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

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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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The Papelbon Aftershocks

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Let’s separate the Jonathan Papelbon aftershocks by reaction and affect.

Jonathan Papelbon

Papelbon has never been fully appreciated for how good he’s been—especially by the Red Sox.

He has a clean motion; the post-season history of success; has done the job in a smothering atmosphere of scrutiny; is durable; throws strikes; and is an accountable team player.

Naturally, as they usually do, the Red Sox will start talking about some phantom malady that “concerned” them; in this case it will be Papelbon’s shoulder. A shoulder for which he’s missed zero time since 2006.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story with Papelbon. Because his blowups generally include 4-5 games a season where he’ll allow a crooked number of 3-5 runs, his ERA and ERA+ are always higher than they’d normally be if the lowest grades were dropped.

It’s a simplistic and self-serving effort to bolster a narrow argument to say that Papelbon is a “fly ball pitcher” and his home games being played in Citizens Bank Park will yield a larger number of home runs. His splits between fly balls and ground balls are negligible and slightly higher for fly balls; but he also strikes out over 10 hitters per 9 innings.

He’s a strikeout pitcher with a searing fastball and a vicious splitter.

He allowed 3 homers all season in 2011; 2 in Fenway Park (9th in homers out of all ballparks in baseball) and 1 in Cleveland (tied for 11th in homers).

The ballpark in Philadelphia is not going to be an issue for Papelbon; nor will the tough fans, the expectant media and the pressure of a championship or bust team upon whose hopes may ride on his shoulders.

He’s been through it before and come through repeatedly.

Philadelphia Phillies

This is as simple as it gets.

The Phillies have a superlative starting rotation; they’re old; they have money to spend and a short window to win another championship or two.

They spent a reported $50 million on the top closer on the market after the breakdown in negotiations for Ryan Madson.

They’ve acquired a known quantity for slightly more money than Madson’s asking price.

It’s a championship or nothing for the Phillies. With their success or failure no longer based on a winning season or making the playoffs, they needed someone they trust in the playoffs and World Series. Papelbon gives them that.

Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have a compulsive, fervent, almost blindly faithful reluctance to accept the fact that they need a legitimate closer to win.

They never appreciated what they had in Papelbon even after having endured the nightmares of 2003 and 2005 when they didn’t have a closer and it cost them dearly; they tried to go with the closer-by-committee nonsense again in 2007 and were saved from themselves by Papelbon seeing where the team was headed and offering to move back to the bullpen after an ill-advised spring stint as a starter.

Papelbon could’ve been signed to an extension, but the club never broached the subject with any seriousness. This is while they tossed money into the trash for Daisuke Matsuzaka, Matt Clement, Bobby Jenks and Julio Lugo.

They paid Keith Foulke $20 million over three years for what amounted to one season of production—and he was worth it because they won a championship they wouldn’t have won without him.

They’re not overspending to replace Papelbon; they’re not going after Ryan Madson and trust me when I say the Red Sox fans do not want Heath Bell.

Daniel Bard is fully capable of taking over for Papelbon in the regular season; but like the Phillies, the Red Sox metric is not the regular season, it’s the playoffs and that’s when Bard will be tested and judged…if the Red Sox get there at all.

Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan are more likely for the Red Sox to sign to cheap deals; they could try to trade for Joakim Soria or approach Theo Epstein to see if he’d like to move Carlos Marmol.

There won’t be a retaliatory strike of “we lost Papelbon so we need a ‘name’ to replace him”—that’s not what the Red Sox do.

Comparisons

B.J. Ryan and Papelbon are human beings; both pitched and made their living as short relievers; Ryan was 30 when he signed with the Blue Jays; Papelbon will be 31 next week.

Apart from that, I see zero connection between the two pitchers.

Ryan was lefty; Papelbon righty.

Ryan’s mechanics were among the worst I’ve ever seen; Papelbon’s are picture perfect.

Ryan was leaving an atrocious Orioles team and heading for a team that was a fringe contender at best with the Blue Jays; Papelbon’s going from one team that was picked for the World Series in 2011 to the other team that was picked for the World Series in 2011.

If there’s a legitimate comparison between two pitchers in this murky plot, it’s Madson and Ryan.

Madson’s mechanics are herky jerky and stressful—they’re not as bad as Ryan’s, but they’re not to be ignored as a non-issue either. Madson missed time with a strained shoulder in 2007.

Madson has been a closer for 2011 only; he hasn’t done it long-term; he is not a strikeout pitcher and uses different strategies with a fastball, cut fastball and excellent changeup than Papelbon does with his power fastball and strikeout-begetting split-finger.

It’s short-sighted and simplistic—the same accusations stat people levy against old-schoolers—to reference numbers as the final word without examining the other aspects of the overall equation—and I don’t mean numbers.

B.J. Ryan is not Jonathan Papelbon; Papelbon is not Ryan Madson.

