Little's firing a big mistake

So the Boston Red Sox fired the manager responsible for bringing them to the seventh game of the American League Championship Series -- within a whisper of wiping out the New York Yankees -- for a chance to hire the baseball Jon Gruden, right?

Beyond the benefits of a relentlessly popular short-term public relations move in New England, there is no way Grady Little gets sacrificed unless you have an absolute tested, championship manager waiting in the wings.

Joe Torre.

Jim Leyland.

John McGraw.

Because this is the hardest thing to do in sports, fire a manager/coach on the cusp with the confidence that his replacement will thrust the franchise over the top. It is so rare that this happens, so much more common that the past success is never duplicated, that the man accused of holding everything back actually turned out to be holding it together.

For the short-term public relations currency firing Little brings this relentlessly image-conscious ownership, there will be long-term consequences. Little deserved New England's scorn for leaving Pedro Martinez on the mound for the eighth inning of Game 7, but a strong show of support out of ownership in the aftermath could've served to soften a vitriol public assault that still singes the senses in Boston. Now, there has been a climate created where it would be nearly impossible for Little to even continue existing in Boston -- something his superiors did nothing to curb.

Yes, Little let his stars run the Sox too often, all the way to the end. Pedro wanted to stay in Game 7, so Pedro stayed in Game 7. The manager needed to make a decision with his eyes, not his heart. Had Dave Wallace been the Sox's pitching coach for a longer period of time this summer, perhaps the interim aide might have felt more comfortable pushing Little to make the move on his ace. These are still areas in which a manager can grow on the job.

Yet, Grady's touch in the clubhouse, his ability to get the most of the Sox's over-achieving personalities, isn't so easily available and identifiable on the managerial market. The bottom line: The Sox are taking a far greater risk firing Little, than they ever could've by keeping him.

There was something right about the chemistry of these Red Sox, something someone else will have an impossible time duplicating. Ownership could've worked to re-program Little's late-game decision-making process, stocked his bench with stronger coaching presences and counted upon the fact that one more year of living and learning on the job would've made him a better bench manager.

When the Buccaneers fired Tony Dungy, they believed they were getting Bill Parcells. They settled for Gruden. Maybe Tampa had gone as far as it could with Dungy -- and maybe the Sox did with Little too -- but they understood that they had to find a confirmed winner to take over the team.

So, this can't be the list of candidates a source gave the Boston Herald on Monday morning:

Charlie Manuel.

Jerry Remy.

Terry Francona.

Glenn Hoffman.

This can't be close to the truth, because nobody would fire a manager winning 93 and 95 games in his two seasons, beating the A's in the Division Series and getting within five outs of vanquishing the Evil Empire without someone resembling a sure thing to replace him. Of course, there appears to be no such manager out there.

If there is, good for the Sox. They're going for it. But history says they'll have wished they stayed the course with Little.

Make no mistake: Little made one of the most spectacular mistakes in the history of October baseball, in Game 7 of the ALCS, and it cost him his job. Whatever Larry Lucchino/Tom Werner/Theo Epstein insist that this dismissal wasn't about one decision in one game is completely erroneous. If Alan Embree and Mike Timlin had been on the mound to blow that 5-2 lead at Yankee Stadium, the Sox's colossal collapse would've been burdened on some silly Curse, the Red Sox Nation would've re-directed its angst and anguish toward the supernatural, and Little would be returning to manage the 2004 season.

For the moves he made as general manager, Epstein earned a deserved degree of praise. Mostly, he was magnificent on the job. Just ask yourself, though: Do you truly believe when he acquired David Ortiz and Todd Walker, Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar that they were destined to deliver career years? Did Epstein believe Ortiz could be an MVP candidate, Walker an October hitting star, Mueller a league batting champion and Millar the unquestioned unifying force in a monumentally diverse clubhouse?

Of course Epstein didn't -- and he's freely copped to the fact. It is terribly naive to underestimate the importance of the way, as Torre himself admired, "steered the ship," in forever turbulent and tortured Boston. Pedro and Nomar Garciaparra will be playing out the final years of their contracts in 2004. Manny Ramirez will still be living on Planet Manny. This job has never been harder. Never. And if someone guaranteed the Red Sox a new manager that lorded over a team that Torre, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera all agreed had been the toughest, most resilient American League opponent they had faced in the past eight years, Boston would take him in a heartbeat, wouldn't it?

Today, they're celebrating in New England. They're planning a ticker tape parade in South Florida and goofy, old Grady is gone. Around Boston, they're even telling a joke: Did you hear how high the grass has grown on Little's lawn this summer?

Yes, he hadn't been able to use his mower.

He didn't know how to pull the starter.

Yes, Grady Little blew Game 7 of the ALCS. He's most responsible for the Red Sox losing to the Yankees. Only, nobody else had come closer to beating New York in a long, long time there. If Boston believes the ache of imploding in October is unbearable, it ought to stop a minute and remember what it used to feel like in July and August. Unless some serious savior is on the way to manage, of course, Red Sox Nation can probably just wait a few months and, chances are, that it'll all come rushing back to them again.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) And a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached ESPNWoj8@aol.com.