Terry Francona Deserves Rousing Standing Ovation in Return to Fenway Park
Forget for a second the disastrous collapse down the stretch in 2011. Forget the lost clubhouse where pitchers spent more time drinking beer and eating fried chicken than they did cheering on their team. Even forget the tell-all book he wrote last year, blasting the front office, among other things.
Terry Francona returns to Fenway Park tonight as the skipper of the surging Cleveland Indians, and he deserves nothing short of a standing ovation from Red Sox Nation on Thursday night for everything he brought to the team during his eight seasons at the helm.
His time in Boston ended on a sour note, but he deserves to be remembered as the manager who brought an end to the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 and then brought the city another title in 2007.
Fans were all too quick to say good riddance to Francona after watching the Red Sox go 7-20 to close out the 2011 season, losing to the Baltimore Orioles on the final day of the season to be eliminated from the playoff picture.
However, fast-forward a year and Francona suddenly didn't look so bad, as the Red Sox plummeted to the basement of the AL East with an over-his-head Bobby Valentine leading the team to a 69-93 record, their worst since 1965.
After spending a year in the broadcast booth, the Indians convinced Francona to return to the dugout and pilot what was a franchise without a direction. The team now stands as one of the biggest surprises of 2013, carrying a 26-19 record, good for first place in the AL Central entering play tonight.
A former first-round pick in the 1980 draft, Francona made his big league debut the following season and went on to play 10 seasons in the majors.
He finished his career with a .274/.300/.351 line and 474 hits, as he fell well short of expectations and saw his pro career end at the age of 30 in 1990.
It didn't take him long to get into the managing game, as he took the reins of the White Sox Rookie League team the following season. He worked his way up the ranks in the White Sox minor league organization and wound up being the man who managed Michael Jordan during his time on the baseball field.
His first big league coaching job was as third base coach for the Detroit Tigers in 1996, and the following season he was hired as manager by the Philadelphia Phillies. He lasted just four seasons, going a combined 285-363, and was fired at the end of the 2000 season.
After serving as assistant to the GM for the Indians in 2001 and bench coach for the Texas Rangers and Oakland A's the following two seasons, respectively, Francona was hired to manage the Red Sox in 2004.
The previous season, manager Grady Little had led the team to a 95-67 record and a berth in the ALCS. His decision to leave Pedro Martinez in the Game 7 with a 5-2 lead and a high pitch count in the bottom of the eighth will forever be questioned. The Yankees wound up tying it in the eighth and winning it in the the 11th when Aaron Boone hit a walk-off home run against Tim Wakefield.
Aside from the additions of Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke and Mark Bellhorn, the Red Sox were essentially the same team in 2004, and Francona brought them back to the ALCS to again face the Yankees.
The 2004 team was different, though, as it came back from losing the first three games of the series to eliminate the Yankees. The squad seemed like a team of destiny, and there was Francona at the head of it all.
After waiting 86 years to finally win a title, Francona then brought another one to the city just three years later, when the Red Sox swept the Rockies.
Suddenly, expectations in Boston had changed, and simply reaching the postseason was no longer enough. The team won 95 games in 2008 and 2009 but was eliminated in the ALCS by the Rays in '08 and then swept in the first round by the Angels the following season.
The next two seasons the Red Sox finished third in the AL East and missed the playoffs, and the team's late-season collapse in 2011 was the last straw for Francona.
Immediately following his firing, a number of rumors surrounded Francona and the team. I wrote a piece back in October of that year highlighting some of them, as there was talk that Francona was hooked on painkillers and distracted by his divorce—that he had lost the dugout completely and that too many players were playing for themselves.
How should Red Sox fans greet Terry Francona in his return to Fenway Park?
Then, last January, he released his tell-all book Francona: The Red Sox Years, and I wrote a piece taking a look at some of the more wild excerpts from it. Francona questioned the owners' passion for the game and if they were making personnel decisions for the right reasons.
Then, last April, Francona rejected an invitation to come to the 100th anniversary celebration of Fenway Park, showing that things were still far from resolved between him and the team.
Francona was on top of the world in 2004 and a hero for leading the Red Sox to a World Series. He was still that same hero when he led the team to another one in 2007.
With the Red Sox enjoying success under a new manager, it's only right that all the negatives be put aside and Francona be remembered as the hero he was with a standing ovation in his return to Fenway Park.
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