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Top Stories of 2011, No. 3: Red Sox’ manager/GM turnover

12.29.11 at 12:00 pm ET
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For the final 10 days of 2011, WEEI.com will count down the top 10 stories of the year in Boston sports. Our next entry in the countdown is No. 3: The Red Sox‘ manager/GM turnover.

Check out our previous entries:
No. 10: NBA lockout
No. 9: NFL lockout
No. 8: Celtics’ playoff loss to Heat
No. 7: Patriots’ acquisitions of Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco
No. 6: Jacoby Ellsbury’s MVP-caliber season
No. 5: Patriots’ playoff loss to Jets
No. 4: Celtics’ trade of Kendrick Perkins

On Sept. 29, a visibly frustrated Terry Francona sat beside a similarly frustrated-looking Theo Epstein in the Fenway Park media room. Epstein wore a navy blue Red Sox zip-up. He sat hunched forward while Francona leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed across his chest and a glower on his face. The two men attempted to explain why the Red Sox — a team that had been in first place going into September and was the best team in baseball at times during the summer months — failed to make the playoffs due to a 7-20 September.

But neither man had a satisfying explanation for the club’€™s September swoon, and neither man was willing to address his status with the team going forward. Francona appeared to be in a more precarious position than Epstein. The manager had just completed the last year of a three-year, $12 million contract that had an option for the 2012 and 2013 seasons that ownership would have to decide to pick up.

Epstein had one year left on a four-year deal that would keep him in Boston until the end of the 2012 season.

It was Francona who addressed his contract status first, as he met with Red Sox brass behind closed doors the morning after his tense press conference with Epstein. There, Francona said he informed ownership that he felt it was time for a new managerial voice to help guide the team.

‘€œI passed along my frustrations at my inability to effectively reach the players,’€ Francona said in a statement after the club announced he would not be returning. ‘€œAfter many conversations and much consideration, I ultimately felt that, out of respect to this team, it was time for me to move on. I’€™ve always maintained that it is not only the right, but the obligation, of ownership to have the right person doing this job. I told them that out of my enormous respect for this organization and the people in it, they may need to find a different voice to lead the team.’€

After Francona’€™s departure, more details emerged about the troubled times over the course of the season that led to his desire to leave the organization. Francona said he felt like the team was not coming together over the course of the season the way teams typically do, and after leaving the Red Sox Francona said he did not always feel that ownership supported him.

The most damaging details about the end of Francona’€™s Red Sox tenure were revealed in a Boston Globe piece by Bob Hohler. In it, anonymous team sources alleged that Francona was distracted throughout the season due to a reliance on pain killers and a rift in his marriage that left him sleeping in a hotel instead of at home during the season. The story also claimed that Francona lost control of the clubhouse. It described Red Sox pitchers who, on days when they were not pitching, would sit in the clubhouse drinking beer and eating fried chicken instead of supporting the team.

Francona was understandably hurt by the material published in the Globe piece, but he said on The Big Show that it was even more painful knowing that someone within the organization had talked to the Globe about personal issues and misrepresented them.

“The people that know me that well knew that what was said in the paper wasn’€™t true. It was obviously said to hurt me,” Francona said. “If there was one thing I was probably guilty of, it was protecting everyone in that organization. Everybody. I felt that was part of my responsibility, even to the point where in that last press conference, I said I take responsibility for this. I couldn’t get to the players. I thought, ‘OK, I’m done here. I’ll take responsibility and go away.’

‘€œLittle did I know I was going to be going away limping because someone cut my legs out from under me.”

After the Globe article was published, Red Sox principal owner John Henry denied having anything to do with the allegations against Francona and denounced whichever team source felt the need to make public Francona’€™s personal medical and marital problems. Larry Lucchino also said he had no role in what people on the airwaves and in the press were starting to call a smear campaign. Even Rays manager Joe Maddon, who said he did not know Francona extremely well, said he was shocked by the way Francona was treated on his way out of town.

‘€œTerry as a manager is excellent, and as a person he is even better than that,’€ Maddon told WEEI at the end of October. ‘€œSo to have people saying this stuff is really disappointing. It’€™s almost criminal. It reeks of a set-up. It smells bad. I feel badly for the guy. I don’€™t know him really well, but I know him. I know the players and how they think about him. It’€™s a shame that he has to go through this.’€

With Francona out, Epstein’€™s own position with the Red Sox took a decisive turn. Epstein embraces the philosophies of coaching legend Bill Walsh, who insisted that people should only stay with an organization for 10 years in order to be effective and fresh for their job. The 2011 season was Epstein’€™s ninth with the Red Sox, so time was quickly ticking away on the Walshian clock.

