Terry Francona’s willingness to protect his players publicly was a factor in both his success and downfall during his eight seasons as Red Sox manager. In his new memoir, “Francona: The Red Sox Years,’’ co-authored by Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, he offers an often hilarious but never salacious peek behind clubhouse doors on the championship “Idiots” of 2004, borderline insubordinates of 2011, and all the good times and chaos in between.
Much of the book’s advance buzz has focused on management’s backward emphasis on sizzle and prioritizing NESN’s television ratings over baseball matters during the 2010 season, and there are other groan-inducing moments with his bosses. When the Red Sox balk at playing a makeup game during a grueling stretch in 2005, chairman Tom Werner, who is described as “constantly trying to assert his importance,’’ inadvertently confirms that gate receipts are prioritized over what’s best for the team when he suggests to Francona, “Just play the backup guys.”
But it’s the candor, often delivered with deft humor, about the players that will most appeal to Red Sox fans. There’s enough on exasperating man-child hitting savant Manny Ramirez alone to fill several chapters.
Francona’s exasperation turns to anger when he recalls the incident when Ramirez shoved 64-year-old traveling secretary Jack McCormick to the ground when the mercurial slugger was denied a late, unreasonable request for 16 tickets in Houston during the 2008 season.
“It took me a few seconds to realize this wasn’t in fun,” Francona said. “There were not a lot of guys around when I got out there, and I saw Jack leaning against a table, kind of dazed. I grabbed Manny and said, ‘What the [expletive] are you doing?’ I was hoping he wasn’t going to hit me.”
That was the precursor to the end for Ramirez in Boston — he was dealt to the Dodgers at the trading deadline. But he brought on his manager’s ire countless times before. Two years earlier, during a five-game August sweep at the hands of the Yankees that effectively ended their season, Ramirez pulled himself from the finale in the fourth inning.
“I’ll never forget that,’’ Francona said. “He came off the field, walked down the dugout steps, yelled over, and said, ‘Hamstring!’ and I said, ‘Manny, which one?, and he pointed with both hands to both hamstrings. He was like, ‘You pick. [Expletive], I’m coming out. It was funny later, but it wasn’t funny at the time. I had had it with Manny at that point.”
Francona once nearly quit when John Henry wanted him to make a public apology for criticizing Ramirez after he’d refused to play, then broke down in tears while sitting in his car at Logan Airport when he got the news he finally had been traded. But there were lighter Manny moments at which even Francona could laugh. During Game 4 of the 2004 World Series, Ramirez got into an argument in Spanish with Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. Molina was accusing Ramirez of stealing the Cardinals’ signs.
Francona turned toward plate umpire Chuck Meriweather: “Chuck, Manny doesn’t even know our signs.”
Francona turned to Ramirez, and asked, “You don’t know our signs, do you, Manny?”
Ramirez replied, sheepishly, “No.”
Even when his words are critical, Francona’s comments about his players are never reminiscent of the score-settling vibe that accompanied Joe Torre’s biting insights on Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Brown in “The Yankee Years.’’ Consider some of Francona’s other thoughts on notable players he managed in Boston.
On Pedro Martinez: “Overall, Pedro was tough on me. He was used to doing things his way.”
On Nomar Garciaparra’s departure at the 2004 trade deadline: “Nomar was just Bostoned out. Things that didn’t used to bother him bothered him. It was obvious he wasn’t happy and it was a strain on your team.”
On Johnny Damon, whose toughness he lauds: “[I] got a little nervous when he became a team spokesman, but he was so dependable. He tried hard to do the right thing.”
On Curt Schilling: “He says stuff once a week that he shouldn’t and takes it back.”
If there’s a recurring antagonist to Francona, it’s Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, who refuses to call the manager by his first name, gets angry before the 2004 parade because the official championship sweat shirts have not-so-mysteriously disappeared (“Can’t you guys do one thing right?’’), and tells Francona at one point, “I’ve been around a lot of baseball managers. You, by far, make me the most uncomfortable.’’
Francona doesn’t offer many revelations into his personal life in the book, which is on sale now, though he elaborates on why his daughter Leah found a bottle of more than 100 Percocets when visiting him in Florida in February 20011. “I had hoarded them,’’ said Francona, whose myriad physical issues required pain medication. “It was legal, but it wasn’t good. I didn’t even open ’em. It wasn’t under the Red Sox umbrella.’’
After the Red Sox collapsed amid their chicken-and-beer haze in September 2011, Francona found himself caught up in a petty game of semantics with club management, which seemed to want him gone but didn’t seem to want to acknowledge they were firing him. When matters were settled and he moved on after what he calls “seven years and five months of the hardest but best years of my life,’’ he received a voice mail from a certain player who played a leading role in the hardest and best parts.
“Papi, this is Manny,’’ the voice mail said. “I just wanted to give you a call. You were an OK manager. Call me back.”