The Francona-Red Sox Cold War Gets Colder By The Day

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The Red Sox and Terry Francona need to put aside this contentious and unnecessary public back and forth that’s been going on since Francona was ousted as manager.

Both sides are to blame. It’s passive aggressive, tiresome and does nothing but fuel the fires of 2011—fires that the Red Sox are currently trying (and failing) to put behind them.

They’re a team in flux. Right now, they’re not very good. The last thing they need is the once again prominent CEO Larry Lucchino engaging in an open, pro wrestling style feud with Francona. The former manager is still worshipped in Boston because he was running the team on the field when The Curse was broken and led the team to another title 3 years later.

This is not a defense of Francona’s entire tenure as manager. He’s been absolved of a large share of the responsibility for 2011—responsibility that should end at his desk. If he got the credit for the wins, then he gets the blame for the losses. That’s the way it works.

Factions of the front office were never overly impressed with Francona and when he was hired, the organizational edict was to have someone who would work within the defined parameters of adhering to stat based theory, running the clubhouse and handling the media.

As the clubhouse came apart, so did the team.

The Red Sox are preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, Francona was invited to participate. He declined and it degenerated into a rehash of the circumstances that led to his dismissal/departure along with a new chapter for the paperback with Francona still wanting answers and Lucchino and John Henry defending themselves for denied allegations that they slammed Francona in the process of shoving him out the door.

You can read the details here on Boston.com.

Eventually, this was going to happen.

Francona still feels bitter.

The Red Sox clearly believe that Francona could’ve done more to head off the issues that led to their collapse.

Neither side is completely right, but neither side is completely wrong either.

The commemoration is meant to celebrate the Red Sox and their storied park and now it’s going to be, “Well Tito’s not here.”

Rather than engage in a public spitting contest, all that needed to be said was, “We invited Tito. He’s always welcome here, but he felt it would be a distraction if he came and we understand that.”

Ironically, the Mets faced a similarly uncomfortable situation with the new Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine when they celebrated the 2000 pennant winning club and Valentine didn’t come, in part, because Mets’ manager Jerry Manuel was under fire and the fans were openly clamoring for Valentine to take over.

It was a courtesy.

Strangely it’s Valentine who’s considered the strutting peacock with the ginormous ego, eager to get his name and face everywhere while Francona is the hard-working everyman who receded into the background and let his players accumulate the glory.

Maybe it’s not that simple.

Does it matter whether it’s a personal decision on the part of Francona or it’s because of bad blood and wounds that have yet to heal?

The reasons should’ve been kept private. Both Lucchino and Francona look petty and angry and the selfishness inherent in a he said/he said dispute of this kind might’ve had something to do with why Francona’s no longer the Red Sox manager and Lucchino has interfered with the club to the point that they’re rapidly degenerating into a train crash.

Judging by the way they’re playing, the Red Sox have bigger things to worry about than Francona and Lucchino.

Much bigger.

They’d better enjoy the celebrating while they can because, from the looks of things, there’s not going to be much joy to be had this summer and, more importantly, in the fall.

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Wayside Mandate

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What happened to the rule in baseball that minority candidates had to receive interviews for high profile jobs as managers and general managers?

Is it no longer in effect?

Does it receive a waiver when a club decides to hire a “star” executive or field boss or promotes from within using the “next in line” approach?

Why is it that Theo Epstein was essentially rubber-stamped to go to the Cubs with the Cubs not fulfilling the requirement of interviewing a minority?

Or that Ben Cherington was promoted as Red Sox GM without so much as a peep from MLB that they had to talk to other candidates to satisfy the rule?

Initially I felt that the rule was a half-hearted attempt to appear progressive in name only; I didn’t think it would do much good; if a club has a specific person in mind for a job—and that may have race as a part of the subconscious exclusionary process—there’s not much that can be done to change their minds.

But what if a candidate walks in and wows the prospective employer? And what if that candidate’s reputation is boosted by the fact that teams were forced to interview them when, short of the mandate, they might not have done so?

Executives chat regularly; it’s a relatively closed society. They complain about players’ behaviors; their bosses; the media; and other mundane aspects of doing a job that many think is the pinnacle in baseball.

Doesn’t it make sense that if a Demarlo Hale or Bo Porter go in for an interview as manager and doesn’t get it for whatever reason that doing well will boost them for another opportunity?

But baseball has given a pass to clubs like the Cubs who hired Epstein away from the Red Sox; watched silently as Epstein hired Jed Hoyer from the Padres; and may look the other way when he hires his next manager whether it’s Ryne Sandberg (the “Cubs institution” excuse—which can be altered to make light of the Cubs being something of an institution) or Terry Francona (Epstein and Hoyer know and have worked with him before) to replace the fired Mike Quade.

The Padres promoted Josh Byrnes to take over for Hoyer.

No interviews?

Why?

Of course in some situations there is a “token” aspect to interviewing a candidate because of his or her racial profile, but it’s a means to an end.

Ten short years ago, there was one minority GM—Kenny Williams of the White Sox, who is black.

The minority managers from 2001 were Dusty Baker, Don Baylor, Jerry Manuel, Tony Perez, Davey Lopes, Felipe Alou, Hal McRae and Lloyd McClendon.

Failed retreads Buddy Bell, Bob Boone and Jeff Torborg were also managing that year.

Today, we have Manny Acta, Ron Washington, Ozzie Guillen, Fredi Gonzalez and Baker on the job with three openings with the Cardinals, Red Sox and Cubs.

Journeyman manager Jim Riggleman has been mentioned as a possibility for the Cardinals.

Jim Riggleman? The same Riggleman who quit on the Nationals in a self-immolating snit because they didn’t want to exercise his option for 2012? That guy? Teams want to hire him to manage?