Speculation about Epstein’€™s departure from the Red Sox first heated up when Francona was still manager and the Red Sox were still in first place, back in August 2011 when the Cubs fired general manager Jim Hendry.

Epstein seemed like a good fit to replace Hendry. He had already brought the Red Sox, a ‘€œcursed’€ franchise, two World Series championships, and securing a trophy for the Cubs would be the ultimate victory for any great general manager.

When the speculation reached Epstein in August, he insisted he was very happy as a member of the Red Sox, but he never shot down the idea that he could leave for Chicago or denied interest in the Cubs job.

On Oct. 4, just five days after the club announced that Francona would not return as manager, reports emerged that the Cubs had asked to talk to Epstein. Nine days later, the Chicago Tribune reported that Epstein agreed to a five-year, $15 million deal. It seemed the press conference introducing Epstein as the new Cubs GM was imminent. But for the next week, nothing public happened. A week after Epstein reportedly agreed to a contract, news broke that Epstein would not be the Cubs GM but rather the team’s president of baseball operations. Epstein’€™s former Red Sox protégé, Jed Hoyer, would resign his GM position with the Padres to take a similar job with the Cubs.

On Oct. 21, Epstein formally resigned as the Red Sox general manager. The Red Sox appointed Ben Cherington to fill the role, a move that came as no surprise to anyone around the club.

Over the past two seasons, Epstein, who said he knew his time with the Red Sox would be coming to a close, had been grooming Cherington to take over for him. Because Francona left the organization at the beginning of the 2011 offseason, Epstein said the upcoming managerial search was a big factor in his decision to leave the organization. Epstein said he did not want to lead a managerial search with one season left on his contract. Instead, Epstein said he felt Cherington should take the reigns in searching for a man he would have to work with over a longer period of time than Epstein.

On Oct. 25, Epstein was formally introduced by the Cubs. The delay between Epstein’€™s resignation from the Red Sox and his introduction in Chicago was partly due to a ban during the World Series on announcing transactions. The other factor was an issue of compensation for Epstein, which remains unresolved as the teams continue to disagree on what Epstein is worth in terms of players.

With the Epstein situation basically resolved, however, the Red Sox ramped up the search to replace Francona. Cherington conducted a series of interviews with managers who did not have much in the way of big league experience. The team interviewed a series of candidates including Dale Sveum, Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr., Blue Jays first base coach Torey Lovullo, Tigers third base coach Gene Lamont and Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin, but none of those candidates seemed to satisfy ownership.

The club took a break over Thanksgiving from the search before pulling out a wild card. The Sox announced they would be interviewing former Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who is known around the game for his no-nonsense managing style and larger-than-life personality. The club interviewed Valentine on Nov. 21 and formally introduced him as the new Red Sox manager on Dec. 1.

The choice led to even more controversy in the airwaves and papers around Boston. Valentine was a stark departure from Cherington’€™s previous candidates, leading some to believe that Cherington was not calling the shots on Yawkey Way.

Those were not the only concerns about Valentine, who had not managed in the big leagues since he was fired from his job with the Mets in 2002. Valentine seemed a bit of a strange choice considering his club in 2002 was involved in questionable clubhouse behavior and finished in last place just two seasons removed from a World Series berth. In his 15 years of managing, Valentine has never led a  team to a first-place finish.

Plus, according to industry sources, a Red Sox official had told at least one player that the team would not be hiring ‘€œsomeone like Bobby Valentine.’€

In a strange twist, Valentine replaced Francona as Red Sox manager while Francona, despite interviewing for a managing job with the Cardinals, will fill Valentine’€™s newly vacant position as a baseball analyst for ESPN. And so in 2012, regardless of what the players were told or who mans the ESPN desk, it will be Valentine at the helm trying to right a Red Sox ship that traveled off-course in 2011.

‘€œI can tell you that I’€™m looking forward to working with this group and establishing a culture of excellence,’€ Valentine said at his introductory press conference. After the Red Sox abysmal September in 2011, it looks like Valentine will have a lot of work ahead of him.

Read More: Ben Cherington, bobby valentine, Terry Francona, Theo Epstein