Tomorrow afternoon, Fenway Park will open for its 101st season of baseball, and next week, it will celebrate its 100th birthday, rightly acknowledging the lifetime of the oldest baseball park in the United States.
And it will all feel a little hollow. While every living Red Sox player and manager have been invited to the 100th anniversary celebration, their most successful manager, the recently departed Terry Francona, wants no part of fanfare. It’s not hard to feel for him, either.
Following his exit after the Red Sox’ disastrous month of September 2011, the Boston Globe ran a hatchet job for the ages, capitalizing on fan outrage to run an anonymously sourced story that detailed, among tales of chicken and beer consumption and headphone gifts, Francona’s failing marriage and an alleged addiction to pain killers.
It was low, embarrassing, and sadly, an insensitive Boston media ran with it as gospel.
The source remains unnamed. Why a newspaper felt a baseball team was worthy of anonymous sources is still a mystery. That tactic is typically saved for stories of great public concern. Baseball, as loved as it is, does not merit that. This was gossip worthy of a grocery store tabloid.
That Francona would decline an invitation, then, to celebrate the team seems natural. That the Red Sox would apparently be so offended by his choice is baffling.
Francona recently spoke to the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, explaining why he doesn’t feel comfortable coming back so soon after someone close to the team made it a point to ruin his reputation. Though it’s a bit curious that Francona would speak so willingly to the publication that so willingly aided the attempt on his reputation, he had this to say about the exchange with Lucchino:
“Larry called me yesterday. I was in a phone store in Arizona. I had three people standing around me. I was at a little bit of a disadvantage. He got a little perturbed at me, telling me I was being unfair to them. I called him back last night and left him a message. He called me back and we ended up getting into an argument. I just feel like someone in the organization went out of their way to hurt me and the more we talked I realized we’re just not on the same wavelength. They’re probably better off going forth and leaving me out of it.’’
Francona later added that he felt John Henry and Larry Lucchino owed it to him “to get to the bottom of it a little bit,” meaning the allegations.
That Lucchino, who fancies himself a saavy public relations man, would think that Francona would be comfortable returning to an organization that dropped him so unceremoniously just six months earlier to celebrate the franchise is puzzling. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to exalt a former employer after being treated so badly in the wake of a departure.
And if what Francona says is true, that Lucchino became annoyed with him and accused him of hurting the team, it’s a troubling sign of paranoia in the Sox front office.
Sadly, paranoia is a tradition that runs deep within this team’s history. Tom Yawkey ran an old boys network that kept the team from intergrating for years. Haywood Sullivan ran Carlton Fisk out of town to make room for his son to catch for the team; a son who never claimed a starting spot regardless. Dan Duquette forbade anyone within the organization from speaking to the media, undercutting his manager along the way.
While that aspect of organizational dysfunction seemed to be a memory with the ownership of Henry, Lucchino and company, the annual trashing of former employees continued. After 2004, Pedro Martinez was a primadonna who was also injured. Derek Lowe was a party animal who couldn’t control himself. Nomar Garciaparra was unwilling to work with the team. Briefly, Theo Epstein was immature and insubordinate, until Henry forced Lucchino to make amends with the general manager after the 2005 fallout.
After 2009, Jason Bay was hurt and unwilling to undergo treatment, or so said sources within the team. And, after 2011 when the team lost more baseball games than they expected, Francona was let go, and soon after, stories ran that Francona was traversing a broken family situation via a pain killer addiction.
Much more than losing games, much more than the embarrassing dot connection of chicken to losses, the smearing of Francona was the worst part of 2011. Easily, it’s the worst event surrounding the Red Sox through the past 30 years. It wasn’t enough to let a loyal, successful manager go after the team underperformed in September; the team had to smear the man’s reputation, hurting his standing with other major league teams as he searched for employment, all in a pathetic attempt at saving face.
Classy organizations make hard decisions regarding the roster and management, they take their lumps, and they move on. The Red Sox throw Francona, a company man to the bitter end, under the bus, then drag him out again when he doesn’t want to be part of the 100th anniversary dog and pony show. It’s still not known who leaked the information, and it may not be known for years. But when such leaks are so chronic, does it matter?
Following a team that loses 80 or 90 games is not hard; every baseball fan worth his or her salt has done that. But following a team that institutionally maligns their own on the way out is another, no matter how many games it wins, is embarrassing.
For years, Boston fans came to terms with throwing their weight behind a colorful cast of characters in spite of what was going on in the front office. Fisk, Yastrzemski, Rice, Evans, Greenwell, Vaughn, Garciaparra and Martinez were all revered, and rightfully so.
It’s a different season, but the same story. So feel free to root as hard as possible for Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Jon Lester and the rest of them, saving your innermost apathy for those behind the scenes trying to pull the strings. It’s as deep and true a Red Sox tradition as shots off the Green Monster.