I wouldn’t even consider him after what he pulled with the Nationals.

The Athletics hired Bob Melvin as interim manager after firing Bob Geren and gave him the full-time job. No minority interviews.

The Nationals hired Davey Johnson—their interim manager and a supremely qualified candidate with a terrific resume of managerial success, but someone who appeared tired at times in 2011 and may have lost his managerial fastball—no minority interviews.

What about Willie Randolph? Is he toxic? His strategic skills weren’t great when managing the Mets, but he had control of the clubhouse and deserves another chance.

Today Ruben Amaro Jr. and Michael Hill are working GMs; Tony Reagins was just fired by the Angels; and Kim Ng is an Asian-American woman who’s interviewed to be a GM and is currently an executive with Major League Baseball—the same MLB that is tacitly allowing clubs to selectively bypass the the mandatory minority interview rule to hire “names”.

Progress has been limited, but it’s progress nonetheless.

A rule that has helped make positive improvements in this realm is being dispatched out of convenience due to the recognition of those that are currently getting those jobs.

Epstein was going to be the Cubs boss one way or the other, but that doesn’t render the requirement meaningless.

At least it shouldn’t.

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Because He’s LaRussa…Again

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During that 20-inning loss to the Mets in April of 2010, Tony LaRussa used position players Felipe Lopez and Joe Mather to pitch and lost the game. I said at the time that if then-Mets manager Jerry Manuel had done that, there would be people calling for his job. (Well, more people calling for his job because he was already under siege.)

But because LaRussa is LaRussa, has the reputation he has; the record he has; the Hall of Fame career he has, he gets away with things that other managers wouldn’t.

It’s the same situation with the World Series bullpen mix-up and the freedom Albert Pujols has to call his own hit-and-run plays.

They were mistakes. They happen throughout the course of a season with every team no matter who’s managing, but these were magnified because that might have cost the Cardinals the game and they happened one after the other.

Regardless of your opinion as to whether LaRussa should accord such leeway for a player to call his own risky hit-and-runs, Pujols and LaRussa have both earned the trust to make those decisions.

As for the bullpen gaffe, those that think LaRussa is lying are fools.

He doesn’t have to lie about such a mistake and he took the responsibility on himself. Another manager without such security might’ve said something to inspire accusations of conspiracy because they would have incentive to lie. LaRussa doesn’t.

But still he has to endure the absurd critiques from those in the media who think they know, but don’t know; who have self-created expertise because they understand a series of stats but haven’t the faintest clue of how difficult it is to navigate a roomful of egos; the stifling media; and the competition.

We’ve seen the end result of the “middle-manager” who’s known to be such and hasn’t the experience nor the savvy to handle all aspects of managing in the big leagues.

A.J. Hinch was installed by the Diamondbacks to institute “organizational advocacy”; he’s extremely smart and played in the big leagues, but had zero managerial experience; it was a disaster that cost both Hinch and GM Josh Byrnes their jobs.

Grady Little was fired because, in part, he left Pedro Martinez in too long in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and the Yankees came back and won. But he was already on thin ice because he wasn’t the type of manager who’d adhere to statistics to the degree that the Red Sox wanted and only a World Series win was going to save him.

LaRussa has been managing in the big leagues since 1979. He certainly doesn’t need to formulate cover stories or lie to the likes of those who have all the guts in the world in a blog post or on Twitter, but would faint if they were in that position in the corner of the dugout making decisions that win or lose ballgames.

Because he’s LaRussa, he gets a pass. And he deserves it.

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The Cardinals’ Last Stand

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Having swept three straight from the Brewers at Miller Park, the Cardinals have kept themselves alive in the NL Central race. They’re still down 7 1/2 games with 25 to play so a comeback would be bordering on the miraculous, but they’re still around—and that was the first step.

This weekend is supremely important for the Cardinals to—at the very least—stay 7 1/2 games behind. The Brewers are in Houston for a 3 game series with the Astros while the Cardinals are going home to play the Reds.

On Monday, the Brewers go to St. Louis for 3 games.

If the Cardinals can cut the deficit another game or two, Monday becomes very, very interesting and important. Let’s say the Cardinals manage to get within 5 games after their home series with the Brewers. The Brewers are then going to Philadelphia to play the Phillies; the Cardinals have the Braves coming to town.

Without providing schedules for each team down the stretch (their opponents are mostly the same), the Cardinals have to make their move now.

It’s hard to see the Brewers stumbling in a 2007 Mets-type way and being caught or passed by the Cardinals. Those Mets were drastically flawed in the starting rotation with Oliver Perez and John Maine both having been coaxed to unexpected 15 win seasons by Rick Peterson and Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez were shells of what they once were; this Brewers club with Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf has legitimate starting pitching.

You can also throw the 2008 Mets into that mix. With Johan Santana their starting pitching was better than it was in the previous year, but the bullpen was relying on journeyman Luis Ayala to close after Billy Wagner went down with Tommy John surgery; the Brewers have two legitimate closers in John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez.

2007 Mets manager Willie Randolph panicked and 2008 manager Jerry Manuel was outgunned; I don’t know how Brewers rookie manager Ron Roenicke is going to react if his club is pressed by Tony LaRussa‘s Cardinals over the last two weeks.

But the Cardinals crawled back into striking distance with the sweep—similar to the way the Phillies did against the Mets (twice) in the final 5 weeks of the 2007 season.

The last thing the Brewers want to do is let the Cardinals think they have a chance.

That’s what the Cardinals are thinking now.

And if things break a certain way, in seven days time they might have more than a chance. They might have a race; a race the Brewers neither wanted, needed nor expected.

The Brewers have to take care of business by next Thursday or they could have a problem on their hands.

A big one.

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