Francona: The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy—Book Review

It’s a fine line between revenge and clarification. In his new book detailing the eight years he spent as manager of the Boston Red Sox, Terry Francona straddles the territory between the two. In Francona: The Red Sox Years written with Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, Francona does so with a mostly objective point of view and occasional digs at those who sought to undermine him and diminish his substantial accomplishments during his time at the helm.

The book functions as a biography, telling the story of Terry Francona’s father Tito Francona’s Major League career; the younger Francona’s life of frequent address changes as his father switched teams; the experience of hanging around the clubhouses with his dad; his own playing career as a college star and first round draft pick; the injuries that sabotaged him and relegated him to journeyman whose lifelong dream ended at age 31. When he became a manager in the White Sox system, he was making the same innocent climb that players make first running a single A club in Indiana, then spending three years in Double A. The second year was notable because it provided Francona a crash course in a media circus managing basketball star Michael Jordan during his yearlong break from the NBA and foray into baseball.

By the time he was 38, he was named manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997. The Phillies were a bad team and Francona, by his own account, didn’t do a very good job running the club. Fired after four seasons, he seemed more relieved than unhappy. Following the firing after the 2000 season, he burnished his resume by working in the Indians’ front office in 2001, as the bench coach for Buck Showalter with the Rangers in 2002, and Ken Macha with the Athletics in 2003.

While with the Athletics, Francona received a first hand look at his future in two different ways, neither of which he likely saw when he was traveling with his dad, playing or working his way up as a field boss: the general manager of the new millennium was openly interfering with the way in which a manager ran the games. All through 2003, Macha was constantly fending off the regular “suggestions” (more like interrogations) that the A’s manager was forced to endure from the newly minted star of Moneyball, Billy Beane. Also in 2003, Francona was on the opposite bench when the Red Sox, then managed by Grady Little and in year one of their remaking with Theo Epstein as their GM, came from 2 games to 0 behind to defeat the Athletics in a dramatic 5 games series. It was a glimpse into the future for Francona with the tentacles of chance gripping him, Little, Epstein and the Red Sox, sometimes around their throats.

In the very next series, Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in to pitch game 7 of the ALCS against the Yankees cost him the job and opened it for Francona. Francona, ironically, was friends with Little for years and they even lived together when Francona served as Little’s bench coach in the Arizona Fall League in 1992. Also ironically, Francona—jokingly or not—told the Red Sox during the arduous interview process that he would have taken Pedro out of game 7 of the ALCS as Little was supposed to do. The interview process included written tests and games of the computer simulated baseball game “Diamond Mind” against Epstein’s assistants to see how Francona would react to game circumstances. Did Francona tell the Red Sox people what he knew they wanted to hear in terms of Little or would he have acquiesced to the demands of the numbers and ignored that the Red Sox bullpen didn’t have that one big arm in the bullpen that the manager could unequivocally trust in lieu of his ace?

Only Francona knows, but given the old-school sensibilities he exhibited, it’s not as cut-and-dried as implied that he wouldn’t have done the exact same thing Little did—the thing that got him fired.

This clash of civilizations is a key contention in this book and the books written by other managers such as Joe Torre with the Yankees who were unceremoniously relieved of their duties after immeasurable success that had not been enjoyed by their respective clubs for decades prior to their arrivals. The new landscape in baseball makes it necessary for managers to agree to listen to information that may or may not have real world validity in an exercise of going along to get along. Some managers like Joe Maddon embrace it; others, like Torre and Little, rebel against it with a head shake and bemused smirk; still others like Francona and Joe Girardi listen to the advice and try to incorporate it where applicable.

The fundamental civil war makes being a big league manager in today’s game an exercise in tightrope walking by maintaining respect with the players and not appear as a puppet while accessing and sifting through the reams of information burying them like corn in a silo. Torre, in fact, had his own issues magnified due to the presence of the big market rival using stats to build a club that was cheaper and better than his Yankees were. The Red Sox were Patient X in this experiment and where the entire virus got its start.

Little unabashedly ignored the advice. Francona was nuanced as he ignored some of it too, rebelling when he couldn’t tolerate it and telling Epstein to have his people back off a bit.

If anyone has the breadth of experience to be a manager and do his job without the overbearing interference of a staff of numbers crunchers and find methods to meld the highly paid egos, deal with the media, and make the players perform on the field, it’s Francona. The numbers crunchers that managers are forced to endure today may never have picked up a baseball and would be swallowed alive after two days of inhabiting the same space as Manny Ramirez, yet they see fit to question, criticize and send suggestions that eventually take the tone of orders.

For a pure baseball lifer, it’s a conundrum and necessary concession. Any manager who doesn’t adapt to the way baseball is run today is not going to get a job.

