- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Terry Francona, his uniform already soaked with sweat and made even stickier by the beer David Ortiz poured down his back after the game -- as close as the Red Sox came to celebrating the occasion -- was pitch-perfect Saturday night in discussing what it meant to win his 1,000th game as a major league manager.
The only way Francona could have downplayed it more was to give all the credit to his bench coaches -- DeMarlo Hale now, Brad Mills for six years before that, and Chuck Cottier with the Philadelphia Phillies -- the first team that gave him a chance to manage, 14 years ago.
"It's really not that big a deal,'' Francona said after Saturday night's 3-1 win over the Seattle Mariners. "I'm appreciative about the opportunity I have, because I really caught a break. This is a great organization with a lot of really good players. And I'm really fortunate. Other than that, I'd like to keep the spotlight on the players.''
In a sense, Francona was right. By itself, 1,000 wins doesn't mean a whole lot, other than an ability to remain employed, which in itself is a significant achievement in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of professional sports.
"As a pitcher, it would be much more impressive,'' cracked Josh Beckett, who allowed a run in seven innings and became a winner when the Sox scored three times in the bottom of the seventh, when Jacoby Ellsbury singled home two runs and eventually scored on a wild pitch.
Even Ortiz was crying over spilt beer.
"If I had known that [stuff] tasted that good,'' he said, "I would have drank it before pouring it on him.''
There are 56 managers in baseball history with more wins than Francona. Ten managers have 2,000 wins or more, topped by Connie Mack, with 3,731. There are seven other managers active in the big leagues today with at least 1,000 wins, led by Tony La Russa (2,691), and Buck Showalter, Ron Gardenhire and Charlie Manuel are all within a year or so of getting there.
It's a round number, one that Red Sox owner John W. Henry acknowledged with a private handshake and a public tweet: @John_W_Henry, "Congratulations, Tito. 1000 wins. 120 games over .500 -- 40th all-time."
A defining milestone? Hardly. The late Dick Williams and the departed Jimy Williams are both exactly 120 games over .500.
Francona's two World Series titles in his first eight seasons as Sox manager, and an 8-0 record in World Series games, resonate with far greater significance. So does his .580 winning percentage as Sox manager, a figure that taken alone would place him eighth all-time among managers who worked in the 20th century and later.
But the way Francona maintained his perspective Saturday night offered some small insight on why he has been as successful as he has. His role requires him to occupy center stage on a daily basis -- answering for his players, answering for his bosses, explaining in-game decisions ad nauseum -- yet he manages to do so in such a way that he has seldom made himself the center of the story.
That might be one reason he has never been voted Manager of the Year. This is not manager as symphony conductor, the one who gets to take all the biggest bows. This is more like manager who's at the back of the line when the high-fives and handshakes are exchanged -- which, come to think of it, is where Francona is every night after a Sox win.
Do not get the wrong idea. Francona has an ego. It mattered to him that he be paid fairly, and there have been times when he has been sensitive to slights, real and imagined, from the Sox front office. But he also has been extraordinarily consistent in shifting the credit on his players, the way he did Saturday night in praising Beckett, Ellsbury and Daniel Bard, and deflecting the white heat off those players when things go south.
"I'd say he handles [the media] the best, so that's what makes Tito a great manager,'' Kevin Youkilis was saying before the game. "He handles the media well and knows how to not let things get riled up and makes things very easygoing for the clubhouse.''
Francona doesn't even flinch when Dustin Pedroia, for whom his admiration knows no bounds, playfully refers to him as an "idiot." There are lines that cannot be crossed -- one is asking about his son, Nick, who is currently serving in combat duty with the Marines in Afghanistan -- but taking grief from Pedroia doesn't faze him.
"Oh, man, when you win 1,000 games, I mean you've been on top of your game,'' said Ortiz, turning serious for a moment. "After the years here, and watching him get to that point, is something very special.''
Even if Francona will be the last to tell you about it.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
In typical fashion, Terry Francona tried to duck the spotlight after his milestone win.