Francona must strike the right balance

New manager Terry Francona steps into a very challenging job with the Red Sox.

Originally Published: December 4, 2003
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

Taking over as manager of a team that a) hasn't won a championship in 85 years; b) lost to its archrivals in a LCS from which many of its fans haven't begun to recover two months later; and c) has its every move -- major and minor -- scrutinized by a rabid fan base and competitive media corps would seem to be pressure enough for Terry Francona.

But wait -- there's more.

There's the matter of taking over a team that includes four superstars -- Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez and newcomer Curt Schilling -- at least some of whom are accustomed to having things their way.

Pedro Martinez
Getting the most out of Pedro Martinez will be vital for Terry Francona in his first year as Red Sox manager.

Ramirez was AWOL from the Red Sox last summer because of an illness. He regularly breaks into a slow trot on infield ground balls and indifferently pursues balls which get by him while playing left field. He left the team before the All-Star break, claiming none-too-convincingly that his mother was ill.

Martinez, for his part, has been a habitual late arrival in spring training. During the season, he is often the last player to report to the ballpark.

It will be up to Francona to strike the delicate balance with the team's uber-stars, who together will earn better than $60 million next season. He must give the Big Four the privileges usually afforded players of their stature, without losing the rest of the clubhouse.

It won't be easy.

Already, there exists the presumption that Francona was hired as a means of mollifying Schilling. During the three-day-long negotiating session last week, Schilling let it be known that Boston's chances would be improved if Francona became Grady Little's replacement.

For their part, the Sox had already informally determined Francona was their choice before the deal with Arizona was completed. Still, perception becomes reality.

Actually, the Sox were impressed by how Francona had handled Schilling in Philadelphia, where the two spent four seasons together.

"We talked a lot about superstars,'' said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, "and we focused a lot on Schilling. When they were in Philadelphia, there were a lot of trade rumors circulating about Curt, and we were impressed with how Terry dealt with all those issues.''

It helped, too, that while managing in the White Sox minor league system, Francona had to deal with the distraction brought about by the presence of a player hoping to make the successful switch from one sport to another: Michael Jordan.

In Philadelphia, Francona earned the label of "player's manager" for his breezy, personal style and willingness to allow veteran stars to police themselves. At times, he allowed some stars to pick their days off; at others, he sought their input for lineup and batting order choices.

But Francona will encounter a new dynamic in Boston, where, in recent years, the Sox' starts have literally come and gone as they choose, much to the displeasure of others. His primary task may be ridding perception that the inmates run the Boston asylum.

Francona inherits an admittedly delicate situation.

"The problem there,'' said a baseball source familiar with the Red Sox situation, "is that Manny and Pedro are like puppy dogs who've been allowed to [dirty] the rug. Now, when you hit them with a newspaper, they don't understand why they're being hit.''

Francona, who seemed to ooze energy and enthusiasm at Thursday's press conference, tackled some of his challenges, if only indirectly.

Communciation and how you treat people are absolutely important. (Red Sox) players will know that I care about them more than anyone has ever cared about them. They'll know that I respect them more than anyone has ever respected them. And they'll know I'll ask more of them than anyone ever has.
Terry Francona, Red Sox manager

"Communciation and how you treat people are absolutely important,'' said Francona. "[Red Sox] players will know that I care about them more than anyone has ever cared about them. They'll know that I respect them more than anyone has ever respected them. And they'll know I'll ask more of them than anyone ever has.

"My job is to get the most out of every single player in that room. Some guys you can holler at; some guys you can kick in the pants; some guys you put an arm around them. But it's my job to see how to get the best out of them.''

After being fired in Philadelphia after the 2000 season, Francona served as a front office assistant in Cleveland (2001 season) and a bench coach in both Texas (2002 season) and Oakland (2003 season). He observed how other superstars (Miguel Tejada, Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome) were treated. And he learned.

"I think the last couple of years,'' Epstein said, "have been like a managerial finishing school for Terry.''

There seems little doubt that Francona will be far more receptive to statistical input and pregame preparation. As if to emphasize this point, consciously or not, Francona must have used the word "prepare'' -- or some variation of it -- a dozen times in his remarks to the media.

He'll have to deal with great expectations. His predecessor won 188 games in the previous two seasons, only to be fired. Francona said he'll be judged by preparing his players to play and getting the most out of his ability. But, really, that's just first-day-on-the-job naivete.

In actuality, he'll be judged by whether he beats the Yankees and wins a World Series.

That may be setting the bar awfully high. But it's also reality.

The Sox believe that in personality, style and demeanor, they've found the right fit for 2004 and beyond.

"We have players who've accomplished a lot in this game,'' Epstien said. "It would be hard for them to respond to an old-school, disciplinarian. Or, for that matter, to someone who was too focused on strategy that they allowed the clubhouse to run itself.''

Francona must gain control of his stars without suffocating them with rules and regulations. He must allow them some privileges without appearing to cater to them.

He must, in other words, strike the right balance that has seemingly eluded many Red Sox managers.

Or else.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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