Trouble for Red Sox didn’t begin in September

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Red Sox players have defended their behavior, saying it was no different down the stretch than it was over the 4 1/2 months that preceded it, when the team went 81-43 to take over the lead of the AL East. Plus, they say, the 2004 team was lauded for a frat-house culture that helped it win the franchise’s first World Series since 1918.

But comparing this year’s team to the 2004 “idiots” is like comparing the Deltas of Animal House to their stuck-up rivals at Omega Theta Pi: One was an irrepressible band of misfits; the others went off to their private little clubhouse while the pledges struggled to keep the team afloat in the pennant race.

In fact, Kevin Millar was criticized when he revealed after the 2004 Series that the team took mini-shots of Jack Daniels to get psyched up during the playoff series against the Yankees. Even so, that was a bonding ritual; Beckett, Lackey and Lester seemed instead to be isolating themselves from their teammates with their beer and fried-chicken playdates.

This year, it was 25 ballplayers, 25 cabernets.

Francona said at his exit interview with reporters that he knew something was wrong even before the collapse was in full bloom and, in retrospect, he was right. It was still only May when Lackey blurted out, after another terrible start, “Everything in my life sucks right now, to be honest with you.”

And it was there in September, when Beckett snapped at a radio reporter after a slump-snapping win over the hard-charging Rays _ that’s right, a win _ and said, “It’s just a game.”

“Yeah, we need to win,” Beckett said, “but it’s not the most important thing going on in my life. Maybe to some people, but not for me.”

The Red Sox started the season 0-6 and 2-10, but after a 14-0 victory over Toronto on Sept. 6 they had an eight-game lead over Tampa Bay in the wild-card race. Still, Francona sensed that they weren’t focused on winning, and he called a team meeting.

It didn’t work.

They lost their next five games _ winning just five times total the rest of the month _ as they coughed up the wild-card lead and failed to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

In most cities, that would be the end of it.

Not in Boston.

Francona’s contract option was not picked up _ it’s still not clear if he quit or was fired _ even as the team insisted he was not to blame for the collapse. Henry, who missed the press conference because he slipped on the stairs of his yacht and hit his head, later crashed a radio show to deny the widespread assumption that the team was smearing Francona on his way out the door.

Pitching coach Curt Young was allowed to take the same job with the Oakland Athletics, and other coaches are waiting for GM-in-waiting Ben Cherington to settle in so he can pick a manager to replace Francona. Cherington will also have to decide what to do with free agents like captain Jason Varitek and closer Jonathan Papelbon, while trying to unload Lackey, who was 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA in the second year of a five-year, $82.5 million deal.

Designated hitter David Ortiz, a hero of the ‘04 championship, one of the most popular players on the team and still a productive hitter at the age of 36, caused a stir when he said he would consider playing for the Yankees next year. “I don’t know if I want to be part of this drama for next year,” he told ESPN.

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