Commentary

Francona skillful and relaxed amid the chaos of Boston

Originally Published: October 23, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- Terry Francona feels no particular urge to listen to sports talk radio or read the daily papers in an effort to monitor his public image. Most of the time, the scoreboard tells him all he needs to know.

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When the Red Sox perform to expectations, Francona is doing his job. When they fail, he's a hack, a nitwit or the worst thing to hit the Fenway Park home dugout since Butch Hobson.

His boss, Boston general manager Theo Epstein, knows the feeling.

"Just ask the fans, and we're both bums or both great depending on whether we won or lost the day before," Epstein said.

Given the number of forums available to express opinions these days, it's easy to be a managerial expert from the comfort of your couch. That's particularly true in Boston, where the passion for baseball and history of suffering know no bounds. After all, those beleaguered Red Sox fans have endured a whopping six losing seasons -- including that terminally scarring 89-loss debacle 15 years ago -- since the summer of 1966.

So the bloggers blog and WEEI listeners rant: If Francona isn't keeping his starting pitcher in the game too long, he's pulling him too early. Or showing too much faith in Eric Gagne. Or failing to exert the kind of discipline that might persuade Manny Ramirez to hustle out a few more of those singles off the wall.

Yet here are the Red Sox, four wins away from a title, and Francona is trying to join Bill Carrigan of the 1915 and 1916 Boston teams as the only manager to lead the franchise to two World Series victories.

Francona was second-guessed in advance for starting Tim Wakefield in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, but that decision worked out for the best when the Red Sox outscored Cleveland 30-5 over three games to come back from a 3-1 deficit and win the pennant. He replaced Coco Crisp with Jacoby Ellsbury in center field before Game 6, and that move worked out as well.

After an 11-2 victory in the series clincher over Cleveland on Sunday night, Curt Schilling took a break from his cork-popping chores to salute Francona's contribution.

"It all starts with the manager," Schilling said. "He's such an even-keeled guy, he gets vilified for what people look at as complacency. But his loyalty to us and our loyalty to him is something that I think a lot of teams don't have."

[+] EnlargeTerry Francona
Rick Scuteri/US Presswire Terry Francona has led the Red Sox to the World Series in two of his four seasons as manager.
Now that Joe Torre is kicking back in Harrison, N.Y., and assessing his future in the game, Francona is carrying the mantle for media-friendly types who roll with the punches and create a comfortable environment for players.

Peruse the Boston clubhouse, and Francona's players credit him for "having their backs," staying positive during the hard times, maintaining the lines of communication and fostering a team concept while allowing them to be individuals.

Francona is also skillful in dealing with the relentless and obsessive Boston media. His news conferences are an entertaining mix of thoughtful analysis mixed with banter and self-deprecating humor. When Francona pokes fun at his baldness or prominent nose, it's just a case of Terry being Terry.

Francona seems even more relaxed and in his element than in 2004, when he led the Red Sox to their first title in 86 years. But in an odd twist, that crowning achievement made him more conscious of the burden that he carries.

"In 2004 I was oblivious to a lot of the surroundings and I think it made my job easier," Francona said. "After I saw what that did for people around here, it actually made 2005 harder. I started feeling the responsibility of every game a lot more because I understood more what it meant to people around here."

Francona's ability to stay calm amid the chaos is a reflection of his background and his personality. He is forever Tito's son, the kid who grew up around major league clubhouses and achieved big things on the diamond, then showed enough feel for the game to keep achieving when his knees went and his playing career followed.

Few people in the Boston clubhouse have more insight into Francona than bench coach Brad Mills. It goes back to the late 1970s when they were both recruited by University of Arizona coach Jerry Kindall -- Mills as a hotshot junior college transfer and Francona as a high school star out of Pennsylvania.

Mills vividly remembers his first encounter with Francona before the Wildcats' opening practice. The team gathered at a central spot on campus to watch a baseball "Game of the Week," and Francona made himself right at home on a couch in front of the television.

"He's lying there on that couch, and he's got hair down past his shoulders," Mills said. "He was wearing high-top red Chuck Taylors with a T-shirt and cutoff Levi's with the strings hanging down. I'm like, 'You're Terry Francona? You've got to be kidding me.' "

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The two have remained close friends, first as college roommates, then teammates with the Montreal Expos, and later through eight seasons in the dugout in Philadelphia and Boston -- Francona as manager and Mills as a trusted confidant and coach.

"The thing about Terry is, he hasn't changed since college," Mills said. "Everyone is his friend."

During Francona's first managerial stint in Philadelphia, his reputation as a "players' manager" eventually caught up to him when upper management determined he was too patient and protective of a young, developing roster. The Phillies responded by bringing in his polar opposite, Larry Bowa, to crack the whip and create a different tone.

But when the Red Sox hired Francona to replace Grady Little in 2004, they saw a manager with all the attributes to be a star.

"We knew he'd be extremely prepared and have sound baseball instincts and reasoning," Epstein said. "We saw a guy who'd care about the players and treat them fairly, and have a good personal touch with all the different constituencies -- media, fans, players, coaches and the front office. Luckily for us, he's proven us right on all those fronts, and then some."

Epstein views his relationship with Francona as similar to the Kevin Towers-Bruce Bochy dynamic that he witnessed as a young intern in San Diego. General manager and manager always felt free to disagree, but never let it get personal or evolve into backbiting.

Epstein cites two examples that define Francona's contribution to the Red Sox this season. The first was Francona's decision to stick with rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who hit .191 during a September call-up in 2006, struggled in spring training, then batted .182 in April.

"When most managers see a 5-foot-7 guy who looks like the bat boy hitting a buck eighty in May, they would give up on him and turn somewhere else," Epstein said. "Terry had never seen Pedroia play well."

But Francona took a deep breath and actually listened to the scouts and the minor league personnel who swore by Pedroia and insisted he would be a player someday. It didn't take long. Pedroia hit .415 in May, and now he's on the verge of winning the American League Rookie of the Year award.

[+] EnlargeTerry Francona and Jason Varitek
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireTerry Francona, left, is widely respected by the players who play for him.
Francona also showed admirable restraint in September, when the Red Sox were on the verge of blowing their AL East lead to the Yankees. Amid the hysteria, he was secure enough to take his foot off the gas pedal and balance a desire to win now with the need to prepare for October.

Francona backed off Schilling and Daisuke Matsuzaka, shut down Hideki Okajima and allowed Ramirez to rest until his strained oblique muscle was fully healed. Nobody is questioning those decisions now.

Through eight seasons as a manager, Francona has grown accustomed to the fickle nature of public and media acceptance.

"Let's face it -- half the room is going to say one move is good and another move is bad," Francona said. "So I don't really feel like I need it re-explained to me. I do the best I can every day, always stay true to myself and do what I think is right. Regardless of how I'm perceived, if it works in that [clubhouse], that's what I truly care about."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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