Challenge awaits John Farrell in Toronto
Former Red Sox pitching coach and new Blue Jays manager understands life in AL East
It's not as if he didn't have choices. John Farrell would have been on anybody's short list to manage their baseball team, which is why the Boston Red Sox added financial sweeteners to his contract that prevented him from leaving as pitching coach the last three seasons.
So, then how do you explain why Farrell, freed from his obligation to Boston, has elected to make his managerial debut with the Toronto Blue Jays, which is the baseball equivalent of signing up to fight Manny Pacquiao 18 times a year, followed by another 18 nights in a steel cage with Brock Lesnar?
During the winter meetings in Orlando, while the Red Sox were dominating the headlines with their trade for Adrian Gonzalez and signing of Carl Crawford, and the New York Yankees were engaged in their futile pursuit of Cliff Lee, Farrell insisted that he was undaunted by going toe-to-toe with the two teams that have maintained a chokehold on the AL East.
Since 1997, the year after Farrell's modest career as a big league pitcher ended, the Yankees have won 10 division titles and two wild cards. For the Red Sox, it's seven wild cards and two division titles. Only the Tampa Bay Rays, with two division titles in the last three years, have broken through in the East since then, and the Rays are embarking on a major reconstruction.
"The division honestly was an appeal, not a deterrent,'' Farrell said. "I think when you go up and you play 72 games against the likes of Boston, New York, Baltimore and Tampa, that is one heck of a challenge. Some might think daunting. I kind of think of it as an attraction.''
It's easy to display bravado in December, less so in August. But if Farrell is whistling in the dark, Rays manager Joe Maddon says he hears the same tune.
"We're a little bit haughty in the sense that we always talk about the American League East as the best division in all of baseball,'' Maddon said when Farrell's comments were relayed to him. "I believe that.
"When I took the job with the Rays, everybody thinks you're nuts, with the Devil Rays at that time, competing against the Yankees and the Red Sox. How are you going to compete? Don't you want to move to another division? I said no, I don't want to move to another division. You've got to beat the best to be the best. With that, there is motivation to be included within this group.
"I can understand John wanting to compete within this division. When you're playing in the AL East the atmosphere surrounding that on a nightly basis when you're playing these divisional games is pretty intense. If you're going to manage and want to be involved, why not be there? And I'm not denigrating any other division or group. I'm not saying that. I just know what it's like here. So from his perspective, to cut his teeth in his division like I am right now or I've done, I think it's fascinating, it's interesting, it's the only place to be.''
If Farrell, 48, shows no fear, perhaps it is because at a young age, he learned to deal with an adversary far more powerful than a mere baseball team -- the sea. Farrell was a child of the Jersey Shore -- the small enclave of Monmouth Beach -- and his father, Tom, was a mason by trade, a fisherman in his soul. From the age of 7, Farrell set lobster traps with his father all up and down the New York Bight. When he was in the eighth grade, the son invested what money he had in a down payment on his father's fishing boat.
The family business grew fast, too fast, and crashed. His father declared bankruptcy. "We couldn't rub two nickels together,'' Farrell told me several years ago, "but we always ate lobster.''
The [AL East] honestly was an appeal, not a deterrent. I think when you go up and you play 72 games against the likes of Boston, New York, Baltimore and Tampa, that is one heck of a challenge. Some might think daunting. I kind of think of it as an attraction.” -- Blue Jays manager John Farrell
But out of disaster came light. Father and son shared another passion, baseball. Tom Farrell had been a pitcher, one good enough to rise as high as Double-A with the Indians in 1953, where he was teammates with Herb Score and Rocky Colavito. Father and son spent many nights watching and listening to ballgames, and sharing the knowledge the father had accumulated.
"In retrospect, if we hadn't gone bankrupt I probably wouldn't be sitting here today," Farrell said after his first year as Red Sox pitching coach in 2007, when the team posted the lowest earned run average in the AL en route to winning the World Series. "I think that's where the silver lining begins. I had no intention of going to college. [Fishing] was going to be my path. As that bankruptcy hit, different paths had to be sought. I was recruited out of high school, and things blossomed from there."
That path took him to Oklahoma State, then to the big leagues, where two reconstructive arm surgeries dashed his hopes of a long and successful playing career. But a seed had been planted at Oklahoma State. Determined to finish his college degree that first winter after he retired as a player, Farrell flew back every weekend from his home in Ohio to Stillwater, Okla., until the work was done. While there, another opportunity arose: He was hired as an assistant pitching coach and recruiting coordinator by the Cowboys.
Four years later, he was back in the big leagues, returning to the Indians, where he eventually became director of player development. He was on the fast track to becoming a general manager, but instead he chose to return to the field in '07 as Boston's pitching coach, joining one-time Indians teammate Terry Francona.
And now, charged with the task of returning the Jays to glory days fading in memory (back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993), Farrell will compete against the Red Sox. And the Yankees. And the Rays. Wave upon crashing wave.
It's where he wants to be.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.