Saturday, October 1, 2011

Of Green Tea And Tito

By Mark Lawrence, Down-Under Editor

Sydney, Australia—October 1, 2011. The comforting scent of Bigelow’s Green tea is slowly fading from the Red Sox clubhouse, as Terry Jon Francona shoulders his duffel, takes one last wistful look around and heads – quite possibly - west.

On the face of things, it could be argued that Tito was one of Boston’s most successful managers ever – after all, in his first year on the job he skippered the team to the 2004 World Series, ending an 86 year drought and launching a shiny new era of baseball in The Fens. But everyone knows all that and now, in the wake of the most abysmal season in recent memory, everyone is looking for someone to blame – an understandable reaction, to be sure. But I’m left wondering if this blame has been properly assigned – did the right man lose his job or is there yet more to come?

As far as this writer is concerned, a manager can only do his best with the assets at hand – in this case, one of the more expensive lineups in the game – and only the narrowest of baseball minds would assert that Francona should accept full responsibility and fall on his sword. Tito didn’t sign Carl Crawford, for example, probably didn’t even agitate much for his acquisition, merely acquiescing to a decision made by certain others on higher pay grades. Tito didn’t cause the injuries that befell some players, nor did he somehow infect John Lackey with that sour and bitter attitude that colored his lackluster performance. And it mystifies me that anyone could truthfully assert that Terry should have, by mere force of his will, somehow caused an underperforming team to win, win, and win some more.

A combination of things conspired against Francona this season – but the most devastating element seems to be the fact that a goodly percentage of his line-up consistently failed to deliver. And I’m guessing that Tito’s sincerest efforts to reach these guys, to somehow rouse them to step it up a notch or two were met with the arrogant indifference that only multimillion dollar players can possess.

I doubt very much that Francona’s replacement – whoever that may be - will cause any noticeable reversal of fortune for the Red Sox next season. I’ve even heard that old Sweet Lou Piniella himself is on the list – if a calm and reasonable man like Tito couldn’t get through to this bunch, then it’s doubtful that Lou’s fiery bluster and bad temper will have a positive effect. Any prospective applicant would do well to remember that Boston is an extraordinarily tough baseball town and a good measure of mental toughness would be just as valuable in the role as needle-sharp baseball acumen. On the other side of this gloomy equation – whichever team acquires Tito’s services for the 2012 season should have reasonable cause for optimism.

Francona’s wins as manager have secured him a deserved spot in the Red Sox pantheon, alongside guys like Joe Cronin, who could be regarded as a pretty useful manager, himself. Prior to 2004, a total of thirty four other guys tried to manage the Red Sox to a World Series win and they all failed. For this singular achievement alone, Terry Francona is to be venerated as one of Boston’s Finest and seeing him leaving the Hub under such sad circumstances is so very disappointing to me. I can only hope that those who let him down this year – those who wouldn’t or couldn’t cowboy up for the skipper at the time he needed it most - spend some time this off season in the room of mirrors and think about what they might’ve done differently. That’s the very least they can do.