Call it a nation divided. The fallout from the release of former Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s new book, Francona: The Red Sox Years, has created two very outspoken camps in Boston. There are those who think Francona has taken an unwarranted cheap shot at the Red Sox owners who essentially made him the big name that he is today. Then, there are those who will never forgive the current Boston regime for their treatment of Francona after he helped bring two World Series titles to a city that was in an 86-year drought. Apparently, you can add sports columnist Alex Speier to that former group.
Several days ago, The Boston Globe featured an opinion article by economist Andrew Zimbalist, in which the author called Francona’s account “nasty, petty, inaccurate, and unfair.” After reading his piece, I couldn’t help but think of the same four adjectives in summing up Zimbalist’s opinion of the book.
Zimbalist has no affiliation with the team. He wasn’t on the field, wasn’t in the locker room and didn’t attend the private meetings between Francona and the Red Sox ownership team of John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino. So to give any credence to what Zimbalist has to offer on any of the details of Francona’s book would be silly. It’s simply one man’s opinion, and he’s very much entitled to it. What caught me by surprise, though, was the fact that Speier gave this opinion breaking-news-type attention.
Over the weekend, WEEI Boston writer/radio host Kirk Minihane interviewed Zimbalist about the content of his article. That came as a shock to absolutely no one, as Minihane has been very critical of Francona’s book from the start. But now, Speier has also jumped on the John Henry bandwagon by posting a recap of his own on the company’s web page. Again, Zimbalist has no inside information here, and nothing new to add to the stories that Francona recounted in his book. So why is he getting all this attention? The bigger question might be why is Speier seemingly hiding behind Zimbalist’s off-the-wall opinions? What’s his agenda here? Does he have any thoughts of his own on any of this? I do.
Zimbalist is wrong. He’s clearly just a John Henry apologist that credits the owner for those World Series titles more so than the manager. But to engage Zimbalist in any type of debate would only mislead people into thinking that his opinion is somehow relevant. That’s exactly what Speier has done, so really, we’re forced to conclude that Speier agrees with what Zimbalist is saying. That’s fine, I suppose. But wouldn’t he be better served sharing his own views rather than emphasizing those of a local college professor? It’s quite puzzling. Perhaps not as puzzling, though, as the actual content that Speier seems to be standing behind.
Francona accuses the ownership group, and specifically Lucchino, of meddling in personnel issues. Former GM Theo Epstein has verified this account. But don’t take their word for it. Look at the current state of the Red Sox. Right now, no one knows who’s in charge. No one knows who’s making the roster decisions. On paper, it’s GM Ben Cherington, but is that really the case? Epstein has previously insisted that ownership was responsible for the outrageous Carl Crawford signing back in December of 2010. Ownership denies that allegation. So who’s telling the truth? I don’t know, and Zimbalist doesn’t know either. Francona is the one with first-hand knowledge. So to suggest that he’s being “petty” or “unfair” here would be, well, petty and unfair.
Francona says that Henry and Werner like baseball but don’t love or understand it. While the statement may be insensitive, that doesn’t necessarily make it “inaccurate”. Henry and Werner are business owners. Running a business is what they do. Francona apparently didn’t appreciate the way that they were running the Red Sox in his last couple of years there, but he wasn’t the only one. The Red Sox ownership group has been repeatedly accused of indifference ever since the team won its second World Series in 2007. Henry bought the Liverpool soccer club in England, and has spent a great deal of time and focus with that investment. He has, by all accounts, handed Lucchino the reins during the last three seasons. On top of that, there have been rumors all over Boston that Henry is interested in selling the team. Ownership has spent a ton of money on payroll and on upgrades to Fenway Park. No one is disputing that. But those are business moves, not baseball moves. The difference seems lost on Zimbalist, Speier and Minihane.
Zimbalist then drops the bombshell that Henry quite possibly knows more about sabermetrics than Francona, thus proving his understanding of the “intricacies of the game”. Wow. Who cares? Managers have been winning baseball games without the use of sabermetrics for over 100 years. Understanding the formulas behind confusing and sometimes arbitrary statistics has very little to do with one’s knowledge of the game. Again, Zimbalist is lost here. Sabermetrics is a system used in determining the value of a player. It serves a business and entertainment purpose, having little importance in the dugout, where recent trends and managerial hunches take center stage.
Francona was the manager of two World Series winners with the Red Sox and a class act during his entire stay in Boston. To question how much influence or credit he deserves for his part in those championships is absurd. He was made a scapegoat by the Red Sox brass after the team’s embarrassing collapse at the end of the 2011 season. When the firing was criticized, equally embarrassing stories from Francona’s personal life—known only to Red Sox upper management—were leaked to the press. Can anyone blame Francona for wanting to vent? Any contempt for Francona’s supposed vindictiveness should also be given to Red Sox management in an equal dose.
Right now, the collective fan base in Boston is divided. When it comes to Francona and how his departure from Boston was handled by Red Sox ownership, harsh and passionate opinions seem to explode from both sides. There is, however, one thing that puts everyone on the same page. Winning. Whether you represent Team Francona or Team Henry, more distractions are something that the 2013 team can ill afford. And for that, give all the credit in the world to Henry, who has had no comment about any of this to date.
(JM Catellier is the author of the book Fixing Baseball, a guide to restructuring the Hall of Fame. Follow him on Twitter: @FixingBaseball and Facebook, and check out his site: www.fixingbaseball.com)