Reliving Terry Francona's Curse-Breaking, Beer-Drinking Boston Red Sox Reign
Starting Tuesday, the Cleveland Indians will host the Boston Red Sox for a three-game April series. For Indians fans, this tryst might bring back bad memories of Pedro Martinez's dominance in Game 5 of the '99 ALDS or a blown 3-1 lead in the '07 ALCS.
But the only games and memories Red Sox fans will be thinking about this week are those managed in current Indians skipper Terry Francona's time in Boston.
After a messy divorce from the Red Sox at the conclusion of the 2011 season, Francona is back in a major league dugout for the 2013 campaign.
Although the relationship between Francona, management, Boston media and the fans ended in a fragile, complicated state, there's no denying Francona's impact on the Red Sox franchise during his time in Fenway Park.
During Francona's eight-year run as Red Sox skipper, the team averaged 93 wins per season, made five postseason appearances and hoisted a pair of World Series trophies, the first of which represented Boston's first championship since 1918. The route to slaying the Curse of the Bambino included an 0-3 comeback over the rival New York Yankees in the ALCS.
As we now know, the end of Francona's run wasn't pretty. Between stories of a beer-drinking clubhouse gone mad, inmates running the asylum and leaks from front office to the media, Francona shouldered the blame for much of the losing late in 2011.
As the Red Sox tumbled from the top of the American League East standings and missed the postseason, news of Francona's personal struggles circulated. In short, the gap between two-time championship euphoria and lame-duck manager hit a tipping point.
With the bad and ugly out of the way, there's no understating the good that was Francona's impact on the Red Sox franchise.
Considering the immense pressure to win that existed when Francona arrived in 2004, smart money would have been against him succeeding. With a whiz-kid general manger in Theo Epstein, rich, powerful owners and a fanbase desperate to top the success of '03, winning a championship was the only way to satisfy the Red Sox Nation.
In most cases, the amount of blame baseball managers receive is ludicrous. The same can be said for the amount of praise when things go smoothly. To put it bluntly: Managers can only make a small difference; they may be able to take a good team and propel them to very good status, but the idea of any manager molding a bad roster into a World Series champion is nonsense.
Talent is always the most important ingredient.
If ever there were an exception to that rule, it would've been the Red Sox during the 2004 season. No title will ever come close to what breaking the curse meant to the city of Boston and its beloved franchise. Regardless of what happened in the summer of 2011, Francona should have a place in Red Sox lore forever for his work that season.
There wasn't a more seminal moment in Boston's run from midseason underachiever to eventual World Series champion than a July 24 game against New York.
A day earlier, Boston lost a heartbreaker to the Yankees on an Alex Rodriguez single off closer Keith Foulke. After starting the season at a MLB-best 17-8, the loss slipped Boston to 35-36 since May 1. For a team expected to challenge the Yankees in the AL East, things were slipping away. At the moment Francona and Co. retreated to the clubhouse, the gap between the Yankees and Red Sox stood at 9.5 games.
In the immediate aftermath, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling offered this nugget, which would carry Boston on a magic carpet ride beginning the next day.
"We were tenacious. We played with intensity," Schilling said (h/t Washington Post). "If we play like we played tonight, every night for the rest of the season, we're going to go to the World Series."
Of course, they did. Thanks to a brawl the next afternoon, the Nomar Garciaparra trade and a torrid 46-20 run, the Red Sox entered the postseason with confidence. A month later, they left with the first World Series title the city had seen in 86 years.
Francona's run in Boston can be summed up with many narratives, words and moments, but amid all the peaks and valleys, the manager remained the same. Of all his attributes on the bench, it was his placid demeanor that attached itself to his club.
The 2004 Red Sox didn't just win a title because they had great talent; they won because the team acted and played the way Schilling noted in his quote in the aftermath of their rock bottom. And they won because Francona gave them that sense of calm.
Regardless of how the team and Francona parted ways or the talent littered through the rosters over the years, it's hard to imagine any other manager enjoying the success Francona did in Boston for those eight years.
From the curse-breaking to the beer-drinking, Boston was in good hands for a long time under the manager that now calls Progressive Field home.
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