There’s no connection other than the specious reasoning in equating contracts and variable statistics.

Some have suggested that Madson is “better” than Papelbon based on selective use of said statistics. Madson’s agent Scott Boras appeared close to completing another inexplicable financial coup with the $44 million rumored deal with the Phillies. That’s gone. Now Boras is going to whip out his Madson “book of accomplishments” and numbers crunching of his own to “prove” that his charge not only deserves a Papelbon contract, but more than a Papelbon contract.

The problem is there’s no one who’s going to give it to him.

I liken this situation to the Braves in 1997. Jeff Blauser was coming off a terrific season and was negotiating a new contract as a free agent. His agent was Scott Boras. Blauser felt he was worth the same money that Jay Bell received from the Diamondbacks ($35 million); Braves GM John Schuerholz reacted to this leap of logic by telling Blauser and Boras to take a hike and signed the superior defensive shortstop Walt Weiss. If Boras compares Madson to Papelbon and Mariano Rivera—and he will—any sane team is going to walk away.

Media/Fans

The one legitimate gripe from fans of other clubs is that the Phillies have blown up the market for closers with the Papelbon contract. That said, Papelbon was the number one guy on the market and he got the most money any closer is going to get. No one’s giving Madson that money or anywhere close to it. Nor should they.

Why the fans are worried about Papelbon’s years and dollars is beyond me. My criteria for a contract that’s too expensive is if a want precludes a need. If there’s an overpay for a want and you can’t buy what you need, it’s a bad deal.

The Phillies needed Papelbon and they bought him.

Everything else—the draft, the after-effects, the market—are subsidiary.

You cannot make the suggestion that Madson is “better” as Keith Law does, and then ignore his mechanical issues; you can’t dismiss the closer designation as a meaningless mental exercise as Jonah Keri does in playing up the Rays use of Kyle Farnsworth on the cheap while failing to mention that Rays manager Joe Maddon intentionally declined to name Farnsworth the “closer” because he didn’t want his skittish pitcher thinking about being the closer.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said that Madson wasn’t good at closing. He used him in the role out of necessity and, with a great sense of timing, Madson did well in 2011.

The Blue Jays erred in overpaying for Ryan. That won’t be replicated with Madson. Or Papelbon.

As for the suggestion that the Phillies don’t understand where they are and what they’re doing, it’s the height of outsider arrogance and “I’m smarter than you” pomposity.

They know.

They know that by 2014 they’re going to be ancient, super-expensive and probably on the downslide. Will it be worth it if the Phillies are hoisting a championship or two because of the players they have now? Absolutely. GM Ruben Amaro tried to maintain the farm system while simultaneously contending and keeping financial sanity and it didn’t work; the Red Sox tried to do it and it didn’t work.

They’re paying the price to win now and will pay in the future as well.

Papelbon is proven; he’s better; he’s what the Phillies needed; and they got him.

It’s not difficult to comprehend—tremors and madness irrelevant.

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Reyes’s Key Word: Recurrent

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Jose Reyes hasn’t pulled his hamstring once. He’s pulled it numerous times and required surgery to repair having torn it completely.

You can come up with any adjectives as you like—strain, tweak, cramp, tear, pull—but the more Reyes and his defenders have to reach for their thesauruses, the more worrisome Reyes’s recurrent hamstring injuries become.

That’s the key word: recurrent.

It’s happened again-and-again and any team that pursues him—including the Mets—has every right to take into account the number of times he’s had problems with his meal-ticket legs and decide where to draw the lines in their offers for him.

The ridicule of the Mets medical protocol is fine; it might even be fair; but even teams that use state-of-the-art information in nurturing, protecting and treating their players have had giant gaffes in acquiring and developing players.

The Yankees signed Pedro Feliciano and tried to blame the Mets for his injury. (It didn’t work.) They also crafted these self-cannibalizing rules and regulations for their young pitchers Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy—of the three only Hughes has come close to what they were expecting and even he is currently in flux.

The Red Sox didn’t know how much of a problem Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s personal training regimens were going to be; how much they’d clash with organizational plans. Jacoby Ellsbury‘s rib injury was somewhat mishandled last year; they signed injury-prone Matt Clement.

The head genius of the geniusy geniuses himself, Billy Beane (coming soon to a movie theater near you), signed heralded 16-year-old Dominican prospect Michael Ynoa to a lucrative contract outbidding several other teams. Ynoa has pitched in three professional games and underwent Tommy John surgery last year. He’s about to turn 20 and is nowhere near the big leagues.

Don’t automatically think that another club’s medical staff—perceived as “better”—is going to have any more luck keeping Reyes on the field than the Mets.

If it were a “one-and-out” injury, then it wouldn’t be seen as a reason to diminish the amount of money offered Reyes. It isn’t. He keeps getting the same injury in one fashion or another and it will and should cost him money on the open market.

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