Signs point to end for Francona

BOSTON -- Unlike Grady Little, Terry Francona didn't warn that he'd come back as a ghost to haunt the Red Sox if they fired him.

But it was hard not to conclude, after Thursday's post-mortem in which a drained Francona was seated alongside general manager Theo Epstein, the man who sacked Little eight years ago, that Francona is tempting the same fate. It's a tried-and-true John W. Henry course of action in the face of mind-numbing debacles that make all his spreadsheets as useful as paper airplanes.

Listening to both Epstein and Francona, while CEO Larry Lucchino watched from the side of the room, here were the most logical conclusions to be drawn:

(A) Francona will not be back.

(B) Francona does not want to be back.

(C) Francona will not be back, but it will be made to look like he didn't want to be back.

"I know we don't believe in scapegoats; in particular nobody blames Tito for what happened in September," Epstein said Thursday afternoon on Yawkey Way, which is the last place the Red Sox expected to be on the eve of a postseason that begins Friday in Texas and New York.

You could hear the guffaws all the way from Hickory, N.C., where Little is Grandpa Grady, living in comfortable retirement.

The manager was the one who reinforced the idea that after eight seasons, he might have reached his limit. "It's a fair question," Francona said when asked whether he wanted to be back.

To a follow-up inquiry about whether this had been his most trying season, he said:

"Only because it's now," he said. "There's not a whole lot here that isn't trying even in the best of, you know, because everything is so important to people here, and that's good. But because it's fresh and raw, it seems that way, but there have been a lot of trying moments here. We just fought through them, I think, a little bit better."

If Francona, who can make a strong case for being the best manager this team has ever had, isn't going to take the fall for the worst collapse in baseball history -- at least as measured by the biggest lead lost in September -- the Red Sox would have announced they were exercising his option for the 2012 season. The same way the Cleveland Indians did Thursday with Manny Acta, who has two fewer World Series titles on his résumé.

The Red Sox did no such thing, which will only inflame the legions of Francona bashers who lit up the talk-show phone lines Thursday with their calls for his head.

Instead, Epstein announced a group huddle -- which might come as soon as Friday -- to determine Francona's future, a discussion that will include chairman Tom Werner, Lucchino and Henry, who joked in 2003 that rather than uttering the usual celebratory tagline, "I'm going to Disney World," he was substituting, "I'm firing Grady Little."

In the course of those discussions, the group is likely to discuss a perception held by some within the organization that this team -- despite four wildly successful months -- operated in a vacuum of clubhouse leadership. That in turn cultivated a climate lacking accountability, over which the manager presided with a curious sense of detachment, a marked departure from his previous approach, when he was fully engaged with his entire roster.

Those concerns are never voiced if the Sox go 20-7 in September instead of 7-20. But that perception wasn't unique to the front office. A veteran Sox player, in the wake of Wednesday's devastating loss in Baltimore, said the Sox clubhouse had "zero" chemistry with too many "me-me-me" guys. That might have been more easily dismissed as typical heat-of-the-moment carping if Francona, somewhat surprisingly, hadn't alluded to internal problems in the clubhouse during Thursday's news conference. That might raise eyebrows among players accustomed to the manager always having their backs and keeping their issues in-house.

But that didn't happen Thursday, which might be another clue Francona doesn't expect to return. He talked about a team meeting he called in Toronto in the aftermath of a 14-0 win Sept. 6, not entirely a secret -- ESPN Boston's Joe McDonald wrote about it later that week when he joined the team in Tampa -- but something that did not receive wide play until Thursday.

"I'm not sure if anybody knew, because there were some things I was worried about," he said. "I think we were spending too much energy on things that weren't putting our best foot forward toward winning. We spent a few minutes in the clubhouse that day, talking about that. There were some things that did concern me.

"Teams normally, as the season progresses, there are events that make you care about each other, and this club, it didn't always happen as much as I wanted it to. And I was frustrated by that."

Without anyone firmly at the rudder -- including, some in the organization believe, Francona -- the team lost focus, which became apparent in both on- and off-the-field behavior, part of which surfaced as a conditioning issue.

"I think we have high standards in that area and other areas," Epstein said, "and I can't sit here and say those standards have been met across the board."

Epstein devoted much of his time taking the blame for those shortcomings, including a failure by the club to respond to the urgency of a season spiraling out of control.

"I'm not throwing this at all exclusively on the players because I have a ton of respect for almost everyone down there and the leadership a lot of them show," Epstein said. "But the way the clubhouse culture has evolved, this falls on me ultimately as the general manager. We need to be more accountable.

"We want to be in better shape and better condition than our opponents. If that's not happening consistently from 1 to 25 on the roster, then it's a problem and we need to get it addressed. If we're not better prepared than the other team 1 through 25 when it's game time, then that's a problem and has to be addressed. If we're not doing the little things on the field, playing fundamentally better than the other team 1 through 25, then that's a problem, and it all falls on me as the general manager to fix that."

But issues such as conditioning, leadership, focus, preparation, urgency -- those are things that fall under the purview of the manager, not the GM. And when this GM made a point of not laying it on the players, there is no other place to put it than on the manager. Even if that manager's track record is unmatched in club history.

"We're not going to be pointing fingers at any one person in particular," Epstein said. "We're going to be identifying issues, finding ways to address those issues and, in some cases, getting the right people to help address those issues."

Epstein could be referring to a new pitching coach. A new base coach. A new manager.

And what makes this offseason potentially even more cataclysmic, there is a chance we could be talking about a new general manager, too. Epstein made no promises he intends to stay, instead saying that issue needs time for reflection as well.

Ironically, while failure might cost Francona his job, it might keep Epstein in his. Even though he is prepared to consider other options after a decade here, Epstein might decide he can't walk away until this is fixed.

"I believe in a lot of people in this organization, including Tito, including myself," Epstein said, "and when we're at our best, I think this is the best organization in baseball.

"This year we weren't at our best. I can say that about myself. Tito and I talked about it, I think he would say the same about himself, and it touches a lot of people. Collectively, we weren't at our best. We need to identify the issues, sit down and identify a plan, and execute it to fix it."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.