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Good luck, Terry Francona, and watch your back

At the end of March on the eve of the 2011 baseball season, 36 of the game’s certified “experts” submitted their predictions about how the season would go and who would emerge triumphant. Banal as the exercise may be, it’s a custom as ingrained as the whistling of “Take Me out to the Ballgame” and as fundamental as peanuts and crackerjacks.

Moreover, it has a certain dim relevance in terms of ordering expectations against which all of the interminable season’s near infinite give and take are subsequently measured. Everyone has an opinion on this stuff, of course, but the collective acumen of media heavyweights is bound to be deemed serious. And this panel -- assembled by the internet website Real Clear Sports -- was surely legitimate. The 36 anointed savants came from ESPN, Fox, NBC, CBS, Sports Illustrated, MLB Network, The Sporting News, etc., ad nauseam, and all of the usual suspects were among the distinguished delegates.

And here’s what they predicted:
In the American League, 78 percent (28 of the 36) picked the Red Sox to win the pennant. The Yankees were a very distant second with four votes and the Tampa Bay Rays received none as in zero percent. In the N.L, the Phillies were picked by a substantial margin (46 percent) with the Braves second and the Giants third while neither the Cardinals nor the Brewers got a single vote. As for the World Series, 22 of the 36 – 61 percent -- picked the Red Sox. The Phils got seven votes; the Yanks, two. The other 27 teams in MLB carved up the remaining seven votes. I can never remember the pre-season projections being anywhere near so lopsided.

From all this, several conclusions may be drawn:
(A)   People who engage in such folly are fools.
(B)   The foolishness is even more egregious when the subject is baseball because the season is so long, the games so many, the possibilities so endless, and the characters so flawed.
(C) No prescription in this impenetrable game is invulnerable to the whims of injury, the intrigues of franchise politics, or the vagaries of the moons, tides, and baseball gods.
(D) For once it was not just the doting masses of Red Sox Nation who got suckered by dear old Boston’s eternally pretentious baseball team.
(E)  You can wait until next year if you like, but I wouldn’t bet on it if I were you.
(F) The shoddiness of the herd mentality of pack-journalism has been exposed again.

As collapses go, this season’s epic rendering of the art form by the Red Sox may become among the most intensely diagnosed gag-jobs of our times, right up there with heavy stuff like the implosion of our economy and the fall of the Soviet Union. The tirades promptly inspired have been furious. It took but a couple of days for a certain historical gravity to become attached to the issue. If it gets any more strident, it will become totally ludicrous.

But when all is said and done and the bitterness blows over and the hurt heals and the insults are forgiven, the mere simplicity of it all will gradually clarify. This team had plenty of holes from the get-go. It was spectacularly over-rated. The selling of it as being the equal of the 1927 Yankees, or the Big Red Machine of the 1970’s, or even other Red Sox editions, like circa 2003-‘07, was a pure con job. All that stuff was always ragtime.

And it had much to do with the positive genius for over-promoting themselves and their product that the John Henry ownership has cleverly developed. The legendary hucksters who famously tub-thumped Beauty Soap to the mythical top of the sales charts never did it better. Henry and his fast-talking lackeys have co-opted all of Red Sox history and made it their own. When they get through celebrating the centenary of Fenway Park next summer they’ll have you believing John Henry has been in charge for a hundred years (except for the times the team stunk, of course).

So much of it is baloney. It had been suggested that injuries were a major factor in this year’s horrific meltdown. But injuries are a given. This is not tiddily-winks we’re talking about. There will always be injuries. In fact, they were more invasive last season. Going into the last fatal fortnight of this season, it was the Yankees -- with more than 1,300 games lost -- who had been more burdened by injury.

Maybe the Red Sox losing Clay Buchholz was a greater blow than the Yankees losing Joba Chamberlain or Pedro Feliciano. But who would argue that Kevin Youkilis is more important to the Red Sox than Alex Rodriguez is to the Yankees? Of the two, it was A-Rod who missed the most games.

Most of the excuses are just that -- excuses -- intrinsically weak. Methinks deposed Manager Terry Francona, a smart fellow, appreciates all that. In a roundabout way, he seemed to be trying to say as much in his alternately touching and puzzling farewell delivered two days after the vastly over-paid and under-motivated mercenaries he’d been obliged to baby-sit had brought him down with a bloody thud that fair-minded folks could only deem as regrettable.

If the inevitable recriminations and the un-pretty process of squeezing out the requisite pound of flesh begin and end with the cashiering of Francona, then those smooth, glib, adroitly self-promoting plutocrats who own the team are a whole lot more devious than even cynics like me suspect.

Francona didn’t quit; he was fired. He obviously agreed to soften the moment by spinning it as he did, pretending it was entirely his choice, and going away nicely and quietly. In exchange, he gets the payoff -- said to be $750,000 -- they’re obliged to pay if they don’t pick up his option but wouldn’t have to pay him had he quit to take another baseball job or change professions and become, say, a bus driver or Trappist monk.

It’s a small price for Henry and his cronies to have to pay for having the embarrassment minimized. Having to fire a guy because he doesn’t agree to take the fall is so much messier, especially for guys like Henry who believe appearances are everything.

But the great unwashed can’t be fooled all the time, even if they are card-carrying members of Red Sox Nation, a certified cult. So the key question to the ownership cronies will linger; “How could you have allowed one lousy season to terminate your relationship with perhaps the best manager your dumb team ever had?” Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.

So why did Francona do what he did? Because he’s a card-carrying baseball lifer just like his dad, the original “Tito.” Terry Francona’s roots in this game go back to when he was three and had the clubhouse of the old Cleveland Indians for a romper room.

Baseball lifers function by a different set of rules. Owners and bean-counters -- hardly stupid -- understand that and have always skillfully exploited it. By playing along, Francona gets his dough while doing nothing to harm his superb chances of seamlessly moving into another nice baseball gig. Too bad, because I’ll bet he has a helluva story to tell. I’d further bet a part of him would have loved to fight back. But “lifers” never do that.

He is now out of here, but if I were Francona I would continue to watch my back. If he begins to get rather too much credit for the wonderful things that happened under his watch and not enough blame for the not-so-wonderful things, that may not sit well with ownership. The custody of the tale is precious to the owners and worth a lot. Francona is gone but not beyond their reach. He could yet get smeared and they have media friends willing to do the job. You should keep an eye on all that.
Isn’t it a pretty business, so classically in the tradition of the Boston Red Sox? You will pardon me if I switch gears and fiercely adopt the cause, say, of the Tampa Bay Rays. Now there is a real baseball team.

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