Some stories on Friday shamelessly carried all three narratives at once. The one thing that was for sure, at this point, was that the decision would be worn by the front office, and that it was a mistake. Everyone agreed on that much.

Perhaps to limit the potential P/R damage, perhaps in the hopes of putting out the fire on the bridge, perhaps sincerely, GM Theo Epstein spent the rest of Friday and most of Saturday weaving a not-carefully-enough worded counter narrative of official surprise -- at the pace, tenor, and timing of what he would have had us believe was Francona's decision. "The ownership team asked Terry to at least wait the weekend," he said, semi-on-the-record, "but perhaps Tito (Francona's nickname) felt that, after eight years, it was time." Asked later if he'd read anything into John Henry's supposed neck injury, Francona first declined to speculate, then added that -- for the first time in his tenure -- he hadn't received a call from Henry over the entire month in question.

With this, the steady stream of competing speculations became a deluge. Just whose idea was this, anyway? Who was being the fragile ego, and who was being pragmatic about a bad situation before it got any worse? Who was scapegoating *whom*? Even today, many of the most well-respected sportswriters and sports-bloggers are painting a confused picture. Some of them have even said so openly. But there's a reason for that: Unlike me, they've never been there.

Francona wasn't fired, and he didn't quit. He had the third thing happen to him that happens to people when their bosses want them gone. He was undermined.

Not since Jimmy Johnson left the then-repeat-world-champion Dallas Cowboys has a set of tensions between a team boss and a team ownership been so well-documented. Here is the granite-countenanced, old-school Francona, picking his lineup on fifties-era hunches and the sounds of the bat-cracks during routine BP; here is the innovation-obsessed, born-again-stat-nerd John Henry -- the man who hired Bill James, the literal pioneer of baseball sabermetrics -- listening to econometrics-based arguments about wins-above-replacement and OPS+. And here, in the middle, is once-prodigy-whiz-kid and now just boring forty-something GM Theo Epstein, trying somehow to keep both the peace, and his job, at the same time.

Worse, at least from the standpoint of timing, news of the Sox' September collapse just happened to be sweeping the countryside at the very same time as a motion picture about the sea-changes taking place in the game, *Moneyball.* And folks, a movie about baseball has never, and I mean *NEVER*, been less fortuitous a development in the already strained relationship between a manager and his boss. Right up there on the screen, for all the world *including* John Henry to see, was Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing recalcitrant, old-school manager Art Howe, refusing to listen to stat-obsessed Billy Beane when it comes time to set the lineups. There is Brad Pitt, playing Beane, enjoying the miserly respect of his miserly owner in Oakland, but prevented from doing what needs to be done by the obstinate Howe. There's even a scene in which Arliss Howard plays a fellow owner trying to lure Beane away from Oakland, bestowing upon him the mantle of a first voice in a new wave of thinking about the game that will drive the old-guard crazy and rightfully so. The owner Howard is playing? John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox.

An organization with a grim determination not to fire anybody in a way that could look ugly faces a unique challenge when it decides it wants to fire somebody. In other places, where the possibility of an ugly incident doesn't faze that much, the deed gets done and that's that; everyone moves on. But in those places where the pretense of a happy family is maintained at all costs, the costs can and do get very high for everyone involved. Gestures go un-made. E-mails go un-returned. Birthday phone-calls that everyone routinely and conspicuously gets, are suddenly and conspicuously selective. Signals get sent. Reactions get calculated. ...The hope, on the part of such an organization, is that the person they wish to be rid of will get the message, and at length that person generally does get the message, though it remains the person-in-question's prerogative to stay put on principle.

My sense of what happened in Boston is pretty clear: Even when it was winning, the team wasn't being managed this year in the way John Henry wanted it to be. Perhaps this began with the 2-10 start, perhaps not, but for the second year in a row Theo Epstein's free-agent signings were washing out in Boston, and on that basis alone the otherwise long-time-Francona-friend had no choice but to undermine his colleague trying to right the ship from the dugout. Henry consulted the Bill James people, who told him Francona wasn't paying attention to the sabermetrics. Asked for an opinion, Epstein equivocated. Asked by Francona to intervene in the unraveling clubhouse atmosphere, Epstein demurred. When Francona asked Epstein to ban beer in the clubhouse -- something only Epstein, with his power to cut people from the roster, could have done -- Epstein let the message sit there in his archive of saved voice mails. Then the movie came out. Then the team started losing. Then the team lost. And then John Henry didn't hurt his neck in a sailboat accident.

And I'll bet money on that last one.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

(1) The only man in history to blow a nine-stroke lead on the back nine of the final round of the Masters.

(2) The only woman in history to blow a one-set, 5-1 lead in the best-of-three-set womens' final at Wimbeldon.

(3) The captain of the RMS Titanic.

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