Commentary

In Tito they trust

One of Francona's secrets to getting the most out of the Red Sox? He has their backs

Updated: March 29, 2011, 8:59 AM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Earlier this spring, Red Sox newcomer Bobby Jenks was having a rough time. He was in the midst of a public war of words with his former manager, Ozzie Guillen of the Chicago White Sox, and the bickering was quickly getting out of hand.

Jenks' new manager, Terry Francona, took action. He defused the situation by reaching out to Guillen and others in the White Sox organization, suggesting they all knock it off. The ordeal ended, Jenks was grateful for Francona's intervention and everyone went back to work.

It's an example of a manager having his player's back, and Francona is a master at the task.

Francona also is among a small group of modern-day managers -- including Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, Cito Gaston, Dusty Baker, Jim Leyland and Mike Scioscia -- whose teams have become perennial contenders. And at age 52 (on April 22), he's one of the most successful managers in Boston history.

The son of a former major league All-Star, Tito Francona, the Sox manager has spent virtually his entire life in clubhouses as an observer, player or coach. He enters the season with a 654-480 record as Sox skipper, and he's guided Boston to the second-best winning percentage in the majors from 2004 to 2010. He's won two World Series titles (2004 and 2007), and the Red Sox are favored to win it again this year.

[+] EnlargeFrancona
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireTerry Francona's easygoing style sets a comfortable tone in the clubhouse, his players say.

No doubt Francona is blessed with talented players and an owner with deep pockets, but the manager still needs to get the most out of his players in order for the organization to be successful, and Francona has proved he can do that time and again.

The Red Sox have made quite an investment this offseason, putting together what might be the most complete Sox team in history. There's a reason Francona is the perfect manager for this group.

"As a manager, the No. 1 thing is to take care of the guys who go into war with you," Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "He's like a father away from home for us -- for all of us. We're around him more than we are our own fathers. He looks after us like we're his own, and that's the Golden Rule for a manager."

Jenks, who said he's put the incident with Guillen in the past, learned right away what type of manager he'd be pitching for the next two seasons. And Francona's action did not go unnoticed in Boston's clubhouse.

"In our market, it's very important [for a manager to protect his players]," Sox pitcher Jon Lester said. "Unless you're in New York, I don't think there are many places that have the media coverage that we do. I think it's important to have a manager who sticks by his players and helps a guy if he does say something that's not right or gets himself in trouble. He'll take the pressure off them and will handle it in a different way."

Because Francona has that mentality, it often translates into wins, as his players will go all out for him.

"'Tito' is one of the best at having his players' backs," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "He'll never, not one time, ever call you out in the media, and he's going to protect you until they tell him you can't manage anymore. That's what he brings and that's why he's respected, not only by our guys, but by everybody."

Francona, Epstein: A mutual respect

At the start of spring training this season, Francona was asked to describe his relationship with general manager Theo Epstein.

"Terrible," Francona said with a laugh.

"I think the biggest way to judge it is we're going on our eighth year now in a really crazy place," Francona said. "If you didn't have an extremely strong relationship, you'd have no chance in this market. There's a lot of trust. We have our moments, which you're supposed to, but I don't think he would want to have somebody be the manager of this team and not have a strong opinion. I value his opinion a lot, and he knows that.

"I also know, when the chips are down in the real tough times, I know where I can turn. He knows that. It's good. It's solid."

Like in any relationship, the GM and manager have had their differences, but at the end of the day, they've both put the best interest of the club and its players first.

"There have been days like that," Francona said. "I don't think we love those days, but your relationship has to be strong enough where you can disagree. There have been days where I wish I would have acted differently, but it's a very good relationship.

"I've learned a lot. Being a manager, you're worried about today. Being the general manager, you're more of a caretaker of the organization. I've learned to respect that a little more."

There was a point last winter when Epstein was trying to decide whether to part ways with a few valuable prospects in order to acquire Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres. Francona could tell the decision was weighing on his boss' mind, so he acted as a manager, telling Epstein to do what he needed to do to acquire Gonzalez. Like many players, Epstein just needed some encouragement, and within days, Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Reymond Fuentes were gone and Gonzalez became a member of the Red Sox.

Before Gonzalez arrived in Fort Myers to begin his first camp with the Sox, the slugging first baseman had been told by many in the game that Francona was a good person and a good manager. Gonzalez had played for Buck Showalter in Texas, and for both Bruce Bochy and Bud Black during his days in San Diego.

"If you get along and like the manager, you're going to just go out there and play," Gonzalez said. "It's when you feel uncomfortable with a manager, then you let all those things in your head and you don't perform the way you should. I've played for some great managers, and I've played for some who make it hard on you and that's not comfortable. It's great, knowing Tito's the type of manager you feel comfortable with.

"He's an easygoing guy," Gonzalez added. "He understands a player's side of things, and everybody says they really like him. If you play the game hard, the right way, then everything should be good."

'He reminds me of Bobby Cox'

When Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia arrived in Boston at the trade deadline this past July, Francona knew how much Epstein believed in the young catcher's abilities despite some health and physical issues he experienced while playing for the Texas Rangers. Knowing that the Red Sox were looking for their catcher of the future, someone to step in for veteran Jason Varitek, Francona embraced Saltalamacchia from day one.

Saltalamacchia was originally drafted by the Atlanta Braves and played a total of 47 games for Atlanta in 2007 before he was traded to Texas.

