The Legacy of a Champion

The Legacy of a Champion
May 24, 2013, 1:00 pm
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Last night at Fenway, Terry Francona made his local debut as manager of the Cleveland Indians and was greeted with raucous applause. The same way he was when he returned to Boston as part of last year’s 100th anniversary celebration, the same way he was when he came through town with the ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball crew and the same way he will be every time he’s at Fenway for as long as he’s alive.

And obviously, that applause is more than well deserved. After all, while it may be hard to quantify who’s technically the “best” manager in Red Sox history, there’s no question that Francona is the most successful. Only Joe Cronin led the Sox for longer than the eight years that Francona was at the helm, and while Cronin registered more wins, Tito had a better winning percentage, never finished worse than third place (which Cronin did in more than half of his 13 seasons) and is the only Sox manager in 95 years to lead the team to the World Series title — and he did it twice.

And as time goes on, there’s no doubt that those aspects of Francona’s tenure — the positives — will far outweigh the negative. “Time has a way of making things (better),” he said before last night’s game. “You’re able to think about the things that you’re fonder of.” And that’s true for all of us. In 10 years, the details of September 2011 will be a tiny footnote on Francona’s legacy. No one will give a crap about the one team that he lost in comparison to the rings he won. So, instead of focusing on how Francona will be remembered, I want to take a quick second to consider how close he came to barely being remembered at all.

Why? Because I can’t help myself. I love playing the what-if game. I’m borderline obsessed with the fine line between sports legends and pariahs. Especially as it relates to coaches. So, as Francona’s tribute video played last night at Fenway, and the manager emerged from the dugout to acknowledge his thousands upon thousands upon thousands of adoring fans, a small part of me couldn’t help but wonder: Could this have been Grady Little’s legacy?

Instinct says “no way,” because Little was an awful manager. At least that’s how he‘s remembered. He’s a joke. He was an idiot. The bad kind of idiot; as opposed to the one who takes shots of Jack before games and makes baseball history. Well, positive baseball history. But why couldn’t have it been Little? I mean, when you really break it down, which manager would you say has the better chance of winning a World Series: The one whose team is trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the ALCS, down 3-0, against the greatest closer in Major League history, or the one whose team is up 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth in Game 7 of the ALCS, with one of the greatest starters in Major League history on HIS mound?

It’s not even close. Little was right there. In a better position. With basically the same team. And while there’s no debating the basic idiocy in leaving Pedro in to face Jorge Posada, there are so many ways in which that decision could have played out differently. I mean, it’s baseball. Pedro Ciriaco could’ve been on the mound, and there still would have been a better than 50 percent chance that the Sox escaped that inning. And even as it did play out, it’s not like Posada raked a double down the line or off the wall. It was a measly blooper. BUT, one that erased anything positive that Little ever did over his two years in Boston and cemented his legacy with Bill Buckner as one of the two biggest goats in Red Sox history.

As time goes on, we’ve convinced ourselves that Little deserves that legacy, while Francona is also entirely deserving of his — a hero; the manager who broke the curse; who should never pay for another drink or meal in Boston for as long as he lives. But the truth lies somewhere in between. Luck plays such a big role. And it’s that luck which is so often overlooked.

Take Bill Belichick, now considered by most to be the greatest coach in NFL history. How would he have been remembered if not for stumbling onto Tom Brady, or without Mo Lewis destroying Drew Bledose or without Mike Carey having the guts to call the Tuck Rule or without Adam Vinatieri making the most unmakeable field goal in playoff history? How would we remember Claude Julien if not for any number of absolutely ridiculous saves made by Tim Thomas in Game 7 against the Canadiens, Lightning or Canucks, or that one save made by Michael Ryder? How would we remember Doc Rivers had Danny Ainge not pulled off the Garnett trade or had PJ Brown not pulled that Game 7 jumper against Cleveland out of his butt?

Everything I just mentioned plays a major role in the legacy of three guys who will be remembered as three of the greatest coaches to ever come through this city, and in each case, it was something that was completely beyond their control. But that’s life. That’s why the what-if game is fun, but at the same time so dangerous. Such a slippery slope. You can flip the script on nearly every major accomplishment or failure. Especially when it comes to coaches, who at the end of the day can only put their players in the best position to get a job done and hold their breathe that said players come through. Hell, take John McNamara. It could have been him. He could have been that hero. Sure, maybe Dave Stapleton should have been in the game instead of Buckner; that’s what many will argue to this day. But one ground ball that most Little Leaguers could have fielded stood between him and a lifetime of Francona-level adulation. But at some point, you just have to let go. Accept destiny, if you want to call it that.

What if Pedro had fooled Posada enough for that lazy blooper to land in Nomar’s glove?

What if Posada had thrown out Dave Roberts a year later?

Well, he didn’t . . . and he didn’t. And there’s nothing we can do about that now, except maybe take a step back and ease up on categorizing a coach/manager as the best or the worst, as a hero or a goat, when the truth is that there’s really not much — often times, just luck — standing between the two.

Nearly a decade removed from the insanity of those two seasons, I find myself feeling sorry for Grady Little. I’m sure that was facilitated by the redemption of 2004 and the added triumph of 2007. Still, one decision. To trust Pedro Martinez with the season on the line destroyed everything he ever did.

As for Francona? Sure, he got a little lucky. If not for Roberts, and many other things over those four nights in October, there’s a great chance that Tito’s legacy falls in line with Jimy Williams, Kevin Kennedy and all the other guys who couldn’t get it done. But instead, like Belichick, Julien and Rivers, he’s a hero. Now and forever.

And you know what? He earned that. He deserved that.

But sometimes, it’s just crazy to think how close he — and all those great coaches — came to having absolutely nothing.