Farewell to Terry Francona

The Red Sox and manager Terry Francona have decided to end their relationship in the wake of the teams’ painful September collapse. Despite the disappointing end to his tenure with the team, Francona will surely be remembered as the most successful Red Sox manager in almost a century, if not ever. During his eight years with the team, the Sox made five playoff appearances and won two world championships. Most important of all, they put an end to the Curse of the Bambino and repeatedly vanquished the Yankees. Even this year, they went 12-6 against them.

Francona was not a great tactical innovator like Earl Weaver or Tony LaRussa. But he still impressed me with his skill, as I followed the team closely during his tenure. His single greatest virtue was avoiding dumb mistakes. He rarely if ever lost a key game by doing something stupid. This is an underrated quality. Sabermetric analysis shows that it is much more common for managers to lose games by making foolish errors than to win them with some brilliant insight. Just ask Francona’s predecessor Grady Little, who provided a textbook example of the former in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. Francona avoided those kinds of mistakes, in part because he was open to the use of sabermetric statistical analysis to guide his decisions.

Francona’s other great virtue was the way he handled the insane media circus surrounding the Red Sox and managed to work with the difficult personalities of some of the team’s stars. It is often said that the manager of the Red Sox gets more media and public scrutiny than the governor of Massachusetts or the mayor of Boston. No Red Sox manager in my lifetime handled it better than Francona. It also wasn’t easy for him to deal with petulant stars like Manny Ramirez. But he almost always managed it well.

Much ink will be spilled this winter over the causes of the Red Sox’ collapse this year. After going an MLB- best 81-42 over the previous several months, the team frittered away a possible division title and a 9 game lead in the wild card race by posting an abysmal 7-20 record in September. Having watched many of those games, I saw few tactical mistakes by Francona. Generally speaking, he picked the right players to use in each situation, given the available personnel. The team failed partly because of bad luck (they lost more than their share of close games that could have gone either way), partly because of injuries to key players (e.g. – Kevin Youkilis), and most importantly because too many players performed far below their usual standards, especially the pitchers. It’s hard to say how much blame Francona deserves for the latter factor. Probably at least some. But, on the other hand, veteran players like the Red Sox’ key stars should be able to motivate themselves. Ultimately, there is more than enough blame to go around. Francona, the players, and upper management will all get their share.

Regardless of what happened this year, Francona’s overall legacy is one of extraordinary success. Red Sox Nation owes him a great debt. After the immediate pain of this fall wears off, I think Boston fans will remember that. We should also remember what happened the last two times Boston teams suffered a painful collapse (the Red Sox in 2003 and the Bruins in 2010). In both cases, they won championships the very next year and also got revenge on those teams that defeated them the year before. So may it be with the Red Sox in 2012.