Terry Francona's belated revenge

Hard to argue with Sports Hub radio host Andy Gresh after he'd lit up the airwaves Tuesday with his reading of an excerpt from Terry Francona's new book that will appear in this week's Sports Illustrated.

Could the Boston Red Sox have picked a worse day, Gresh wondered, to make an announcement about individual-game tickets going on sale Saturday?

The book is titled "Francona: The Red Sox Years." The magazine headlined its excerpt "Too Big to Succeed." It just as easily could have been called "Tito's Revenge."

The former Red Sox manager, with co-author Dan Shaughnessy, a Boston Globe columnist, draws an unflattering portrait of an ownership group that they characterize as meddlesome, obsessed with TV ratings, distracted by its soccer ventures, and craving more stars and "sex symbols" -- sexy in this case being improbably defined as Dustin Pedroia.

"Our owners in Boston, they've been owners for 10 years," Francona is quoted as saying in the book. "They come in with all these ideas about baseball, but I don't think they love baseball. I think they like baseball. It's revenue, and I know that's their right and their interest because they're owners -- and they're good owners. But they don't love the game. It's still more of a toy or a hobby for them. It's not their blood. They're going to come in and out of baseball. It's different for me. Baseball is my life."

It's no surprise, really, that there was some score settling, conscious or otherwise, given the ugly circumstances of Francona's departure from Boston. To this day, Francona says in the book, he doesn't know how to respond when people ask him whether he was fired or quit after eight seasons in which he arguably was the most successful manager in franchise history, engineering World Series sweeps in both 2004 and 2007.

Francona, who as Bobby Valentine's replacement on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" visited the Red Sox spring training facility last March, did not hide the fact at the time that he still was deeply wounded by his parting from the team, referring to how he hadn't "stopped the bleeding." It still gnawed at him that majority owner John W. Henry had not returned his phone calls after he'd left, and although the men finally did talk, the conversation came "five months too late," he said.

The book suggests that even before the team's epic collapse in 2011, Henry had some reservations about exercising the options on Francona's contract that would have kept him in the job for two more years.

"If anyone asked me about it, I deflected it," Francona said in the excerpt. "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."

With CEO Larry Lucchino, there had been slights, real and imagined, going as far back as 2004, when the manager privately complained about how Lucchino had referred to him as "Francona," instead of by his first name, in front of his then-wife and children when the families of Red Sox personnel were gathering for the duck boats victory parade.

As for chairman Tom Werner, the book describes how the manager nearly walked out of a lunch meeting he had with the owners in 2010 when, according to the excerpt, "Werner talked about slumping television ratings and whined, 'We need to start winning in more exciting fashion.'

"Francona started to get up out of his chair, but Epstein grabbed his knee. 'A good move by Theo,' Francona said later. 'When Tom started talking about ratings, Theo knew I was getting ready to flare.'"

Francona admits he may have been primed to react "aggressively" at that meeting. A person with knowledge of Werner's comment said Tuesday that Werner was laughing when he said it, and the parties present, with the possible exception of Francona, understood it to be a joke.

The fixation with declining TV ratings led to the club commissioning a $100,000 market research survey, the results of which were discussed in November 2010, a little more than a month after the Sox had failed to make the playoffs, primarily because of a devastating run of injuries.

"The document distributed at the meeting listed several factors in the public's falling interest in the team," the excerpt reads. "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).'"

At first read, Epstein offers one of the most damning indictments of the owners' priorities in the excerpt, although the consultants -- and this meeting was a first, and last, of its kind for the GM in his tenure in Boston -- are clearly the target for much of his scorn

"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."

The book contends that Epstein was responding "to the pressure from his bosses and the sagging ratings" when he traded for Adrian Gonzalez and signed free agent Carl Crawford, eventually signing the pair for a combined total of 14 years and $296 million.

Despite a horrible start to the 2011 season, the moves appeared to be paying dividends when the Red Sox went into the final month of the season playing better than any other team in baseball. But 7-20 followed, and a day after the season, Francona was summoned to a meeting with the owners, none of whom, the book says, was willing to tell him he was fired.

Francona finally said, according to the excerpt, "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."

Hours later, the club released a statement that Francona would not be returning as manager. Francona disputed an assertion made by Werner in the excerpt that Francona had told the owners he'd lost control of the clubhouse.

"I never said I lost control of the clubhouse," Francona says in the book. "I said I hadn't been able to reach some of the guys. I was just trying to take accountability. But I kind of viewed that meeting as a charade."

Perhaps he addresses it elsewhere in the book, but in the excerpt, Francona makes only indirect reference to the front-page "fried chicken and beer" story in the Boston Globe, in which it was asserted that Francona had been distracted during the 2011 season by his failing marriage and it was suggested that he was abusing pain medication. The excerpt references the marital breakup and the fact that the manager often was in considerable pain in the aftermath of a knee replacement.

Francona also acknowledges his great concern regarding his son, Nick, a Marine officer who had been deployed to Afghanistan, noting that he even brought his cellphone to the dugout -- something he'd never done -- and periodically checked it, in case there was word regarding his son.

"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," Shaughnessy writes in the excerpt. "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."

The criticism of ownership in the book, which is due to be available next week, comes at an inopportune time for Henry and his partners. They are dealing with a fan base already put off by the disastrous hiring of Valentine as manager and 2012's last-place finish, persistent rumors (despite emphatic denials) that Henry might sell the club, and the ongoing perception that the club is competing with the Liverpool soccer team for the owners' attention. A club spokesman said Tuesday a formal response from the team was not anticipated, and if one comes at all, it probably will come after the book's publication. But Werner said via email, "Tito and we had unbelievable success together, and our focus is on 2013."

Certainly open to dispute is Francona's claim that the owners do not love baseball. Henry grew up a Cardinals fan, and has owned a minor league franchise, a Senior League team, a limited interest in the Yankees and two big league clubs, the Marlins and Red Sox. Lucchino has spent more than three decades in the game and has been CEO of three teams that have gone to the World Series: the Orioles, Padres and Red Sox. Despite withering criticism when he owned the Padres in the early '90s, Werner eagerly embraced an opportunity to own a share of the Red Sox and spends big chunks of his summer in Boston instead of his Los Angeles home.

While he was here, Epstein was never heard publicly or privately to question the owners' devotion to baseball. He grew especially close to Henry while he was here, an unlikely development if Henry didn't share his passion for the game.

It also is difficult, if not disingenuous, to draw a straight line between alleged pressure from the owners -- spawned by the recommendations of the market research survey -- and Epstein's acquisitions of Gonzalez and Crawford. Epstein has said many times that he coveted Gonzalez for years, dating back to when he first saw Gonzalez play as a high schooler and Epstein was a Padres scout. Henry has said he offered some resistance to signing Crawford but yielded to the desires of his baseball operations side.

And during Henry's tenure as owner, the Sox certainly have never been shy about pursuing stars, including Curt Schilling and the failed pursuit of Mark Teixeira. The demands of a big market, more than the whims of a team's owners, are the usual engine driving the acquisition of stars.

But until the Red Sox start winning again, the owners will be fair game. Francona's popularity in Boston has not exactly taken a hit since his departure; the same cannot be said for Henry and company. Advantage, Tito, one he appears to have fully exploited in his book.