In 2003, the Boston Red Sox fired Grady Little.

In 2011, the Red Sox did not pick up the options on manager Terry Francona’s contract.

Was there a difference?

Yes and no.

Despite the wording and spin, the Red Sox got rid of Francona just as they did Little.

But this was not a case of perceived incompetence, as it was in 2003, but of deteriorating effectiveness.

Fair? Absolutely not. But when is baseball ever a matter of justice? If it were so, then John Lackey would be fired, and Carl Crawford would get a pay cut.

Francona is a superb manager. The fact that ownership thinks it can do better puts the pressure on them.

WHOM WILL BOSTON hire to replace Francona? Several names have surfaced.

The following four, currently on other teams’ coaching staffs, could be frontrunners:

Trey Hillman, 48, Dodgers: Has managed the Kansas City Royals (2008-10) and was a minor league manager in the Yankees system. Was director of player development with the Rangers. Was a middle infielder in the Indians organization, but never reached the majors.

Tony Pena, 54, Yankees: Managed the Royals (2002-05) and has been with the Yankees the past six years, the last three as bench coach. A five-time All-Star catcher who played in the majors for 18 years, including four with the Red Sox.

Pete Mackanin, 60, Phillies: A bench coach with the Phillies since 2009, Mackanin has served as an interim manager for both the Reds and the Pirates. He has been a bench coach, third-base coach, scout and minor league manager. Was a major league infielder for four clubs over nine years.

Dave Martinez, 47, Rays: Has been with the Rays the past six years, the last four as bench coach. Played outfield and first base in the majors for eight teams over 16 years.

Hillman and Pena make the most sense because they have managerial experience. Hillman has the resume bonus of being a player development director — something that will attract the Red Sox. Some may be concerned about his lack of major league playing experience, but he is a respected baseball man.

RON JOHNSON was fired by Boston this week, ending a 12-year relationship with the Red Sox, which included two seasons as the Portland Sea Dogs manager, 2003-04.

Johnson, 55, moved on from Portland to manage Triple-A Pawtucket for five years. When it appeared that he might become a minor league lifer, the Red Sox hired him as a first-base coach.

No reason was given for Johnson’s dismissal, but Johnson confirmed it with the media.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Johnson told csnne.com. “I always considered myself a Red Sox for life But that’s baseball and things happen, and it’s time to start a new chapter.”

THE ARIZONA FALL League season is only a couple of days old, and at least one Sea Dogs pitcher is hoping for better times.

Jeremy Kehrt, a reliever for the Scottsdale Scorpions, entered in the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s opener.

The first three batters he faced homered. Kehrt was relieved with two outs in the inning.

Earlier in the game, Brock Huntzinger pitched two innings of relief. He gave up one run on a wild pitch and struck out four.

Caleb Clay and Will Latimer pitched one inning each on Thursday, giving up one hit apiece.

Four players with Sea Dogs connections are playing in Arizona. Outfielder Alex Hassan, third baseman Will Middlebrooks and catcher Dan Butler each have one hit. Infielder Ryan Dent subbed in one game.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

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Twitter: ClearTheBases