Griffin: Francona deserved far better
This is not a eulogy for ex-Red Sox skipper Terry Francona, not a requiem for a managerial heavyweight, but more a tribute to a friend. This man, Francona, will no doubt land on his feet again as a major-league manager and he may even be back in the World Series before his former team. Maybe GM Theo Epstein felt he had to let Francona go on Friday after their epic collapse, a sacrifice to the gods of Red Sox Nation. Tito had just two option years on his contract and maybe it felt like the time to make a clean break, not costing them anything. But it wasn't his fault.
These Sox guys were overhyped, much of it self-inflicted and most people bought into it, including me. Best team ever? Not! The Sox rotation without Dice-K and Clay Buchholz, with the overpaid, prickly John Lackey, with a setup man down the stretch who pitched more like the Bard of Leavin', with a closer who closed like he believed even the Drop Kick Murphys' jig was up and with a talented deer-in-the-headlights left fielder who underachieved, froze in the glare of the spotlight and now Carl Crawford watches his former team advance to the dance in October. Those are the choking culprits that have helped the late Gene Mauch all of a sudden quit spinning over the collapse of his '64 Phillies. You can only manage by the book when you're the team in charge of your own destiny. The players are the ones that formulated this Boston C Party.
I was a 27-year-old P.R. man back in February of '81 when a 22-year-old skinny kid named Terry Francona walked into the Expos' spring training clubhouse as a Golden Boy winner of the Golden Spikes Award as the best college player in America. What stood out was his innocent grin and his Buddha-like belly that looked even more ridiculous because of his skinny arms and legs. This was the best college player in America? He told me much later that when he signed with the Expos, John McHale and Jim Fanning told him "You had a great year at Arizona. Just relax and enjoy yourself." He took that to mean he should attend and enjoy every rubber-chicken circuit that wished to honour him, stuffing food down his throat. He did and the result was 15 extra pounds.
He was promised that '81 spring training would be part of his signing bonus, but there was not a lot of love handed him from this young veteran group of Expos that had lost on the final weekend of the season in both 1979-80. They were ornery. He was ordinary. Francona was quickly sent to the minors as soon as they could by agreement get his sorry butt out of West Palm Beach, but he worked hard in the minors and by August 19, in a strike-shortened season he was back in the majors as a utility guy for Hall-of-Fame manager Dick Williams who, coincidentally had led the Red Sox to the World Series in his first year as manager, in 1967. Thirty-seven year later Tito led the Sox to the Fall Classic in his first year as manager in 2004, ending the Curse of the Bambino.
Which brings me back to this whole thing about Francona ever being a major-league manager. Who'd a thunk it? He was a raw rookie and I was the Jays PR man in January '81 when we were married -- him to Jacque in Arizona and me to Debbie in Montreal -- on the same day. There's a bond. For years we acknowledged each other's anniversary. We enjoyed the same stupid outside observations of the unspeakable at team parties on the road. It was a sports friendship, but it has always seemed to me those are the ones that last the longest.
Francona was a great hitter with decent baserunning ability until that one fateful day in St. Louis at the old Busch Stadium when playing left field he raced back to the fence, turned to make a one-hop play off the fence and caught his spikes in the rubber warning track, tearing up his knee in an ugly, ugly accident. He came back to be a decent player but wore a knee brace and was never the same. In '84 when Pete Rose was with the Expos he called him The Magician, because Tito waved his bat like a magic wand. That's high praise from the all-time hits leader.
In any case, after he left the Expos, Terry kicked around as a player, then retired. The next big thing I heard about him was he was managing Michael Jordan at AA-Birmingham and handling the MJ circus like he had a whip and a top hat. That must have helped qualify him for Boston.
In any case, Francona was the fall guy for the Red Sox collapse and is one of the best human beings in baseball that I have ever encountered. Good luck Tito.