Too Big to Succeed

WHERE DID THE END BEGIN FOR THE RED SOX? LONG BEFORE THEIR HISTORIC 2011 COLLAPSE, THE SEEDS WERE PLANTED BY A FRONT OFFICE THAT SIMULTANEOUSLY GREW INATTENTIVE TOWARD BASEBALL BUT OBSESSED WITH IMAGE (MORE SEXY PLAYERS LIKE DUSTIN PEDROIA?!)
January 21, 2013

In June 2010 the Red Sox were slumping, and several veteran players were complaining—privately and to the media—about playing time or the commitment of some teammates to returning from injury. In the middle of the turmoil the team's owners called for a meeting with their manager. It was scheduled for noon on the day of a weeknight game at Fenway Park. General manager Theo Epstein came to get Terry Francona to take him upstairs to meet with principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and president and CEO Larry Lucchino. Francona had been at the park for about an hour and was already in uniform. "Because I was in uniform, I was probably in a little more of an aggressive mood," he remembered.

He and the G.M. took the elevator to the third level of Fenway and walked to Henry's in-game suite. Werner and Lucchino were waiting when Epstein and Francona arrived, but Henry was not there yet. The owner was invariably late for meetings, a habit that annoyed the always-prompt manager.

I've got stuff to do too, Francona thought to himself while the executives made small talk.

Finally Henry arrived. Sandwiches were served. And one by one, the bosses told Francona what was wrong with the Red Sox. Henry talked about David Ortiz being left in to hit against lefthanded pitching. Lucchino, as always, found fault in multiple places. Werner talked about slumping television ratings and whined, "We need to start winning in more exciting fashion."

That did it. Francona started to get up out of his chair, but Epstein grabbed his knee. "A good move by Theo," Francona said later. "When Tom started talking about ratings, Theo knew I was getting ready to flare.

"They all gave me their versions of how things should go. When they were done, I said, 'Guys, I just listened to three different opinions. All I can tell you is that the best thing I can do is be consistent down there.'"

Werner had been a wildly successful TV producer and executive, and he owned two World Series rings with the Red Sox, but his contributions to the success of the ball club were difficult to measure. This much, though, was certain: Werner was in charge of NESN. The Red Sox--owned television network's ratings drove the team's revenue, and they were free-falling in 2010. According to Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal, the Sox plummeted from first to fifth in the majors in local ratings from 2009 to '10. NESN's Red Sox ratings dropped 36% in that period.

The Red Sox were also losing their drawing power nationally. According to NESN's internal data, Boston's appearances on Fox and ESPN were down 32% and 33%, respectively, from 2009 to '10. Managing the Red Sox was never independent of television ratings. "One thing the players were always asking for was getaway day games," said Francona. "The owners would never go for it. They couldn't have more day games because the ratings were already suffering, and that would have hurt worse."

ON JULY 21, while the team was on the West Coast, NESN officials met at Fenway with Werner, Lucchino and Epstein for an emergency "Viewership/Team Interest Discussion." Privately, the young G.M. with two World Series championships on his résumé was chafing at having to sit through a meeting that addressed "indicators of declining team popularity" and "possible factors to reduced interest." The TV executives had agreed to hire a market research and consulting firm. Epstein said the decision to hire the consultants "was evidence to me of the inherent tension between building a baseball operation the way I thought was best and the realities of being in a big market ... which had gotten bigger than any of us could handle."

"Theo was good about shielding me from that," said Francona. "I don't think he liked that s--- about ratings at all."

Back in the dugout there was no saving the 2010 Red Sox: From July 4 on, they were a sub-.500 team. They finished 89--73, in third place in the American League East and out of the playoffs for the first time in four years. There were also signs that Henry was no longer immersed in his baseball team. The owner and his Fenway Sports Group were preparing to buy the Liverpool Football Club for $480 million. (The group had paid $700 million for its baseball team in 2002.) Henry and Werner would spend much of the next two years flying across the Atlantic to tend to matters in the English Premier League.

Before the season finale at Fenway, Werner passed Francona on the field and grumbled, "What a s----- season."

"That bothered me," said the manager, whose lineup had been depleted by injuries to such key players as Jacoby Ellsbury, Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. "We ground out 89 wins. I remember thinking, F---, if this was s-----, I don't want to be around here when it really is s-----."

On Nov. 2, a group gathered at Fenway to review results of that $100,000 marketing research project the Sox had commissioned in July. With Werner participating on speakerphone, Lucchino met with the bosses of NESN. Epstein, who'd been reluctant to participate in the study, attended as well.

The document distributed at the meeting listed several factors in the public's falling interest in the team. Chief among them was the "no-name" lineup the team was forced to use in 2010 because of injuries and the lack of major trades or signings the winter before. In a section on male-female demographics the report stated, "[W]omen are definitely more drawn to the 'soap opera' and 'reality-TV' aspects of the game.... They are interested in good-looking stars and sex symbols (Pedroia)."

