Back in the dugout there was no saving the 2010 Red Sox: From July 4 on, they were a sub-.500 team. They finished 89--73, in third place in the American League East and out of the playoffs for the first time in four years. There were also signs that Henry was no longer immersed in his baseball team. The owner and his Fenway Sports Group were preparing to buy the Liverpool Football Club for $480 million. (The group had paid $700 million for its baseball team in 2002.) Henry and Werner would spend much of the next two years flying across the Atlantic to tend to matters in the English Premier League.
Before the season finale at Fenway, Werner passed Francona on the field and grumbled, "What a s----- season."
"That bothered me," said the manager, whose lineup had been depleted by injuries to such key players as Jacoby Ellsbury, Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. "We ground out 89 wins. I remember thinking, F---, if this was s-----, I don't want to be around here when it really is s-----."
On Nov. 2, a group gathered at Fenway to review results of that $100,000 marketing research project the Sox had commissioned in July. With Werner participating on speakerphone, Lucchino met with the bosses of NESN. Epstein, who'd been reluctant to participate in the study, attended as well.
The document distributed at the meeting listed several factors in the public's falling interest in the team. Chief among them was the "no-name" lineup the team was forced to use in 2010 because of injuries and the lack of major trades or signings the winter before. In a section on male-female demographics the report stated, "[W]omen are definitely more drawn to the 'soap opera' and 'reality-TV' aspects of the game.... They are interested in good-looking stars and sex symbols (Pedroia)."
There was no ambiguity: NESN's memo was telling Epstein and his baseball operations staff what was needed to reverse the costly downward trend in Red Sox television ratings: star power. The G.M. was insulted, amused (Pedroia, sexy?) and angry. "They told us we didn't have any marketable players, that we needed some sizzle," he recalled. "We need some sexy guys. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist comedy. We'd become too big. It was the farthest thing removed from what we set out to be."
In direct response to the pressure from his bosses and the sagging ratings, Epstein went to work to build a sexier team for 2011. Over the winter, in rapid-fire succession, he traded for (and then signed to a seven-year contract extension) Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signed free-agent outfielder Carl Crawford. Combined price tag: $296 million.
Francona was entering the final season of a deal with a two-year club option that had to be triggered within 10 days of the end of the 2011 season. But, given his past success and the expectations for 2011, there was remarkably little talk about the lame-duck status of the manager. Folks close to Henry knew that Francona had been in the crosshairs of the owner for a couple of seasons. "If anyone asked me about it, I deflected it," Francona said. "I had told [ownership] I wouldn't bring it up, so I didn't. I was starting to feel that maybe they weren't that big on me."
The team got off to a horrendous 2--10 start, but even as the Sox eventually climbed above .500, Francona was dealing with physical and emotional issues. He'd undergone surgery during the off-season, and his replacement knee was giving him problems, with constant swelling and pain. (It was not unusual to see Francona with his legs propped up somewhere in the dugout or in the clubhouse at the end of batting practice.) The pain medication he took helped, but sometimes the pain and swelling were overwhelming. Francona was living in a Courtyard Marriott near Fenway, having separated from Jacque, his wife of almost 30 years, after the 2010 season. During home stands he padded around his hotel room, always keeping the television on—but avoiding news programs. His son, Nick, was a Marine lieutenant serving a six-month tour as a rifle-platoon leader in Afghanistan. News reports from the war zone only made the manager worry. "I thought about it all the time," he admitted. "I tried to stay away from the news, but it's always there."
For the first time in his career Francona kept his cellphone in the dugout runway during games. He'd sometimes check it between innings. "I don't know why I did that," he said. "Who was going to call me if something happened to my son? It was just an uneasy feeling for me. I'm sure people saw me checking it."