Cleveland Indians Manager Terry Francona will forever be remembered for his role in ending the Boston Red Sox 86-year drought of World Series championships when he led the 2004 Boston team to baseball’s ultimate victory. He took the Red Sox to another World Series title in 2007. Now, as manager if the Cleveland Indians, the 57-year-old Francona has a chance to do it again — potentially taking the team that he has guided since 2013 to its first World Series win since 1948.
But how did Francona, the most successful manager in Red Sox history, end up in Cleveland anyway? The story of why the Red Sox fired him centers around the team’s collapse at the end of the 2011 season, and reports in the Boston media that Francona’s drug use may have played a role in that disaster.
Here’s what you need to know about the rumors surrounding Francona.
1. The 2011 Red Sox Suffered One of the Worst September Collapses Ever
As August 2011 came to a close, Francona had his heavy-hitting Red Sox team in first place in the American League East, leading the New York Yankees by 1 1/2 games, 31 games over .500 at 83-52.
From that point on, starting on September 1, the team went into a tailspin, losing nine of their next 11 games — and winning only seven games while losing 20 in the month of September. They not only surrendered first place, they dropped out of the playoff picture completely, placing third in the division behind both the Yankees, in first place, and the Tampa Bay Rays.
When the season ended, fans were left stunned and demanding an explanation. The top local newspaper, The Boston Globe, gave them one — in the form of lengthy, bombshell story that can still be read at this link. The story described a group of players, led by pitchers Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey who essentially quit on the team, heading into the clubhouse during games to drink beer, eat fried chicken and play video games.
2. The Story Pinned Blame on Francona for Being “Distracted”
The alleged in-game “chicken and beer” parties were allowed to go on, the story by Globe reporter Bob Hoehler stated, at least in part because Francona was “distracted” by, among other issues, a dependence on prescription painkiller pills. Francona acknowledges needing painkillers to deal with the consequences of multiple surgeries that all stemmed from a devastating knee injury he suffered while a rookie player with the Montreal Expos in 1982. A highly touted college prospect, Francona — son of former Major League star Tito Francona — had been the Expos’ first-round draft pick in 1980.
Francona said that he received clearance for his use of the prescription drugs from a Red Sox team physician, and denied that his use of the drugs caused any problems in his role with the team.
“I went and saw the proper people and it was not an issue,” Francona told Hoehler. “It never became an issue, and anybody who knew what was going on knows that.”
But in a 2013 interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schapp, Francona appeared to backtrack somewhat on his denial.
“I had some, I had accumulated some pain pills and that’s not good,” he told Schapp, admitting to the ESPN reporter that he was “self-medicating.”
“And that’s not good and I understand that,” Francona said.
3. Francona Was Also Allegedly “Distracted” by his Divorce
The Globe story also reported that Francona spent the 2011 season — his eighth with the Red Sox — living in a hotel as his 30-year marriage to his now ex-wife Jacque Lang fell apart. Rumors, never confirmed, even turned up in the media that Francona had carried on an affair with Hazel Mae, a personality on the team’s cable TV network, NESN.
In the Globe story, Francona stood firm in his position that his personal issues played no role in the Red Sox September collapse.
“It makes me angry that people say these things because I’ve busted my [butt] to be the best manager I can be,” Francona told the Globe. “I wasn’t terribly successful this year, but I worked harder and spent more time at the ballpark this year than I ever did.”
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4. Francona Lashed Back at the Red Sox in his Autobiography
Two years after his acrimonious departure from the Red Sox, Francona published an autobiography, co-written with Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, Francona: The Red Sox Years, in which he blamed Red Sox owners John Henry and Tom Werner and team President Larry Lucchino for the bitter end to what had been a successful and mostly controversy-free Red Sox career for the manager.
In the book, Francona portrayed Henry, Werner and Lucchino as calculating, cynical businessmen who did not “love baseball” the way he, Francona did — and who were overly concerned with TV ratings for Red Sox games on NESN.
At one point, Francona alleged in the book, Werner — the hugely successful TV producer behind such iconic series as The Cosby Show, Roseanne and 3rd Rock From the Sun — castigated him for not “winning in a more exciting fashion.”
In 2012, the team staged a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park — but Francona refused to show up.
“Until I’m more comfortable with some answers on what happened at the end of the year, I don’t want to have much to do with the organization and that’s a shame,” Francona said at the time. “With all the good things that were accomplished, I just feel pretty strongly about that.”
5. The Fallout From Francona’s Firing Led to the 2016 World Series
The bitter end to the Red Sox 2011 season not only led to Francona’s firing and drug use allegations, but General Manager Theo Epstein — the architect of the Red Sox eight-year run of two World Series titles and five postseason appearances — also resigned, taking a job as president of the Chicago Cubs.
Of course, Epstein has now built the Cubs into World Series favorites this year, partly by acquiring two Red Sox pitchers who were part of the “chicken and beer” scandal, Lester and Lackey.
After a year spent in the analyst role on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, Francona was hired by the Indians, getting the team to the AL Wild Card game in his first season — and the World Series in this season, his fourth in Cleveland. Another former Red Sox pitcher from the 2011 team, Andrew Miller, played one of the most important roles in getting the Indians to the World Series, with his dominant work out of the bullpen.
After the 2011 season, Lester admitted his role in the “chicken and beer” debacle.
“There’s a perception out there that we were up there getting hammered and that wasn’t the case,” Lester said at the time. “It was a ninth-inning rally beer. We probably ordered chicken from Popeye’s like once a month. That happened. But that’s not the reason we lost.”