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Months later, when he was out of a job, the cellphone habit might have been used to hurt him when an anonymous club source told The Boston Globe that Francona appeared distracted during the season. It was actually the opposite. Coping with a dissolving marriage, a son in Afghanistan, and severe pain and insomnia, Francona sought refuge at the ballpark and went to work earlier than in any of his previous years in Boston.
By the All-Star break the Red Sox were in first place, but there was virtually no discussion of Francona's contract. It was assumed he would be back in 2012 and beyond. Even though Sox insiders often heard Henry grumbling about his manager during Fenway games, a sixth playoff appearance in eight years would make Francona a lock to return. Things were simply going too well.
The 2011 Red Sox lost 20 of their final 27 games, becoming the first team in baseball history to fail to make the playoffs after holding a nine-game lead in September. But even before their starting pitching collapsed, there were signs of trouble. The Sox missed some veteran coaches who had commanded their attention. The team had a lot of aging players in the final year of their contracts. It had players placing personal rewards above team success. On the bench Francona no longer had veterans who could deliver messages for him—selfless role players like Gabe Kapler, Alex Cora and Eric Hinske. These Sox were looking out for themselves.
The Red Sox also had increasingly inattentive ownership—Henry and Werner were consumed with Liverpool, Roush Racing and LeBron James (the team's parent company, Fenway Sports Group, represented the NBA star)—and a general manager who was rumored to be going to the Cubs. And they had a manager who was working more hours than ever but feared he was losing his voice in the clubhouse. "I was worried about it all year," Francona said. "Somebody would strike out and go look at video instead of staying on the bench. There was just a lot of frustration with a lot of things. Without the voices of the coaches and veteran players, I was doing a lot more of that work, and the players were like, 'F---, man, where is this coming from?' It catches up with you."
On Sept. 6 the Sox demolished the Blue Jays 14--0. Still, Francona was concerned about the clubhouse atmosphere, and he met with catcher Jason Varitek, the team's captain, early the next day. "He told me he was seeing the same things I was seeing," said the manager.
After that lengthy talk with his captain, Francona decided to call a team meeting. It was not a success. "You guys might think it's weird having a meeting after a 14--0 win," Francona said at the start. "But I'm seeing things that are bothering me. I see us worrying about too much s--- that doesn't mean anything. We need to stop bitching about scoring decisions, contracts, personal goals, bus times, getaway days, the media, everything. Remember what we are here for."
Francona didn't single anyone out. Back in his office the manager looked at bench coach DeMarlo Hale and said, "That fell on deaf ears. All they are doing is wondering why I'm having a meeting when we just won 14--0. Everybody is going their own way."
After the Red Sox were eliminated from contention with a loss in Baltimore on the last night of the season, Francona sat down with Epstein and said, "I feel like I let you down." The manager was back at Fenway the next morning. In the wake of the collapse there were already multiple media reports citing clubhouse drinking and other player misconduct during the season.
At 9:00 a.m. on Sept. 30, Francona and Epstein sat at a large oak table in the meeting room connected to Lucchino's Fenway Park office. Also at the table were Henry, Werner and assistant G.M. Ben Cherington. It was an awkward, passive-aggressive session lasting almost an hour. Francona knew the owners didn't want him back, but no one was willing to express this uncomfortable truth. Henry, Werner and Lucchino all took turns speaking. None would voice the plain truth that Francona was not being offered an extension. Henry and Werner routinely recoiled from confrontation, but it was unusual for Lucchino to hold back. The CEO traditionally played the heavy in awkward situations and had a Rolodex of enemies to prove it. Not this time. Nobody wanted to be the man who fired the two-time World Series--winning manager, not even after the worst collapse in baseball history.
An exasperated Francona finally said, "If you don't know what you are doing about me, why am I here? This is a silly meeting. If you don't want me, just tell me."