John Farrell was eating Chinese food with Red Sox owner John Henry and president Larry Lucchino at their getting-to-know-you-again sitdown when Henry asked the obvious question of a man who’d already been and gone: “With all the issues, why would you want to come here?”
The Red Sox, after all, are emerging from the rubble of their worst season since 1965, when they lost 100 games. Bobby Valentine was dismissed after one season, the shortest tenure for a (non-interim) Boston manager in 78 years. The roster is punctuated by question marks. The fans, long past the euphoria of two World Series championships, are somewhere between apoplexy and apathy.
So why would Farrell, who spent four years here as Terry Francona’s pitching coach during better times, return now? “This is the epicenter of the game,” Farrell declared last week when he became Boston’s 46th manager, and third in as many seasons.
An epicenter is the point directly above the focus of an earthquake, and after two seismic seasons in the swampy Fens, the front office was looking for stability and familiarity amid the upheaval. So, the Red Sox went with the man they would like to have had a year ago, trading starting shortstop Mike Aviles to the Blue Jays for Farrell, who’d spent the previous two years as head man in Toronto.
“Put yourself in our position,” said Lucchino. “A guy comes in and says, this is a dream job for me, this is the epicenter of the baseball world. It makes you feel that the guy has a sense of the dimensions of the job and what he’s buying into.”
Farrell was in the dugout when the Sox swept the Rockies for the 2007 title. He was there when they lost the seventh game to the Rays the following year, when they were swept by the Angels in 2009, and when they missed the playoffs in 2010. Nobody had to walk him through the job description. “Not having sat in this seat but being close to it, to see the demands of the position, the passion of this region, the energy that is in this ballpark every single night . . . ” said Farrell.
Those who know the man well weren’t surprised he cycled back to Yawkey Way. “Johnny loved it there,” said Arizona Diamondbacks pitching coach Charles Nagy, who was Farrell’s teammate in Cleveland. “He enjoyed the city, enjoyed the team, enjoyed the organization. The fit was there for him.”
After the Valentine misfit, Sox officials were in no position for another risky relationship, so they went with John Wayne in sanitary socks, a straight shooter whose personality and professional profile they knew by heart. “It was very comfortable,” Lucchino said about their meeting. “You sit down, you don’t spend the first hour of an interview finding out background and family and personality. You hit the ground running, and we did. I didn’t know what kind of Chinese food John liked, but we do have a high degree of familiarity.”
General manager Ben Cherington has known Farrell since he was Cleveland’s farm director, a résumé point that the Sox, now in a reconstruction zone, found attractive. “It was one of those things that just bounced off the page,” said Lucchino. “Because player development is the rock on which you build the church.”
Had Farrell stayed on the front office path, he likely would have become a GM himself. But the lure of the uniform was irresistible. “When you track as an executive there comes a point where you can’t go back to the field,” observed Padres manager Bud Black, Farrell’s former Indians teammate who later spent four years with the club as a special assistant to the general manager.
Farrell had been on the field for a decade, pitching 116 games for the Indians, Angels, and Tigers before retiring in 1996. Had he not been betrayed by his right elbow, which twice required surgery, he likely would have played in two World Series. He was a tall, sturdy Jersey guy whose father, Tom, had played on the same Cleveland minor league club as Rocky Colavito and Herb Score in the ’50s and who’d been an overpowering figure on the mound at Shore Regional High School in Monmouth County.
“The reason why we were so successful was because of John,” recalled Fred Kampf, a former Oakland farmhand who coached at Shore for nearly three decades. “I had three nice high school pitchers and they could go five innings. He would come in and blow people away for two innings and we’d win.”
Scouts were entranced by the 90-mile-per-hour fastball that emerged from Farrell’s oversized hands. “He could almost wrap his fingers around the baseball,” testified Kampf. The Athletics drafted him during his senior year in 1980, but Farrell opted to go to Oklahoma State, and played in the College World Series four times.
The Indians, who were bouncing around the bottom of the American League East, plucked Farrell in the second round of the 1984 draft and briskly moved him up the development ladder. Three years later, when Doc Edwards, his former minor league manager, took over amid another busted season in Cleveland, he brought up Farrell and mentored him. “I remember those conversations with him,” said Farrell, “his ability to just put his arm around you and make you feel, hey, you know what? It’s going to be OK.”
Farrell immediately became a staff workhorse and was regarded as an elder statesman in the clubhouse. “He was honest and straightforward, always the guy that people went to for advice,” recalled Nagy, who was a rookie in 1990. “He was the voice of reason a lot of times.”
The Indians of that era might have struggled on the field but they were rich in leaders. Five members of the 1988 team — Farrell, Black, Terry Francona, and Ron Washington, plus hitting coach Charlie Manuel — now are major league managers. “I think everybody wanted to stay in the game,” said Farrell. “You don’t sit there and map out your future. You’re consumed by what you do today, and if that creates opportunities for you going forward, all the better.”
Farrell’s playing opportunities were sabotaged when he blew out his elbow in 1990 and missed the next two seasons. “You could tell that the will and the drive to keep going was extremely high,” remarked Black. “The thing I admired about John was that there were no excuses. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. I’m sure there were times when he got down but he never showed it. He battled for a long time through that.”
Farrell signed as a free agent with California, endured a 3-12 reentry season in 1993, and spent the next three years going up and down between Triple A and the majors, before calling it a career in Detroit. He went back to Stillwater, where he served as OSU’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator for five years and picked up his business management diploma.
Then the Indians came calling. Mark Shapiro, who’d taken over as GM in 2001, had been impressed by Farrell during his earlier days in the front office. “Certain guys you earmark thinking, when I get a chance to move up this is a guy I want to take with me,” said Shapiro, now the club president. “Being a farm director is great training for any job in baseball because you have to have a lot of tough conversations.”
While Farrell is engaging and personable — “If you don’t like John, there’s something wrong with you,” said Kampf — he also is consistently direct and candid. “Johnny will lay it out there,” said Nagy. “As a player, all you can ask for is honesty — tell me where I stand. Johnny will sit a player down and say, hey, this is what’s going on.”
Farrell’s upfront, frank, and consistent approach quickly proved productive with a gifted but mercurial Boston pitching staff that spanned an eclectic spectrum from Curt Schilling to Josh Beckett to Tim Wakefield to Jonathan Papelbon to Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Though the Sox didn’t want to lose Farrell to Toronto, his two years as skipper there served to complete his résumé, which Boston’s management felt was ideal for a franchise that needs to build from the bottom. “Ben is constantly talking about the Next Great Red Sox Team,” said Lucchino. “That’s the goal. We can see John Farrell as the Next Great Red Sox Manager of the Next Great Red Sox Team.”
The club wanted Farrell badly enough to agree to a rare player-for-manager deal. “I just hope [Cherington] doesn’t trade me again,” Farrell quipped when he was introduced.
“We do need an outfielder,” the GM mused.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.