There was no ambiguity: NESN's memo was telling Epstein and his baseball operations staff what was needed to reverse the costly downward trend in Red Sox television ratings: star power. The G.M. was insulted, amused (Pedroia, sexy?) and angry. "They told us we didn't have any marketable players, that we needed some sizzle," he recalled. "We need some sexy guys. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist comedy. We'd become too big. It was the farthest thing removed from what we set out to be."

In direct response to the pressure from his bosses and the sagging ratings, Epstein went to work to build a sexier team for 2011. Over the winter, in rapid-fire succession, he traded for (and then signed to a seven-year contract extension) Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signed free-agent outfielder Carl Crawford. Combined price tag: $296 million.

Francona was entering the final season of a deal with a two-year club option that had to be triggered within 10 days of the end of the 2011 season. But, given his past success and the expectations for 2011, there was remarkably little talk about the lame-duck status of the manager. Folks close to Henry knew that Francona had been in the crosshairs of the owner for a couple of seasons. "If anyone asked me about it, I deflected it," Francona said. "I had told [ownership] I wouldn't bring it up, so I didn't. I was starting to feel that maybe they weren't that big on me."

The team got off to a horrendous 2--10 start, but even as the Sox eventually climbed above .500, Francona was dealing with physical and emotional issues. He'd undergone surgery during the off-season, and his replacement knee was giving him problems, with constant swelling and pain. (It was not unusual to see Francona with his legs propped up somewhere in the dugout or in the clubhouse at the end of batting practice.) The pain medication he took helped, but sometimes the pain and swelling were overwhelming. Francona was living in a Courtyard Marriott near Fenway, having separated from Jacque, his wife of almost 30 years, after the 2010 season. During home stands he padded around his hotel room, always keeping the television on—but avoiding news programs. His son, Nick, was a Marine lieutenant serving a six-month tour as a rifle-platoon leader in Afghanistan. News reports from the war zone only made the manager worry. "I thought about it all the time," he admitted. "I tried to stay away from the news, but it's always there."

For the first time in his career Francona kept his cellphone in the dugout runway during games. He'd sometimes check it between innings. "I don't know why I did that," he said. "Who was going to call me if something happened to my son? It was just an uneasy feeling for me. I'm sure people saw me checking it."

Months later, when he was out of a job, the cellphone habit might have been used to hurt him when an anonymous club source told The Boston Globe that Francona appeared distracted during the season. It was actually the opposite. Coping with a dissolving marriage, a son in Afghanistan, and severe pain and insomnia, Francona sought refuge at the ballpark and went to work earlier than in any of his previous years in Boston.

By the All-Star break the Red Sox were in first place, but there was virtually no discussion of Francona's contract. It was assumed he would be back in 2012 and beyond. Even though Sox insiders often heard Henry grumbling about his manager during Fenway games, a sixth playoff appearance in eight years would make Francona a lock to return. Things were simply going too well.

The 2011 Red Sox lost 20 of their final 27 games, becoming the first team in baseball history to fail to make the playoffs after holding a nine-game lead in September. But even before their starting pitching collapsed, there were signs of trouble. The Sox missed some veteran coaches who had commanded their attention. The team had a lot of aging players in the final year of their contracts. It had players placing personal rewards above team success. On the bench Francona no longer had veterans who could deliver messages for him—selfless role players like Gabe Kapler, Alex Cora and Eric Hinske. These Sox were looking out for themselves.

The Red Sox also had increasingly inattentive ownership—Henry and Werner were consumed with Liverpool, Roush Racing and LeBron James (the team's parent company, Fenway Sports Group, represented the NBA star)—and a general manager who was rumored to be going to the Cubs. And they had a manager who was working more hours than ever but feared he was losing his voice in the clubhouse. "I was worried about it all year," Francona said. "Somebody would strike out and go look at video instead of staying on the bench. There was just a lot of frustration with a lot of things. Without the voices of the coaches and veteran players, I was doing a lot more of that work, and the players were like, 'F---, man, where is this coming from?' It catches up with you."

On Sept. 6 the Sox demolished the Blue Jays 14--0. Still, Francona was concerned about the clubhouse atmosphere, and he met with catcher Jason Varitek, the team's captain, early the next day. "He told me he was seeing the same things I was seeing," said the manager.

After that lengthy talk with his captain, Francona decided to call a team meeting. It was not a success. "You guys might think it's weird having a meeting after a 14--0 win," Francona said at the start. "But I'm seeing things that are bothering me. I see us worrying about too much s--- that doesn't mean anything. We need to stop bitching about scoring decisions, contracts, personal goals, bus times, getaway days, the media, everything. Remember what we are here for."

Francona didn't single anyone out. Back in his office the manager looked at bench coach DeMarlo Hale and said, "That fell on deaf ears. All they are doing is wondering why I'm having a meeting when we just won 14--0. Everybody is going their own way."