The battles he fought as manager were mostly with a front office that in the ownership suite didn’t appreciate the job he was doing. Francona was lowballed in his contract when he was initially hired and was saddled with the onus that he was taking orders from his bosses in every single aspect of on-field decisionmaking (this was right after the publication of Moneyball), and that he was selected because he was one of the few managers for whom Curt Schilling wanted to play. The Red Sox were closing in on acquiring Schilling simultaneously to hiring Francona. The Red Sox and Francona deny this, but the denial is formulated on a shaky premise. They didn’t decide out of the blue to get Schilling and it would certainly help to grease the negotiations if he knew he was getting a manager he wanted to play for instead of, say, Bobby Valentine.

The book doesn’t discuss significant conflict between Francona and Epstein in spite of Epstein making Francona’s life difficult with the overbearing and constant presence of the GM and his youthful assistants, or with acquisitions of the likes of David Wells, but there’s an unexplored and unmentioned tension that Francona may not admit or realize existed between him and Epstein.

Epstein, in fact, comes off as profoundly immature when the Red Sox fell behind the Yankees 3 games to 0 in the 2004 ALCS and his assistants decided that he couldn’t be left alone. Did they think he was suicidal? He couldn’t be left alone? It was a baseball game that they lost badly in a series they were about to lose, not life or death.

Rather than jump off the Green Monster, Epstein got drunk on a friend’s couch and passed out. As the GM was drowning his sorrows, the manager who was supposed to be manipulated by the “geniuses” in the front office was calmly saying that his team would show up to play and the series wasn’t over. While Epstein has continually denied the story of breaking furniture in Nicaragua when the Red Sox lost the bidding for free agent Cuban Jose Contreras to the Yankees, this type of story makes me believe that maybe he really did break the furniture in a tantrum that a 20-something is known to throw when he doesn’t get his way.

Reading between the lines, Epstein comes off looking immature, arrogant and self-centered.

The owners John Henry and Tom Werner, along with CEO Larry Lucchino are presented as the nemeses of Francona with Epstein serving as a buffer between the manager and the out-of-touch front office, but the book—again in an unsaid manner—presents Lucchino as the hatchet man carrying out the edicts of the two owners. More a devil’s advocate and overseer, Lucchino didn’t harass Epstein and Francona as much as he dared to question them and want an answer other than a spiraling stack of sludge that would placate a less-informed front office person or owner.

Francona’s health problems were much more serious than has ever been publicly revealed and his life was in jeopardy due to blood clots. He still endures terrible pain because of his wounds from a long playing career and the well-known issues with deep vein thrombosis. His use of pain medication was a point of contention and weaponized by someone with the Red Sox to impugn Francona’s reputation and justify his firing as if he was an addict whose use of the medicines, combined with the separation from his wife, led to a lack of focus allowing the players to run roughshod over all sense of propriety and culminating in the beer and chicken “scandal” that engulfed Francona and his team during their collapse in September 2011. The book explains Francona’s use of the medication in an evenhanded manner.

The players took advantage of Francona’s old-school demeanor in letting the players run their clubhouse. It’s an excuse to say that the beer and chicken had little to do with the collapse. If the players—especially pitchers Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey—had been in better shape, perhaps they wouldn’t have pitched as poorly as they did down the stretch and the team wouldn’t have missed the playoffs in the first place.

What Francona getting and losing the job hinged on was chance and the slippery slope of “if-thens.”  Would he have gotten the nod had Bernie Williams’s looping single in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS fallen into the glove of Nomar Garciaparra and the Red Sox held on to win the game and advanced to the World Series? Would he have retained the job if Dave Roberts hadn’t been safe by a hair on his stolen base in the ninth inning of game 4 in 2004, sparking the inconceivable four game comeback? Would he have lost the job if the Red Sox had been able to win two more games in September of 2011?

The final portion of the book centers around Francona’s estrangement from the Red Sox and his continued and understandably obsessive questioning of everyone as to who leaked to the media that he had a problem with prescription medications. Lucchino is alleged to have said he was going to find out who it was, but never did. Henry, the detached Dracula whose presence was rare and awkward, contributed his beloved stats and was notably out-of-touch in his attempts to get a grip on his crumbling would-be dynasty, had no reply for Francona. Werner was too busy trying to bolster his own bona fides and overemphasize his influence.

The book is not a vengeful and vicious, “I’m gonna get back at the guys who screwed me,” as Torre’s, at times, was. It tells Francona’s side in a context to put him in the best possible light, to be sure; he’s more calculating than an “Aw shucks,” baseball man who’s happiest at the ballpark and with the players. Clearly he’s hurt by the way his tenure ended especially considering he accomplished something in winning a World Series that hadn’t happened for 86 years prior to his arrival, then he turned around and won another title three years later. The concerns about his perception might have been the catalyst to jump back in the ring in a situation that isn’t ready-made to win immediately with the Indians. He took a job while the jobs were still being offered.

Francona gets his story out there, highlights how difficult the job of Red Sox manager truly is, and that it’s a borderline miracle that he: A) lasted as long as he did; and B) had the success he had while maintaining some semblance of sanity.

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