For almost six months, he was just harmless, never-say-bunt Tito. A player's boss in the tradition of Pete Carroll, Terry Francona told us he loved his guys and he took blame for anything they did wrong. He drove some fans crazy with game strategy and pitcher deployment (the usual stuff), but most of Red Sox Nation viewed him as a benign bystander in the 2004 quest for the grail.
And then came Friday night when Francona morphed into Grady Lite. The manager's eighth-inning meltdown -- a regular-season bookend to Grady Little's Game 7 folly in the Bronx -- raised new doubt about the man in the dugout. On the eve of the playoffs, the final home series of the regular season, Francona lost the fans when he lost the game to the Yankees.
Francona wasn't backing away from his decisions when asked about them before last night's game.
"I had no good reason to want to take him [a fading Pedro Martinez] out of the game," said the manager. "When things don't go right, I guess the decision has to be dumb, or wrong. If I take the pitcher out and we lost, Red Sox Nation might be more forgiving but I don't think I could live with myself.
"I wish we would have won. When you sit back after a loss, you always can wonder. I would like somebody to show me what would have been better before it happened. After the fact, it's a lot easier."
Had Francona been looking around or listening to most of the 35,000 in the park in the top of the eighth he'd have known that this was not a second guess. That's why the fans let him have it when he finally walked to (and from) the mound. It was Zimmeresque.
"I would not let people's emotions alter my judgment," he said when asked about the boos that rained down on his head. "If I'm going to let that affect what I do, they've got the wrong person managing the team here. That doesn't make it a real fun night, but you don't change what you do."
In a fairly feeble attempt to get the hometown fans back on his side, Francona argued with home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth regarding a disputed double by Jorge Posada in the sixth last night. Francona picked up his third ejection of the season and perhaps a few new fans. Asked about Francona's eighth-inning strategy Friday, general manager Theo Epstein last night indicated there was some internal disagreement.
"I don't always agree with Tito, but he's been right way more often than he's been wrong," said Epstein. "He's the one in the tough seat. And he's open-minded enough to get better." Fine. But was this one of those times when Theo did not agree with Tito?
"That's private," said the GM.
We'll take that as a "yes."
It was candidate Bobby Valentine (once fired by George W. Bush) who claimed the Sox used ALCS Game 7, Inning 8, as a litmus test for prospective managers. How could Francona have passed that test, then done what he did Friday night?
Epstein, who would not discuss specifics of the Sox managerial interview process, said, "Every game is different. But last night had nothing to do with Game 7."
Alarmingly obtuse, Francona also eschewed the Game 7 comparison, saying, "I didn't watch the game, and I've got to tell you, my thinking last night was last night. My thoughts were on last night."
"Every game is different," echoed Theo.
Maybe. But this game will be remembered long into the winter if the Red Sox come up short of winning the World Series. Francona is going to have to work long and hard to win back fans who now think he's a boob.
Meanwhile, Martinez is never going to live down the "Yankees are my daddy" quote. In one expletive-interrupted midnight confession (the f-bomb heard live on NESN), he said the Yankees owned him. He provided back-page headlines for the rest of his career. It sounded like he quit.
The manager and GM came to the defense of their frustrated ace.
"I didn't hear it or read it," said the manager (does this guy live in a cave?). "But I know the man and he's one of the most competitive people I've ever met."
"It's totally contrary to his nature," said Epstein. "I write it off as an uncharacteristic moment. Those comments are contrary to everything I know about Pedro."
As for Pedro ignoring Francona when Tito finally came out to take the ball from his starter, Francona naturally was OK with that, too.
"I don't expect him to hug me," said the manager. "I don't give a [expletive]. It's not like I'm coming out there bringing candy. He's [upset]. I'm [upset]. Just hand me the ball and leave. And he did."
By then, the game -- and the race for first in the AL East -- were already over. And Francona was in trouble with Red Sox Nation.