On Friday, the 44th manager in the history of the Boston Red Sox said all the right things. He talked about the “true colors” of the team, and about the Sox needing a “new voice” to guide the team.
He came off as a sympathetic figure. And popular opinion was squarely on his side the morning after. The man who won two World Series championships was no longer the man running the team.
But, in grieving over the end of Francona’s reign in Boston, don’t overlook one very important fact: It was time for a change.
Francona is the ultimate player’s manager. He believes in staying out of the way of his players, and expects them to perform in return. It worked in 2004, and again in 2007. It hasn’t worked in a while. The Sox haven’t won a playoff game in three seasons, and have missed out on the postseason in two straight years for the first time since 2001-2002.
I’ve said time and again that Francona’s biggest strength as manager is what he does behind the scenes. Boston is a tough place to play, and can swallow up players. When he first arrived, Francona had to deal with personalities like Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez and keep them performing. He did it well.
He stayed loyal to players through thick and thin. He kept Dustin Pedroia in as starting second baseman after a sub .200 April, and Pedroia won the Rookie of the Year Award. He stayed with Kevin Millar in September of 2004 long after most fans would’ve moved on to Doug Mientkiewicz. He stayed with Mark Bellhorn in ’04. And David Ortiz in ’10.
But different players have to be managed differently. You’d like all employees to be disciplined and self-motivated. The truth is, not all are. That’s why it’s appropriate that it’s called “managing” in baseball, not “coaching.” You need to manage the personalities assembled on a roster. Millar isn’t walking through that door.
Somewhere along the way, Francona’s methods stopped being effective with the players on his roster. We’ve heard stories about a clubhouse grown out of control. We’ve watched pitchers disrespect him on the mound with no repercussions. We’re hearing tales of beer drinking in the back room while the game is happening on the field.
At some point the manager has to step in and say “no more.” If he doesn’t have control of his team, he can’t expect his team to stay under control. It would seem this team tuned him out long ago.
When that happens, and it almost always does in sports, you need a new beginning. There’s no way Francona could return to this team in the spring and be a different type of leader. The current group of Red Sox players need a swift kick in the butt. And Tito was not going to be able to deliver it.
Francona will go down as the greatest manager in Red Sox history to this point. We will always be indebted to him for what he accomplished in the past. But this is about the future. And if the Sox are going to win in the near future, they needed this change.
They need other changes, too. This ownership group has to review everything associated with the team before next season. Scouting, training methods and player contracts all have to be reconsidered. Maybe it’s time to only sing “Sweet Caroline” when the Sox are leading in the eighth.
That off-season overhaul began last night with a coaching change.
Coaching changes are a last resort. They don’t happen after championship seasons. They happen when a team fails. This team came up very short of its goals, and whether you like the makeup of the team or not there’s no denying the talent assembled on this roster.
It will be up to the next manager to bring that talent out of these players.