Little hope for manager
Sox may decide his fate as soon as today
The span of Grady Little's life as the 43d manager of the Red Sox began to thunderous applause when he was introduced to the team at the spring training headquarters in Fort Myers, Fla., March 11, 2002. By nearly all indications, it will end this week, perhaps as early as today, when the Sox formally sever all ties with their embattled field leader.
A smiling, buzz-cutted symbol of one of the most thrilling seasons of Boston baseball as recently as two weeks ago, Little since has become one of the region's most legendary objects of scorn and ridicule, the scapegoat for a devastating 6-5 loss in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series after he let Pedro Martinez try in vain to hold a 5-2 lead with one out in the eighth inning.
Little's remarkable reversal of fortune -- he almost certainly would have been offered at least another year on the job if he advanced to the World Series -- is expected to reach its nadir when the Sox convene a news conference to announce they will not exercise their option to retain him next year.
Sox officials insisted last night that principal owner John W. Henry, president Larry Lucchino, and general manager Theo Epstein had yet to decide Little's fate 10 days after the season ended with the historic defeat at Yankee Stadium. But team sources said the manager, whose last formal contact with his players was a forlorn farewell in a tearful clubhouse in the Bronx after the Game 7 loss, has no chance of returning.
The telltale signs of Little's demise began the day after the season finale when no one in the front office verbally offered him serious support. And the signs proliferated as the Sox brass made no effort to counter a nearly unprecedented avalanche of public criticism that crashed almost unrelentingly on Little for days after the defeat. The Sox cited commissioner Bud Selig's edict against making major announcements during the World Series for their silence, though it's unlikely a brief prepared statement offering at least qualified support for Little as an individual while they considered his fate would have violated the spirit of the ban.
For his part, Little has indicated since he packed up his office at Fenway Park that he was at peace with his future, with or without the Sox. He strongly hinted he would want no part of a team that disrespected him and all but said so last week in an interview with the Globe. What's more, he has a record of walking away from a club he believes has given him short shrift, as he did after the 1999 season when he rejected former general manager Dan Duquette's offer of a one-year deal to remain as bench coach to Jimy Williams and bolted to Cleveland for a more lucrative multiyear contract.
On Little's watch this year, the Sox won 95 games -- the most since they won 95 in 1986 -- as he joined Joe McCarthy as the only managers in franchise history to win 90 or more games in their two seasons on the job. Little won 93 games in 2002. McCarthy won 96 games in 1948 and '49.
Widely credited with providing steady leadership in a market prone to panic, Little helped to foster the spectacular resiliency and "Cowboy Up" spirit that contributed this year to the Sox leading the league in victories in their last at-bat (23), one-run games (26), and extra innings (11).
He was one of the most popular managers among Sox players in recent history and even received unqualified support after the season from Manny Ramirez, whom Little unofficially benched Sept. 2 in a move that helped galvanize the club for the stretch run.
Though some of Little's lineup decisions were questioned, he hardly could be blamed for a subpar offense since the Sox led the majors in nearly every batting category while setting major league records for extra-base hits (649), total bases (2,832), and slugging percentage (.491). The previous record for slugging percentage was held by the 1927 Yankees, otherwise known as Murderers Row.
Boston's starting pitching also fared well under Little, going 65-40 for a .619 winning percentage, second best in the league to the Yankees, who logged a .664 percentage with an 83-42 record from their starters.
But Little's pitching moves late in games proved to be his greatest -- and perhaps fatal -- weakness. Long before his momentous decision to stick with his ace in the eighth inning of Game 7, Little regularly drew criticism for his handling of the bullpen. He has said his job would have been much simpler -- and the Sox would have been much more successful -- if the team had provided him with a front-line closer. But he did little to build a strong resume as a late-inning tactician with a number of moves he made during the season.
Though much of his relief corps underachieved from the start, Little has received part of the blame for the Boston pen posting a 4.83 ERA, better only than the bullpens in Texas (4.88) and Kansas City (5.54). In addition, the only teams that logged fewer saves than the Sox (34) were the Devil Rays (30) and Tigers (27).
The Sox brass is expected to cite philosophical differences for the decision to dump Little, and those differences center largely on the belief that Little lacks the requisite allegiance to the "quantitative analysis expertise" that is prized by the new regime on Yawkey Way and embodied by senior adviser Bill James. Little often relied on his eyes and experience rather than stats, as he did in sticking with Martinez.
Critics have suggested Little ignored statistics that showed Martinez, who had thrown 100 pitches through seven innings in Game 7, had allowed batters to hit .221 (135 for 612) this season against his first 105 pitches in a game. When he exceeded 105 pitches, opponents hit .364 (12 for 33) against him. The sample size is so tiny, though, that Little could have cited Martinez's record over the last three years. In that span, batters hit .183 against Martinez's first 105 pitches and .226 (28 for 124) when he surpassed 105 pitches, not so drastic a difference.
In any case, Little said he relied solely on how Martinez was throwing in Game 7, and his decision to stick with his ace proved to be a titanic failure. Still, Henry has said the Sox never would decide a manager's future based on a single decision, an indication Little may have been doomed if he failed to deliver anything short of a World Series berth.
As one Sox official said, "It's hard to fire a guy who goes to the World Series."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.