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Red Sox, Terry Francona part ways after eight years

09.30.11 at 5:21 pm ET

In the aftermath of a historic nosedive that took the Red Sox from an apparent playoff lock to a team that lost the largest September postseason lead in major league history, the Red Sox and manager Terry Francona have parted ways.

The team will not exercise its two-year, $8.75 million option on Francona’s three-year contract, which ran from 2009-11. Instead, the team will pay his $750,000 buyout, and the manager will be free to pursue a job elsewhere. The decision was made after a meeting on Friday morning that included Francona, Epstein and members of the Red Sox’ ownership group.

Francona leaves having overseen the Sox for one of the most successful periods in franchise history. During his eight-year tenure (tied for the second longest in team history, behind only Joe Cronin), he won two World Series titles, becoming only the second manager in team history with two rings and the first since Bill Carrigan won titles in 1915 and 1916.

Francona went 744-552 (.574) during his time in Boston, with the second-highest wins total in franchise history and the third-highest winning percentage among managers with at least three seasons with the Red Sox. During his tenure, he was often given raves for his ability to maintain a positive clubhouse environment in a region where scrutiny — especially during times of struggle — can become overwhelming.

His ability to balance the team’s longer-term interests over the desperation for a win on any given night was viewed as a critical component of the team’s successes over the 162-game seasons. And in short series, where each game is indeed pivotal, Francona’s success was nearly peerless. He has a 28-17 (.622) record in the postseason, including victories in seven different series, and his postseason winning percentage is the second highest all-time by a skipper with at least 25 games in October, behind only Joe McCarthy (.698).

However, while he reached the playoffs in five of his first six seasons in Boston, the Sox missed the postseason in the last two seasons, with the Sox going 89-73 in an injury-riddled 2010 and then going 90-72 this season, including a 7-20 record during what turned into the worst September collapse of a first-place team in baseball history. The Sox haven’t won a postseason game since 2008.

Both Francona and general manager Theo Epstein suggested at a Thursday press conference that the Red Sox clubhouse had become a challenging one to manage this season.

“To be the very best, there’€™s got to be some extraordinary things happening. I thought at times we didn’€™t put our best foot forward. That’€™s my responsibility. That’€™s why it bothered me,” said Francona, who acknowledged calling a team meeting in September at a time when the team was up eight games on the Rays in the wild card because he was concerned about the team’s cohesion. “There were some things I was worried about. We were spending too much energy on things that weren’€™t putting our best foot forward towards winning. … There were some things that did concern me. Teams normally as the season progresses, there are events that make you care about each other, and this club, it didn’€™t always happen as much as I wanted it to. And I was frustrated by that.”

There are two ways to read such statements. First, it suggests a group that is difficult to manage. Secondly, it suggests a group that was unresponsive to the messages it was receiving from its manager.

At the press conference on Thursday and again in the press release announcing Francona’s departure, Epstein acknowledged those problems, while saying that he also agreed with Francona that the team might benefit from a new message delivered by a new messenger.

“Without Tito’€™s commitment over eight years, we would not be the organization we are today,” Epstein said in the statement. “Nobody at the Red Sox blames Tito for what happened at the end of this season; we own that as an organization. This year was certainly a difficult and draining one for him and for us.  Ultimately, he decided that there were certain things that needed to be done that he couldn’€™t do after eight years here, and that this team would benefit from hearing a new voice. While this may be true, his next team will benefit more than it knows from hearing Tito’€™s voice. I will miss seeing Tito every day in the manager’€™s office, and I wish him and his family nothing but the best in their next chapter.”

And if Francona was, in fact, losing his clubhouse, he received little evident backing from the team as the Sox folded down the stretch. Hall of Fame reporter Peter Gammons said on WEEI in September that he sensed a growing “disconnect” between Francona and Epstein.

Both the manager and GM dismissed the idea that their communication was an issue, but when the topic of managing beyond 2011 was broached, neither side gave any public endorsement of wanting the relationship to continue beyond the 2011 campaign, with the rhetoric of both men focusing on their mutual respect and admiration. Meanwhile, Francona’s contract status remained unresolved, with the Sox deciding to wait until after the season before making a decision about his options.

And, whereas principal owner John Henry often had visited Francona or communicated with him (sometimes by e-mail) in past challenging visits, Francona — when asked on multiple occasions down the stretch — said that he had not heard from the man at the top of the Sox’ masthead during the team’s September swoon.

Still, in Thursday’s press conference Epstein suggested that the Sox did not hold Francona solely accountable for the team’s epic fold.

“We’€™ve already talked about it, [Henry], [chairman Tom Werner], [CEO Larry Lucchino] and I, and nobody blames what happened in September on Tito,” Epstein said. “That would be totally irresponsible and totally short-sighted and wouldn’€™t recognize everything he means to the organization and to all our successes, including, at times, in 2011, so we take full responsibility for what happened, all of us. Collectively, it was a failure. I’€™m the general manager, so I take more responsibility than anybody.

“I don’€™t think we believe in — I know we don’€™t believe in scapegoats. In particular, no one blames Tito for what happened in September. Look, we all failed collectively. Kind of failed collectively in this one and we have to live with that. We’€™re not going to point the fingers at any one person in particular.”

On Friday morning, Francona and Epstein were slated to meet with Henry and the rest of the Sox ownership group. It was there that the decision was made for the two sides to move in separate directions, with the Sox now preparing for just their second managerial search under Epstein.

Based on the past hiring processes under the current Red Sox ownership group, major league managerial experience (or success) may not be an important prerequisite for the position. The Sox hired Grady Little when the current ownership group arrived in Boston, and Little was a man who had never managed above the minors.

As for Francona, he arrived in Boston with a 285-363 (.440) record in four seasons managing the Phillies, without a single winning season. The runner-up for the position was Joe Maddon (now the Rays skipper), who had no managerial experience, and the team also was thought to regard Bud Black highly at a time when his dugout experience had been limited to that of pitching coach.

But, while the resume of the next Red Sox manager might not require a World Series title to be on it, that of the skipper whom he replaces features not just one but two. The bar will be set high.

As for Francona, he will undoubtedly have numerous offers. After all, he was still a highly regarded managerial candidate eight years ago, when his only big league managing experience had been as the steward of a dreadful club in Philadelphia. Now, he was able to identify this as a “time for me to move on,” in possession of one of the most impressive resumes in the industry.

“I ultimately felt that, out of respect to this team, it was time for me to move on,” Francona said in a statement. “I’€™ve always maintained that it is not only the right, but the obligation, of ownership to have the right person doing this job. I told them that out of my enormous respect for this organization and the people in it, they may need to find a different voice to lead the team.

“In my eight seasons as manager of the Boston Red Sox, I have developed a tremendous appreciation for Red Sox Nation. This is a special place with some of the most knowledgeable and passionate fans in all of baseball. They packed Fenway Park for every game and because of them, I had a special sense of pride coming to work every day. I want to thank John, Tom, Larry and Theo for giving me the opportunity to manage this team through some of the most successful years in this franchise’€™s history. I wish the entire organization and all of Red Sox Nation nothing but the very best.’€

Read More: John Henry, peter gammons, Terry Francona, Theo Epstein
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