Commentary

Francona has earned his lofty spot in Red Sox history

Originally Published: October 14, 2008
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Over dinner, my wife tells me she cannot look at Terry Francona. She believes he has a kind face, and takes me at my word when I explain his welcoming, easy demeanor. But she cannot abide by Francona's dugout manners: wrapping a wad of chewing tobacco in a cocoon of bubble gum before stuffing the acrid combination into his mouth, doubling his Red Sox pullover as a bib.

It is the manager's spit quotient alone that every summer forces a channel change from important Red Sox games (thank the stars for the miracle of DVR) to something less offensive, say, like "Law & Order," where a dead body introduces each episode.

Terry Francona
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesTerry Francona has led the Red Sox to 95 or more wins in the regular season in four of his five years as the team's manager.
"I know, I know," Francona says with a smile from the dugout, before the Red Sox lost to Tampa Bay 9-8 in the second game of the American League Championship Series. "My wife says the same thing. But seriously, I wish I could stop doing it, but I guess I really can't."

It is the ALCS, and he is nearing the summit of one of the four most influential clubs in the history of his industry (in terms of historical -- and financial -- significance, only the Yankees, Dodgers and Cardinals rank with the Red Sox). But Francona approaches his position in the pantheon as though he were walking his dog and along the way happened to find a winning lottery ticket.

If Joe Maddon is on a quest to transform the Rays' organizational attitude by challenging conventional thinking, Francona could not view his position more differently. His aspirations do not include paradigm shifts or cultural reassessments, for he is not an activist or a messenger of a new baseball gospel. Before the second game of the series, Francona shakes his head vigorously in the negative at the elevating progression of possibilities:

No, he says, he does not look at the record book ("Why would I?"). He says this even though, if the Red Sox win the World Series, Francona will be the first Red Sox manager to win back-to-back championships since "Rough" Bill Carrigan beat the Phillies in 1915 and Brooklyn in 1916.

No, he's not aware of his place in Red Sox history, even though he has taken the Red Sox, the wild card notwithstanding, to the playoffs more times (four) than any other manager, and a win over the Rays would make Francona the only manager in Red Sox history to win the AL pennant three times.

No, he hasn't taken the time to absorb the irony that if the Red Sox overcome Tampa Bay to advance to the Series, the franchise that once mastered heartbreak will have won three AL East pennants having trailed in each series -- 3-0 to the Yankees in 2004, 3-1 to Cleveland last year and (as of now) 2-1 to the Rays.

And finally, Francona says no, he is not even sure he'll have time when he's 75 years old, sitting on the front porch, to reflect that the five years he has managed the Red Sox have undone the entire post-World War I history of the franchise.

"Seventy-five? I probably won't even be here," Francona says. "Seriously, you know what? I don't think about it at all. I don't think about playing a tough game and then saying, 'Well, I feel good and let's talk about it, because we won.' I don't say that the job is only fun or only rewarding or only satisfying because you won."

And yet each victory cements for him a position once considered unattainable in Boston: He has outlasted the legendary Boston star system to quietly become the most successful manager in the history of the Red Sox.

Star system

An hour before Francona will watch the Rays pound his Red Sox 9-1 in Game 3 of the ALCS, the televisions around the park show highlights of the Phillies and Dodgers, and the arriving Fenway crowd erupts in sporadic bursts for Manny Ramirez -- but over the four days that have comprised the ALCS, Terry Francona does not mention the name.

All you're doing most of the time is putting out fires and, sometimes, the most peace you have is when the game starts. Sometimes, that's not the most stressful part of the job. That's the most enjoyable part.

--Terry Francona

Francona is one of those people who can only be understood by what he doesn't say, far more than by what he does, and the wondrously talented Ramirez embodies the greatest conflict of today's game for a man like Francona, when players often possess more power than the manager.

The Red Sox certainly have a powerful brand, but baseball in Boston has always been about superstars, outsized players who define entire eras, far above even the team's won-loss record. From Ruth to Williams to Yaz, from Clemens to Vaughn to Garciaparra, Pedro and Ramirez, the Red Sox clubhouse has always possessed a Hall of Fame-level player whose presence captivated the city and dominated the team dynamic as much as his talent.

Francona doesn't mention Ramirez, and if one day the full depth of their complicated relationship does surface, it is unlikely Francona would cooperate. Just watch his eyes, and listen to him -- not the sentences, but the words behind them -- and things suddenly become clearer.

"People talk about this job, about whether you can handle a pitching staff, or take criticism," he once told me during another obvious but unpublicized bout with Ramirez. "But nobody, nobody, has any idea what you have to go through to keep this thing together. All you're doing most of the time is putting out fires and, sometimes, the most peace you have is when the game starts. Sometimes, that's not the most stressful part of the job. That's the most enjoyable part."

Ramirez was traded July 31 amid charges that he had engineered his departure and countercharges that the Red Sox had turned the public against him for the purpose of trading him. He does not mention the name, but his face lights at the suggestion that he now has the most low-maintenance clubhouse since he arrived in the winter of 2003.

"You know what? Since the middle of the summer, this has been the most enjoyable clubhouse, the most enjoyable atmosphere," he says. "This clubhouse has always been really, really special. When kids come up, everyone is like when Jason Bay got here -- he was received like he was always part of our team."

But he does not say the name.

And he doesn't have to, for Terry Francona is still here, and the superstar culture that preceded him is, at least for now, very much a thing of the past. Every superstar who once came first before Francona arrived -- Garciaparra, Martinez and Ramirez immediately come to mind -- is now gone. Francona has outlived them, and in his own way, the age-old environment that gave them their power.

