If Theo Epstein’s intention for including Terry Francona in Thursday’s Red Sox post-mortem press conference was to dispel any rumors of any tension between the general manager and manager, it didn’t work. Far from it. Francona looked like a petulant teenager forced to come out of his bedroom and sit at the dinner table with those annoying relatives we all have. It was apparent Francona didn’t want to be there, and he didn’t stay a second longer than he had to.
If you wanted to read body language, the tension and hostility in the room was obvious. The hostility, to me, went beyond just having the season come to an ignominious, premature end only less than twenty-four hours earlier.
Epstein admitted that he and Francona “spent some time talking today, just kind of catching up about the season and talking about what the next few days will look like.” It appeared to me that the talk didn’t go over very well with the manager.
Francona sat the whole time with a scowl on his face, arms crossed. It was apparent that the last place Francona wanted to be was at that press conference. It wouldn’t surprise me if, despite Francona’s objections, Epstein insisted that he join him in order to provide a picture of unity. There had been speculation over the last few weeks that there may be a “disconnect” between the two individuals. After watching this press conference, the speculation appears warranted.
Again, It is obviously conjecture on my part (but that’s what I do), but it looked like Francona was annoyed sitting next to Epstein knowing that no decision had been made by the team to pick up the two-year option left on his contract. The Red Sox have ten days to pick up that option. Maybe I’m wrong, and Francona’s disposition was 100% related to the disappointing ending to the season. In his own words, those wounds were “still pretty fresh and pretty raw.” But it couldn’t make Francona comfortable sitting next to an employer who is non-committal to wanting him back.
At one point, Epstein tried to lighten the mood when he inadvertently said that the last month of the season had Francona pulling out his hairs. Epstein smiled and turned to look at the clean-shaven dome of Francona’s head. Francona, sitting upright with arms still crossed, looked out of the corner of his eyes at Epstein and barely mustered a smirk.
To Epstein’s credit, he owned up to his own faults and refused to blame Francona for the team not making the playoffs. “In particular, no one blames Tito for what happened in September,” Epstein said. Take that for what it’s worth. Fact is– Francona is, essentially, sans contract right now.
As for his role in the failures of this team, Epstein said, “I’m the general manager so I take more responsibility than anybody.” He went on to admit his own deficiencies in the free agent market—basically saying that Carl Crawford and John Lackey have not come close to living up to their mega-millions contract. “Our decision making process on expensive free agents , big ticket free agents, has not been satisfactory at all.”
Epstein was also non-committal in terms of returning the current Red Sox coaching staff. In particular, Epstein voiced disappointment in the conditioning of his team. “I think we have high standards, and I can’t sit here and say that those standards have been met across the board.” One could assume he was speaking of players like John Lackey, Bobby Jenks, Matt Albers, Dan Wheeler, Felix Doubront, and Josh Beckett.
Epstein candidly spoke about Lackey and said that “rehabilitating John Lackey” will be a big priority. The problem will be attacked from a physical (i.e. conditioning), fundamental, and mental standpoint. Good luck with that.
The most compelling thing I took out of the press conference was Francona hinting that there was a big problem with complacency in the clubhouse. Francona disclosed he called a rare team meeting following a 14-0 victory in Toronto on September 6. The team wasn’t coming together the way he liked
“Teams normally, as the season progresses, there’s events that make you care about each other and this club didn’t always happen as much as I wanted and I was frustrated by that,” Francona said. This quote reminded me of a line used to refer to the Red Sox teams of the 1980’s. It was said those “teams” were a bunch of individuals that once the game was over, it was 25 players leaving in 25 limos.
Francona was obviously frustrated by the lack of camaraderie on his team. He feared they didn’t have each other’s back. Loyalty is very important to Francona. He gives it in bunches and expects it in return. It would be another reason for his animosity towards the organization for not picking up his option at this late date.
Epstein agreed with Francona’s displeasure with the chemistry of the team, referring to the September 6 meeting, and added, “We had a big lead, but we did sense things weren’t right.” This disclosure points to a fissure in the clubhouse and one that could explain the lack of heart displayed by the team en route to a 7-20 September record, the most losses in September by a Red Sox team since 1952.
As soon as it was announced the press conference was over, Francona leapt out of his seat, nearly knocking over the still-seated Theo Epstein (apologizing with a hand wave), and rushed off to an adjoining room. It was a telling scene.
So what’s next? Was the Francona swift exit an indication that maybe he is in a hurry to get out of Boston? He has been the manager of the Boston Red Sox since 2004, winning two World Series titles. Speculation these last few weeks has involved the possibility of Francona’s option not being picked up (incorrectly termed by some as “fired”) by the team. Maybe it is Francona who will take the decision out of the front office’s hands and decide to walk away on his own. He said he was “frustrated” with this team. The clubhouse is comprised of a lot of players with long-term, unmovable contracts. The 2012 team will look a lot like the 2011 team unless the ownership decides to eat a lot of money, which I can’t see happening. Francona walking away on his own was a possibility I had barely considered this season, but these past few days have me thinking it may be a high probability.
Listen to the press conference on WEEI.com