Friday, September 30, 2011

Tito is Finito

Baseball, moreso than any other sport, is predicated on, and ruled by, superstition. One of the stubbornest and most hallowed of all traditions is the firing of managers and coaches for the failed execution of coddled, spoiled and usually overrated and overpaid ballplayers.

Terry "Tito" Francona, the greatest manager in Red Sox history, was just shitcanned minutes ago by the Red Sox front office. Of course, the official line was that Francona wasn't shitcanned but that his options for the 2012 and 2013 seasons simply will not be picked up. But that's a distinction about as meaningful as refusing to throw a life-preserver to a drowning man versus throwing him an anchor. The John Henry Group, which hardly has a better track record than the Yawkey trust before it, simply housed the anchor and refused to throw Francona, a guy who brought home two pennants, two World Series and a division title to New England, a life preserver. No doubt, it came as a shock to Francona, who less than a week ago, publicly said he wasn't worried about his job status. Instead of nearly nine million in salary, Tito will get a check for just $750,000 and a hard pat on the back through the doorway.

Like Grady Little before him, Francona was essentially fired for one bad inning that capped off a month full of heartbreaking innings. But, unlike Little, who was obviously fired by the Henry Group for his disastrous decision to stick with his starter Pedro Martinez in the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees, Francona was fired for going with his usually trusted closer, Jonathan Papelbon, a decision that even a high school coach would make in a one run game with the postseason on the line. If your closer is available, you use him.

The Great Baseball Gods are still out on whether Little deserved to be fired the minute Jorge Posada hit that game-tying bloop double. But Francona's own so-called transgression, a decision that is logical according to conventional baseball wisdom, earned him a soft kick in the ass that can immediately be cited as a travesty of that selfsame wisdom.

The numbers speak for themselves: In his eight years at the helm of the Red Sox, Francona got us into five postseasons. In those five years, we won two World Series, going 8-0 in WS play. About the only thing Francona didn't do was win back-to-back World Series, a claim to which only Bill "Rough" Carrigan can lay claim (1915-1916 and Carrigan had to be talked out of retirement prior to the 1916 season). No other Red Sox manager ever won two and most never even got us into the postseason.

But we'd also finished in 3rd place in back-to-back years. And that, especially in a title-hungry town like Boston, doesn't get many contract extensions. But how much of that can be blamed on Francona?

As recently as August 22nd, after being in first place for roughly half the year, the Sox were just a half a game behind the Yankees and 7.5 up on Tampa Bay, their Rays logo looking like a guppy in our rear view mirror. By September 3rd, their lead stretched to 9 over Tampa Bay. Was that a pollywog in the rear view?

By the 29th, the Red Sox pitching staff had posted an ERA of 5.69 for the month while the team (led by Ellsbury, Scutaro and Pedroia), amazingly, maintained in September their season team average of .280, second-best in the league.

True, there was a lack of clutch hitting in the late innings. Yet considering that the Red Sox were blown out quite a few times this month, that points to a failure of the Red Sox rotation and bullpen. Papelbon became a circus act in the last week and his setup man, Daniel Bard, was a nightmare most of the month. Lester, Lackey and Beckett, the three Big Men of the rotation, became three of the worst starters in MLB. Tim Wakefield, after seven tries, barely got his 200th career win thanks to an 18 run blowout in which he still gave up five runs on six hits. Buchholz hadn't thrown in a game since June 19th and Tommy John candidate Dice-K was a lost cause right out of Fort Meyers.

Plainly, with a team still scoring 5.4 runs a game this month, a full run higher than the league average, it was the pitching. It was always the pitching.

You can be forgiven for casting an hostile sidelong glance at Curt Young, rookie pitching coach at Four Yawkey Way but that, too, involves a slippery slope. With what was essentially the same rotation as last year, one that also landed us in the 3 hole in the division standings, Curt Young certainly didn't do any worse than his predecessor, Toronto manager John Farrell.

But it makes Francona's ouster even more mysterious and certainly doesn't pass the smell test. Short of cloning or resurrecting Bill Carrigan or kidnapping Joe Torre out of the Commissioner's Office, who else that's available does the John Henry Group think can do a better job managing this team than a guy who'd brought home two World Series trophies in four years and got us into the postseason five of eight times?

This will just prove to be the latest in a series of dynasty-destroying disasters that will prove more costly than not signing Pudge Fisk after 1980 (who responded by slugging 214 of his 376 home runs for the White Sox), trading Bill Lee to Montreal for Stan Papi during the 78-79 offseason (Lee responded by winning 16 games for the Expos that year, posting a 3.04 ERA), releasing Roger Clemens (who responded by winning back to back Cy Youngs for the other Canadian team, the Blue Jays), letting Wade Boggs go (who responded with the first of four consecutive .300+ seasons for the hated Yankees) and, of course, selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

And don't even get me started on Theo Epstein trading two time batting champ Nomar Garciaparra, while he was hitting .321, for three nonentities who were gone when Edgar Renteria got thrown out by Keith Foulk in Game 4 of the '04 World Series. And don't you even dare mention in my presence Boston's shameful history of racism-by-exclusion (they were not only the last MLB team to integrate in 1959 but the Bruins even beat them to it in 1958).

Francona's numbers speak for themselves. He's the only manager in this and the previous decade to win two World Series titles. In his eight years as skipper, the Red Sox had won 744 games and lost 552 for a winning percentage of .574. Maybe not an eye-popping stat in and of itself but you can't ignore those two World Series trophies.

And the inarticulate and non-charismatic executives of the John Henry Group, which essentially destroyed the Marlins franchise right after they won their first World Series in 1997, think they have bigger and better options out there. They think in their executive wisdom that firing a manager who was a former player and had the loyalty, devotion and, yes, even the love of his guys is going to somehow stabilize a clubhouse already roiled by the most heart-breaking collapse in 34 seasons.

Good luck with that, John Henry. And good luck trying to extend that sellout streak next year when the Red Sox continue to loiter in the middle of the division pack. You've lost my loyalty.

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