The web is complex. For Francona to survive, he has needed the backing of his front office, and it is clear that general manager Theo Epstein and ownership prefer today's Red Sox, widely dispersed in ability, with less individual wattage. Yet it is too simple to say that management chose to weed out the bad guys and the manager benefited. First, Ramirez remained in Boston as long as he was a productive, expensive hitter, and he became expendable only when his price point made him easier to move. Secondly, there have been countless coaches and managers who have allowed the star player to define the team, to indirectly move the chess pieces, and ultimately to finish off the manager.

"I watch so much of him, and his touch with the players, how he worked hard at making sure he did a lot of talking in a group on the field," said Brad Mills, Francona's bench coach who has received increasing attention as a managerial candidate. "Terry's personality adapts very well, with the fans, the front office, the coaching staff, the players. I think it goes so far back, because his dad played. When he can, he has that way of letting you know what he expects, but he knows how to say it so guys relate to him."

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Francona often tells the story of how in Philadelphia he knew he could not win a public war of words with the star players (in that case Lenny Dykstra), and so he maneuvered around the giants. If there is nobility in fighting for one's beliefs, it also requires skill to resist fighting fights that cannot be won while still retaining your principles.

Another Pittsburgh native, Ken Macha, a longtime friend who hired Francona as his bench coach in Oakland for the 2003 season, believes that it is the Pittsburgh in Francona that has allowed him to outlive the middle-class sensibility that serves as a reminder for him never to take himself too seriously.

"I really think it is a Pennsylvania thing," Macha said. "Terry doesn't want any credit. He knows if he's done a good job. He's always been self-deprecating. I really think it was his experience managing Michael Jordan in Double-A and the Fall League that helped him apply what he thinks is right without getting swallowed up by the colorful personalities."

The tree

In football, they talk about coaching trees, the system of mentors and protégés that connects generations, which explains the professional origins of the successful ones. Jim Lee Howell produced Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, and from Landry came Dan Reeves and Mike Ditka. Bill Walsh represented the tree trunk, and his branches included George Seifert, Mike Shanahan, Ray Rhodes and Mike Holmgren, who in turn mentored Andy Reid.

They don't talk about trees so much in baseball, even though the game's roots twist and writhe back before the Spanish-American War. Before Game 1, the two Pennsylvanians, Maddon and Francona, embrace and offer mutual congratulations.

Maddon's baseball roots can be traced back to around the time of the Great Depression. He is a disciple of Mike Scioscia, the Angels' manager, who coached under Tommy Lasorda, who coached under the professorial Walter Alston, who was a teammate of Leo Durocher, one of the original win-through-constant-pressure managers. Relationships and connections are the lifeblood of the professional side of the sport, determining not only who gets jobs, but once they get them, what tactics they bring to the dugout.

Francona can trace his managing roots to another family dynasty, the Bells. Buddy Bell and Francona played together in Cincinnati. When Bell went to Cleveland, he hired Francona. Bell's dad Gus played for the 1953 Cincinnati Reds, who were managed by Rogers Hornsby. Hornsby is part of the richest soil in the game, the original power-hitting second baseman, who played for one of the game's early dynastic managers, Miller Huggins.

But with Francona, there is virtually no perceptible stylistic road map linking him to his on-field influences. Instead, the connection to the influences in his life can be seen more with how he deals with people -- for a certain serenity now exists within Francona, a hard-won comfort that did not always exist.

I watch so much of him, and his touch with the players, how he worked hard at making sure he did a lot of talking in a group on the field. Terry's personality adapts very well, with the fans, the front office, the coaching staff, the players.

--Brad Mills, Francona's bench coach

Four years ago, Francona was a more than able practitioner of the time-honored baseball tradition of embarrassing outsiders. He was short with visiting writers and particularly sensitive to criticism. For a time last season, Dennis Eckersley, the Hall of Fame pitcher who is now a Red Sox in-studio commentator, did not enter the clubhouse because he said Francona did not want to speak to him.

Francona shakes his head. "Here's what I said. What I said to him was, 'You can have an opinion. But if you want to have an informed opinion, you have to do a little work.' It pissed me off, and I told him that.

"Dennis and I go back years. We used to hang out together with the Cubs. I'm not mad about it. But I felt I had to say that. You can say whatever you want, but you have to have an informed opinion, especially here."

To Macha, it goes back to Pennsylvania, and the sensibility that comes from believing there is reward in the work. The words can be contrived, corny or naive enough in a hard-edged business that only compensates success. The words must also provide fuel to continue against the inevitable cruelties of the game (such as watching others advance who did not necessarily have to work as hard or wait as long, either for their first chance, or their second).

It is one thing -- especially in an era when baseball front offices have replaced the manager as the driving force behind an organization's philosophy -- to be unclear about the man. Dick Williams was considered a better tactical manager, but there can be little dispute about the numbers and Francona's place in Red Sox history.

"Absolutely, he is the best manager in Red Sox history," said television broadcaster Buck Martinez. "Especially if they win this year, to do what he's done, with today's player movement, with the type of differing personalities he has had to juggle, in the town of Boston of all places, there is no question he's the best."

"Look, I caught a break," Francona says. "I was here at the right place at the right time when some really, really special things happened. When I was in Philadelphia, we didn't get nearly any of the results that people would use to measure success. We didn't win. But you know what? I'm still so proud of a lot of those moments when we did things the right way.

"You know what I care about?" Francona said, slowing waving his hand left-to-right across the expanse of the Tropicana Field infield a few days ago. "I care about this. I really love the game, the actual game of competition. I guess you could call it the journey. It's the journey of not knowing if you're going to win or lose, but being in the middle of it to find out. That never gets old to me."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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