"Tito's been awesome," Saltalamacchia said. "He reminds me of Bobby Cox, as far as being a players' coach. He cares about his guys, and he'll take heat and let his players go out and play. As a player, that's what you're here for. He never gets down on his guys, and if someone does something wrong, he'll take care of it, but he'll take care of it behind closed doors. He's not going to embarrass anybody."

It doesn't matter whether you're a veteran, younger player, rookie or prospect; as long as you're wearing a Red Sox uniform, you're going to be protected by Francona.

During spring training in 2010, Varitek, the club's captain, was preparing for a new role, going from the everyday catcher to the backup behind Victor Martinez, when he received a phone call, telling him his father had suffered a brain hemorrhage.

"I had to leave. Tito was like, 'You take care of what you have to take care of.' I thought I lost my dad. So it's very important to me [to play for a manager like Francona]."

Pedroia He's always helping you out and he cares about you first. Baseball-wise, obviously he wants to win, but if he has your back, you're going to play as hard as you can for him.

-- Red Sox 2B Dustin Pedroia, on manager Terry Francona

Fortunately, Varitek's father is doing well. Francona's simple act of human decency helped Varitek both on and off the field.

"It's obviously extremely important," he said. "The most important focus is getting guys on the field and ready to go, and the least amount of off-field distractions you have to deal with, the better off it is."

While Lester was considered a top-notch pitching prospect in the Red Sox organization and enjoying his first major league season in 2006, the lefty was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma. It was a long and difficult recovery for Lester, but he was able to beat the disease, and a year later he was standing on the mound as Boston's starter in Game 4 of the World Series against the Rockies in Colorado. Lester earned the victory, and Boston had its second championship in four seasons.

During Lester's recovery from treatment, the Red Sox -- and Francona -- did everything they could to help him through it. Lester said he will never forget how the Red Sox helped.

"If a guy's mind is at ease, they're not worrying about things off the field, then they play better," Lester said. "When you're able to focus on your task at hand, it makes things so much easier.

"The biggest thing is everyone is human and everybody in this clubhouse is obviously very good at what we do, but at the same time, we all have personal lives and families. Things happen, and Tito understands that. There are times when we need to go and be with our families, and he gives us that freedom. It helps to have that, and it takes a lot of pressure off guys to know if something does go on, we can go and handle it and not be scared of what the manager is going to think of us."

'A second dad' to his players

By now, Francona's close relationship with Pedroia is well documented. The former American League Rookie of the Year (2007), AL MVP (2008), Gold Glove winner (2008), Silver Slugger winner (2008) and three-time All-Star is one of the more outgoing players in the big leagues. In fact, when he made his major league debut in 2006, he felt he had to tone it down because he was a rookie.

That mentality affected his play (he hit just .191 in 89 at bats in 2006 and hit .182 in April of 2007) until Francona, along with veterans Mike Lowell and Alex Cora, pulled Pedroia aside and told him to be himself. It worked, and Pedroia quickly began to excel.

Pedroia has seen Francona take the pressure off other players, too, no matter the situation.

"That's part of a manager's job," Pedroia said. "As players, it's a tough enough game as it is, and you're going to run into family problems, injuries, everything. You run into a ton of stuff, and a manager should have your back."

In 2009, Pedroia was having another solid season and was named to his second All-Star team. His wife, Kelli, was pregnant with the couple's first child when she began to have problems and needed to be hospitalized. Pedroia still showed up for work, and Francona pulled him into his office.

"She was in the hospital, and it was bad," Pedroia said. "He told me, 'You've got to go home and go to the hospital. What you're going through now is more important than baseball, and everyone in here understands.' Shoot, I was 25 years old and I didn't know what the hell was going on. He's like a second dad. He's always helping you out and he cares about you first. Baseball-wise, obviously he wants to win, but if he has your back, you're going to play as hard as you can for him."

The environment within the Red Sox clubhouse isn't always Shangri-La. There are many times when Francona has to make a decision in the best interest of the club that isn't necessarily popular. Veterans Tim Wakefield and David Ortiz were not happy at times during the 2010 season.

The veteran knuckleballer was in and out of the starting rotation, and admitted it was difficult to deal with. Ortiz struggled at the start of the season and was replaced at DH for a few games. He was even pinch hit for, which did not go over well with the player. It was a challenging season due to a slew of injuries, and neither Wakefield nor Ortiz voiced any frustrations with the on-field product; they acted as professionals.

A guy who usually speaks his mind is Papelbon. The Sox closer has a tendency at times to say things that go against the grain.

"There have been times when Tito's had to call me into his office and ream my ass," Papelbon said. "I've had to understand what he's saying and I've said, 'You know, you're right.' Then there have been times when he's patted me on the back and said, 'Hey, you're doing a great job.' There are so many times I haven't agreed with him, or he hasn't agreed with me, but at the end of the day, you're family."

Francona has to deal with innumerable issues off the field, and keeping the clubhouse environment relaxed also is a challenge.

"His biggest asset is he's able to keep everything at an even keel," Papelbon said. "In this environment, and in this game, you have to be able to do that. If you don't, you'll fall by the wayside."

In turn, the Red Sox players produce on the field, and that's one of the reasons Boston has a chance to win the World Series every season. This season, with Francona at the helm for his eighth year, should be no different.

Francona's current three-year contract expires at the end of the season, but it's a safe bet the Red Sox will pick up club options for 2012 and 2013.

"It's nice having that leadership quality in a manager who takes care of his guys," Saltalamacchia said.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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