Red Sox reach new lows with Francona

For generations, Red Sox fans took comfort in the fact that, whatever chronic ills beset their franchise, the men who owned and ran their team comprised an entity more benign and virtuous than that Evil Empire, the Yankees.

Now it turns out the guys who run the Red Sox are even worse.

At least George Steinbrenner had the decency (a term used advisedly in this context) to belittle and badmouth his recently departed managers on the record. I recall, most famously, the press release in which Steinbrenner wished the very best for Buck Showalter — the manager who guided the Yankees back to the postseason after a 13-year hiatus — and his “fine little family.”

Unfortunately, what the Red Sox have just done to Terry Francona lacks the unintended, over-the-top hilarity that characterized so much of George Steinbrenner’s regime. Rather, this is mere treachery.

An article in Wednesday’s edition of the Boston Globe quoted unnamed sources saying that Terry Francona — who only managed Boston to a couple of World Series titles after, oh, an 86-year drought — “appeared distracted during the season by issues related to his troubled marriage and to his health.”

More specifically, and insidiously, it says “team sources” — those famously enlightened owners, you think? — “expressed concern that Francona’s performance may have been affected by his use of pain medication.”

The manager has had several knee surgeries, and at least five procedures to drain blood from the joint since surgery last October. That much is public knowledge. But the anonymous sources could not offer a single fact — much less an anecdote — to support the implication that Francona is addicted, or that his baseball judgment was impaired.

Francona lost control of his clubhouse; that much is obvious. I’m not arguing he shouldn’t have been let go or forced to resign after a historic collapse. After all, his $161 million team enjoyed a nine-game lead over the Rays on Sept. 3. Nor am I not endorsing that artificial distinction between what happens on the field and off. If the Red Sox collapsed because Francona was a popping pills or reeling from his divorce, then the issue is germane and he had to go. But lacking proof, the mere suggestion of a scandal is, in effect, scandalous.

I am loath to police other sportswriters, particularly men and women who, as opposed to columnists like myself, still do actual reporting for a living. Truth is, I’m sure I’d have gone with the story, too. My only real beef with the reporter, Bob Hohler, (though perhaps his editors bear some responsibility, too) is his ranking of Francona’s possible “distractions.” The “troubled marriage” is first mentioned in the eighth paragraph. “Pain medication” surfaces in the 11th. But it’s not until way down in the 35th paragraph where you finally learn that Francona’s son and son-in-law are serving in Afghanistan. That’s another possible distraction, of course. It’s just not as sexy as divorce and pill-popping.

Fact: Francona’s knee had been bothering him all season.

Fact: Francona spent the entire season living in a hotel.

Fact: As of late August, the Red Sox were still a first-place team on pace for a 100-win season.

So what happened? Did the players suddenly start taking advantage of a guy who had been going through a divorce? Did the frontline starting pitchers — Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey — start eating fried chicken and drinking beer during games because they suddenly realized their pill-popping manager had no authority? (I love that one, as ballplayers eat fried stuff and guzzle beer every season). Of course not. The manager didn’t help things, of course. But that’s not why the Red Sox didn’t make the playoffs. The Red Sox lost because most of their expensive players choked.

The Globe cites the fried chicken and the beer as examples of overindulged, overpaid, underpoliced stars (a former star in Lackey’s case). Just the same, what was a manager to do when an owner like John Henry is trying to appease the players with $300 headphones and a night on his yacht?

If only Francona’s guys could have been more like, say, Jonathan Papelbon, whom Hohler notes as being “among the team’s hardest workers.”

Then again, the last time I saw Papelbon he was blowing a save on the last night of the regular season.

A bad night. Could have been worse. Most of Boston’s other stars had a bad month. Lackey had a 9.13 ERA in September. Carl Crawford hit .264, and J.D. Drew hit .267. David Ortiz managed all of one home run.

Steinbrenner might not have fired them. But at least he would have called them out by name.