After the Red Sox were eliminated from contention with a loss in Baltimore on the last night of the season, Francona sat down with Epstein and said, "I feel like I let you down." The manager was back at Fenway the next morning. In the wake of the collapse there were already multiple media reports citing clubhouse drinking and other player misconduct during the season.

At 9:00 a.m. on Sept. 30, Francona and Epstein sat at a large oak table in the meeting room connected to Lucchino's Fenway Park office. Also at the table were Henry, Werner and assistant G.M. Ben Cherington. It was an awkward, passive-aggressive session lasting almost an hour. Francona knew the owners didn't want him back, but no one was willing to express this uncomfortable truth. Henry, Werner and Lucchino all took turns speaking. None would voice the plain truth that Francona was not being offered an extension. Henry and Werner routinely recoiled from confrontation, but it was unusual for Lucchino to hold back. The CEO traditionally played the heavy in awkward situations and had a Rolodex of enemies to prove it. Not this time. Nobody wanted to be the man who fired the two-time World Series--winning manager, not even after the worst collapse in baseball history.

An exasperated Francona finally said, "If you don't know what you are doing about me, why am I here? This is a silly meeting. If you don't want me, just tell me."

"We want you to wait and think about it," said Lucchino. "Take the weekend. Sleep on it. See how you feel."

"We had not come to any conclusion about whether to move forward with Terry or not," Werner insisted. "I thought we needed to have a conversation with [Francona] about what went on in September and how it happened and how we were going to move forward in the future. It was at that meeting that he said that he had lost control of the clubhouse ... that he was not the right person to continue as manager. I had kept a very open mind about what to do going forward and was hopeful that he would be not only specific about the problems but how to correct them. He said, 'I'm not the guy to move forward with you.'"

"I never said I lost control of the clubhouse," countered Francona. "I said I hadn't been able to reach some of the guys. I was just trying to take accountability. But I kind of viewed that meeting as a charade."

A few hours after the meeting ended, the manager's cellphone rang. It was Epstein. "I talked to them after you left," said the G.M. "It's pretty clear that the decision has been made."

At 5:19 p.m., the Red Sox released a highly nuanced statement to the press—the word fired was never used—announcing that Francona would not return as manager. The release included expansive statements from the ownership trio of Henry, Werner and Lucchino, plus Epstein and Francona. Press conferences with Francona and team management were scheduled for that evening—though Henry would not attend; that afternoon he had been injured in a fall on his yacht and transported via ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital. The next morning Henry's wife, Linda Pizzuti, tweeted, "Happy John is home! He slipped down stairs, injuring his neck. Kept at hospital as a precaution, but was home for the derby."

The owner, who'd been unable to attend the press conference announcing the firing of the manager who brought two World Series titles to Boston, made it home in time to watch Liverpool beat Everton 2--0 in the Merseyside derby.

On Oct. 21, Epstein officially resigned from the Red Sox. "In a way, I'll never recover from September," he said in 2012. "For us to lose not only our competitiveness and our place in the standings, but also our identity as a team was painful to watch. I'll never really ever get over that.... As the dynamic shifted and the Red Sox became too big, it became less fun for everybody. It was time to move on for both of us."

"When people ask me if I left the Red Sox on my own or if I was fired, I don't even know how to answer that," Francona said later. "I tried my ass off to help put the team in position to win, and I worked my ass off that last year more than ever.

"Our owners in Boston, they've been owners for 10 years. They come in with all these ideas about baseball, but I don't think they love baseball. I think they like baseball. It's revenue, and I know that's their right and their interest because they're owners—and they're good owners. But they don't love the game. It's still more of a toy or a hobby for them. It's not their blood. They're going to come in and out of baseball. It's different for me. Baseball is my life."

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In 2010, with the team's TV ratings falling, one owner complained, "We need to start winning in more exciting fashion."

After the 2010 season, a memo from NESN officials made it clear: The Red Sox needed more sex symbols.

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PHOTOPhotograph by STAN GROSSFELD/THE BOSTON GLOBE/GETTY IMAGESTHE SHADOWS KNOW By 2010, Epstein (near right) and Francona (far right) were chafing under the need to keep the Red Sox humming as an entertainment vehicle. PHOTORHONA WISE/EPAAS GOOD AS IT GOT Twice-crowned Francona (middle, in red, during the 2007 ALCS) seemed to be secure, but insiders say that Henry (far right) wasn't enamored with the manager. PHOTOBRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGESNAMES AND FACES A shortage of hardware after 2007 drove Henry, Werner and Lucchino (top, from left) to the $296 million trophy signings of Gonzalez (left) and Crawford (below). PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER[See caption above] PHOTOADAM HUNGER/REUTERS[See caption above] PHOTOG FIUME/GETTY IMAGESEND OF AN EMPIRE Francona had a reflective moment with Pedroia before the final game in 2011, when Boston blew a nine-game AL playoff lead in September. PHOTO

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