Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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Francona book shows manager’s true grit
Posted Jan 28, 2013 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated Mar 27, 2013 at 09:21 PM
Ending the Curse of the Bambino and winning two World Series titles in eight seasons of managing the Boston Red Sox have been the highlights of Terry Francona’s career in the dugout. And yet, Francona never really had the chance to absorb and relish the glory he deserved.
“I spent a lot of my time in Boston putting out fires,” Francona tells veteran Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy in “Francona: The Red Sox Years” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $28, hardback, 360 pages). This book puts the reader behind the scenes in the often fiery, turbulent, never dull world of the Red Sox, and the collaboration of Francona and Shaughnessy is an unlikely, yet very effective partnership.
The pair met dozens of times in various places, and the book’s narrative represents Francona’s perspective from the dugout and Shaughnessy’s insights from years of following the team. The narrative is written in Shaughnessy’s voice as a detached outside observer, with Francona’s observations clearly—and in many cases, profanely (perhaps colorfully is a more representative term) — liberally sprinkled in for good measure.
Their first meeting was instructive. Francona picked up the columnist in his Cadillac Escalade and announced “our first stop is going to be someplace where we can get these windows tinted so nobody’ll see me driving you around!”
That’s vintage Francona — earthy, blunt, comical and disarming.
“He doesn’t put on airs for anybody and doesn’t respond to people who do,” former Boston general manager Theo Epstein tells Shaughnessy.
After leaving the Red Sox after a crash-and-burn finish to the 2011 season, Francona spent a year in the broadcast booth. But he returns to the dugout in 2013 as manager of the Cleveland Indians.
It’s hard to dislike a guy like Francona: a manager who has his players’ backs, who won’t rip a player to the media, and who will defend his baseball strategies to the front office while fighting to get the best players on the field. A curious, mischievous guy off the field, Francona was delighted when, during the team’s trip to the White House, one of the workers showed him the door to what has now been termed “the Monica Lewinsky pantry.”
You don’t have to like the Red Sox, but be honest. There is something endearing about scrappers like Dustin Pedroia, who had to talk — and then shout — his way past a skeptical security guard at Coors Field before Game 3 of the 2007 World Series.
“Hey, man. Go ask Jeff Francis who I am!” Pedroia barked in an anecdote recalled by the authors. “I’m the … guy that leads off the World Series hitting a homer!”
The guard let Pedroia pass.
Or Mike Lowell, who seemed like a throw-in when the Red Sox acquired Josh Beckett, but who became a valuable part of the team. Same with Jason Varitek, Johnny Damon, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester; down-and-dirty, gritty ballplayers who find ways to win.
Manny Ramirez? Well, Francona has some interesting insights.
Shaughnessy’s role is to prevent this book from becoming a love fest. And he excels in that capacity. He recounts the lurid episodes about Francona’s final season in Boston, where it appeared the manager had lost control of the team. Players eating chicken and drinking during games were incidents that brought Francona’s tenure at Fenway Park to a close. He shows that with success came jealousy, and that to sustain success, ownership leaned more toward profit margins than winning margins in the standings. And he also shows what Francona believed was a breach of privacy when his participation in a Major League Baseball pain management program to wean himself off pain-killers was revealed by unnamed sources.
The most intriguing theme throughout “Francona” is the working relationship between the Red Sox manager and Epstein. A balance had to be struck between a baseball lifer who managed by feel and intuition, and an executive who represented a new breed of general manager. Shaughnessy had a three-hour sit-down with Epstein last summer and followed it up with more questions.
Epstein comes across as we’ve always perceived him; “part of a new generation of baseball executives grounded in knowledge and data rather than experience on the playing field.” But he also was savvy enough not to interfere with his manager’s on-field decisions.
Still, both Francona and Shaughnessy paint a picture of a dysfunctional front office. By December 2004, fresh off a World Series title, Epstein and team CEO Larry Luccino “were increasingly suspicious of one another.”
There are plenty of clubhouse stories from Francona as he recalled the rise of the Red Sox from a frustrated also-ran to a team at the top of its game. Francona was able to adapt to the quirky “Idiots” of 2004 and lead them back from a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series to take four straight from the hated New York Yankees. Then, he helped the Red Sox end their 86-year World Series victory drought with a four-game sweet against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Another interesting back story was the length of time it took the Red Sox to name Francona as manager. Francona, while still under contract with the Oakland Athletics, was essentially working for the Red Sox in late November 2003.
“Am I going to get this job here or what?” he asked Epstein.
“Hang in there, you’ll be fine,” Epstein said.
While this book is entertaining, there are some mistakes that seemed avoidable. The authors refer to the Tampa Bay Rays as “Tampa” in most references throughout the book and write lines like “They went back to Tampa and forced a Game 7,” when in fact, the games were played in St. Petersburg. I can hear the mayor of St. Petersburg already howling in protest. They do get it right later in the book, but even Tropicana Field is botched, in the Red Sox “went an alarming 1-8 at the Tropicana Dome in St. Petersburg.”
Arrrgh. I sound like a pirate from Gasparilla.
Another gaffe: the authors write that “only one team in baseball history ever came back from a 3-0 deficit to win a World Series, and that was Francona’s 2004 team.” That comeback occurred in that season’s ALCS against the Yankees; no World Series team has come back from a 3-0 hole.
The careless mistakes probably are more annoying to Tampa Bay baseball fans than they are nationwide. And in all honesty, they do not detract from the book’s overall effectiveness. Shaughnessy has captured Francona, warts and all. There is plenty of inside baseball information that will tease and titillate (who suffered when Francona mooned his coaches, for example), and the stories about Francona’s childhood, baseball career and first managerial stint in Philadelphia add depth to the story.
You don’t have to like the Red Sox to enjoy this book. Shaughnessy is a deft, smooth writer, but he is able to show Francona’s rough edges. Together, he and Francona tell the story of a gritty baseball lifer who brought untold joy to Red Sox Nation. Francona’s accomplishments, viewed in hindsight, seem even larger now than when they occurred.
“He treated people well when no one was looking,” Epstein said.