When Bill Parcells left the New England Patriots after the 1996 season, he made a famous analogy that really resonated with local fans. Paraphrasing, he alluded to the challenges of "cooking dinner when you can't shop for the groceries." It made sense. Without input on personnel, coaching must be difficult.
Terry Francona is likely no longer the Manager of the Boston Red Sox. It's an unfortunate end to a great run. He seems to be a good man, and seems to have the sort of personality that suited the Red Sox well for the most successful stretch in team history. It would be silly to blame Fracona for Boston's September collapse, but it would be equally silly to suggest it had nothing to do with his departure. There are fans and media members alike suggesting that Boston's decision not to pick up Francona's 2012 option is shortsighted, but there's much more to it than that.
Francona's record as an in-game Manager has always been spotty. While he learned to play less small-ball than he otherwise may have been inclined to, he was always at heart a career baseball man who played during an era when manufactured runs were somehow an indicator of virtue. We now know of course the costs associated with treating outs so cavalierly, but eight years into his tenure as Manager of one of baseball's most progressive organizations, there were still signs Francona didn't get it. In Francona's final game as Red Sox Manager, Mike Aviles was caught stealing to end the 4th inning with the Major League leader in extra-base hits standing at the plate.
His bullpen management was worse. When he couldn't protect a lead with Bard in the 8th and Pap in the 9th, in other words when he had to manage, things tended to get away from him. There was the September 7th game in Toronto, when he let an obviously off Dan Bard go a season-high 36 pitches and squander a two-run 8th inning lead. Then in a tie game, with two outs and the bases loaded, he got Matt Albers instead of Pap. A bases clearing double later and the Red Sox were down three. For the quintessential bullpen mismanagement game of the Tito era, parse through Game 2 of the 2008 ALCS.
Fans understood Francona's strength to be his steady hand and calm influence in the clubhouse, but Boston's careening ways in September brought out the worst in Francona. In the season's second-to-last game, he batted Jed Lowrie cleanup. He also demoted Carl Crawford to eighth after moving Crawford to second a week earlier. Wednesday night, Buck Showalter exposed badly Tito's decision to bat Ryan Lavarnway behind Adrian Gonzalez. There were more bunts than ever, more curious attempted steals. Through August, the Red Sox stole successfully on 93 of their 125 attempts. In September, the Red Sox were 9 for 19 attempting to swipe bases. When the going really got tough, Tito panicked.
None of this is to suggest that some disproportionate amount of the blame falls on Francona's shoulders. However much credit one wishes to assign Francona for Boston's success over the years, it's probably appropriate to direct the same amount of blame for September. The truth is a baseball Manager doesn't impact a game all that much except on the margins. Those in-game shortcomings mentioned above only really matter in the aggregate, and even then not all that much. When Francona effectively dealt with a challenging group of players over the years, the baseball operations team lived with Francona's tactical clumsiness. How many times do you think Tito covered Manny's ass? Papi and Dustin Pedroia seem to love him. So does Curt Schilling. Heck he covered John Lackey yesterday at the presser. He was nothing if not loyal to his players, and I think that served the organization well over the years. But with reports of the team's conditioning being unacceptable and stories surfacing of a unit less cohesive than in past years, it was harder to see what it was that Tito was bringing to the table.
Now back to the Parcells analogy. Curiously, one rarely hears about the principle in reverse. If you go through the trouble of shopping for the groceries, why can't you have more input on how the meal is cooked? It seems to me that when Tito was shielding Ramirez and the team from media distraction and generally keeping a team with disparate personalities on the same page, whatever disconnect existed between Francona and the front office was palatable. When the team won World Series championships and then posted back-to-back 95-win seasons, parting with Francona wasn't viable from a Public Relations standpoint. But with a disordered clubhouse and consecutive seasons missing the postseason, now's the time. If Theo wants to install someone who cooks the meal with his groceries the way he'd like, well, he's the General Manager. He gets to do that.
As for the rest of it, here's the best postmortem I can offer up. Terry Francona strikes me as a man of great integrity who leaves the Red Sox as the second longest tenured and maybe its most successful Manager in team history. He will likely go on to have a lucrative and successful Managerial career elsewhere. This isn't sad. It's a time to reflect, sure, but this is ok. Change is ok. The Yankees have taught us as much in the post-Torre years. All we can do now is hope the chef who cooks the groceries the way Theo would like gets to continue cooking well into October of 2012.