Before Terry Francona came to Boston, there wasn’t exactly darkness, but there wasn’t a whole lot of shining light, either.

It’s difficult to sufficiently describe the feeling of being a Red Sox fan who was in the demographic of younger Generation Xers and older Millennials in the winter of 2003. We’d been told all our lives that the franchise was cursed, but no matter how many times the replay of Bill Buckner’s error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series was shown, we held out a smidgen of hope.

After all, what did Babe Ruth, Enos Slaughter and Bucky Dent have to do with what happened in the here and now?

Then came Aaron Bleeping Boone.

Story continues below advertisement

For this Red Sox fan, at least, Boone’s home run off Tim Wakefield in the 2003 American League Championship Series shattered whatever youthful optimism I had. After watching the game on TV, I remember staring out a window, a real-world manifestation of the sad Chandler Bing meme, wondering what I’d gotten myself into by choosing to root for this godforsaken team. I didn’t blame Grady Little or Tim Wakefield or anyone else for the gut-wrenching failure. I blamed fate.

So when Francona was announced as Little’s replacement, my hopes for 2004 weren’t exactly sky-high. I knew Francona as a managerial lemon, the overwhelmed skipper who never guided my then-hometown Philadelphia Phillies to more than 77 wins in four seasons.

    What do you think?  Leave a comment.

Whatever, I thought. What did it matter? Somehow, it was all going to implode eventually anyway. Nothing would change.

Except everything changed.

Story continues below advertisement

To be clear, players win games and championships. The list of reasons the Red Sox snapped their 86-year World Series championship drought in 2004 begins with Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and all the guys who made the plays on the field. Then, credit goes to Theo Epstein (and Dan Duquette before him) for compiling that group of talent.

But Francona steered that cast of characters in a manner that maximized their talents, not only with the soft skills that even his biggest detractors had to admit he possessed — he was not-so-affectionately known as a “players’ manager” — but with strategic fearlessness in some of the biggest moments.

No Matchup Found

Click here to enter a different Sportradar ID.

Dave Roberts’ steal in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS has become the stuff of legend, but the clearest memory I still have from that moment was how different it felt from the infamous Game 7 a year earlier. Much like Roberts needing to steal that base in this situation at Fenway Park, the Red Sox needed to relieve a tiring Pedro Martinez at Yankee Stadium. Yet in the prior example, the manager froze, and his inaction doomed his team. So even when Roberts trotted to first base as a pinch runner following Kevin Millar’s walk, there was an uncomfortable inkling: Yes, the Red Sox had to send Roberts. But with former batting champ Bill Mueller due up to bat, would the manager freeze again? Would the season end with Roberts on first base, with the manager afterward rationalizing his decision to not take the bat out of a good hitter’s hands or some other weak justification, in hopes that doing nothing would be less damnable than doing something?

Story continues below advertisement

Of course, Roberts went, was safe at second base, the Red Sox won the game and never lost again that postseason. It feels like a foregone conclusion now. But the moment transformed the attitude surrounding the Red Sox organization and its fanbase. No longer was this a franchise populated by those anxiously waiting for bad things to happen to them; now, they went out and made the good things happen. Again, the players instilled that attitude, but Francona gave room for their borderline naíve arrogance to thrive.

Four championships later, Boston is in a different place in the baseball universe. Francona is long gone, yet he’s proven his success here wasn’t a fluke by continuing to win in Cleveland, where he’ll retire at the end of this season as the winningest manager in that franchise’s history. His Indians and Guardians teams, like those he oversaw in Boston, have been among the most fun to watch in his decade-plus in the dugout. He departs as a surefire Hall of Famer who brought light to the game of baseball, even for those who had almost stopped believing.

Featured image via Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports Images