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Bob Ryan

Never a false move

Impeccable job done by Francona

Ladies and gentlemen, what we saw in the 2007 postseason was a managerial clinic. Of course, since the instructor was Terry Francona, thousands of lunkheads missed it.

The results truly do speak for themselves. He has managed the Red Sox for four years, and he's won two World Series without losing a game in them. The brighter the spotlight, the sharper he gets. He's a manager for the times, and he's the best manager the Red Sox have ever had. Anyone who doesn't believe that is simply not paying attention.

In general terms, his best managing is usually done between the hours of 1 and 7 p.m., before the typical game begins. Modern baseball managing means being aware of the clubhouse rhythm, understanding the whims and attitudes of 25 players, and knowing how to handle a variety of circumstances. There is no sport like baseball, where the season begins at the beginning of February and, if a team is fortunate, carries through the end of October. That's a lot of time for men to spend together. A manager has to know when to be in someone's face and when to become invisible.

"He's a huge part of this team," says World Series (and Sox regular-season) MVP Mike Lowell, a man whose opinion truly matters. "I know he doesn't hit or pitch or do any of those things anymore. But I think he provides an atmosphere for our clubhouse and for our guys to be able to use our talents to the best of our abilities.

"A lot of things are being scrutinized, a lot of things are being second-guessed, and he sticks with his guys all the time. That's a very comforting feeling for a player, and you want to win for him."

Providing an atmosphere. That is the single most important thing a manager can do. That is what Joe Torre has always done, and why he probably did his best job this year. At 21-29, the Yankees needed someone, something, to cling to, and that someone was Joe Torre and that something was Torre's refusal to panic.

The Red Sox received a similar lift from Francona when they were stumbling around in the month of September and their AL East lead was shrinking. The players knew that Francona had a long-range plan, and he had every intention of sticking to it. They knew - they absolutely knew - why Francona was doing what he was doing, and they believed in the plan and they believed in the man who was implementing it.

But there does come a time when a manager has to demonstrate he really does know how to run a game, especially a big game. Game management and mastery of so-called "strategy" may not be as important as the average fan thinks it is, but it does have its place. And if you want to give Francona an A-plus for his basic managerial/people skills, then you'd have to give him an A-plus-plus for his deft handling of the 2007 postseason, especially his dazzling performance in the World Series, when he totally outmanaged Clint Hurdle, who, as one former big league skipper told me, "never seemed to manage with any urgency."

Terry Francona did, all right. Just look at the way he grabbed Game 2 of the Series by the throat.

He knew where he was and what it meant. Curt Schilling was sailing along nicely, having thrown a mere 82 pitches. But when he walked Todd Helton with one away in the sixth, Francona made his move. Out came Schilling and in came Hideki Okajima. Seven outs and four strikeouts later, he said, "Thank you very much," and summoned Jonathan Papelbon for a four-out save.

Would he have handled the game in this manner during the months of April, May, June, July, August, and September? Uh-uh. He would have brought in the standard parade of relievers until, finally, Papelbon would have been used in the ninth. But this was Game 2 of the World Series, and Francona was not fooling around. He wasn't worried about feelings or roles or any of that stuff. He wanted to get up, 2-0, and he went with the two men he trusted the most. And he was rewarded.

Hurdle is a very nice, engaging man, and I do think I'd like to have dinner with him. But he never seemed to grasp the idea that he was in the World Series. He acted as if this were an interleague series in June. Brian Fuentes, who had lost his closer's job to Manny Corpas for a reason, was his Eric Gagné, and Hurdle didn't seem to know it. In fact, the Red Sox might consider granting Brian Fuentes a cash bonus, if not a full World Series share.

The real fun started when the series shifted to Coors Field. The American League team is supposed to be at an automatic disadvantage, but Francona, who managed in the other league for four full seasons, took to the National League game like a golden retriever diving into a mountain lake. I mean, his wheels were turning, baby. You got the idea he never had so much fun, and why not? It's got to be a more fulfilling exercise maneuvering with the players he has now, as opposed to the ones who had brought him such misery in Philadelphia, right?

First of all, he never shared our angst over the DH thing. To him, it was obvious: Papi's got to stay, Youk's got to go. Next question.

And he was one double-switching son of a gun, wasn't he? He kept bringing in the right pitcher to go along with the right defensive switch. Look at Alex Cora lay down that sacrifice bunt. Sure, the baseball gods were smiling on him. You think Manny Ramírez is making that catch Jacoby Ellsbury made on Jamey Carroll in the ninth inning of Game 4? Please. Wasn't Tito similarly blessed back in Game 7 of the Cleveland series, when both Ellsbury and Coco Crisp made sensational catches after he had done some defensive maneuvering?

Luck? You know what Branch Rickey had to say on that subject, don't you? "Luck," Rickey said, "is the residue of design."

As Lowell points out, a manager doesn't hit, run, or throw. The athletes come first. "I couldn't have done it without the players," Casey Stengel said at the height of his Yankee run. He knew better than anyone, because it was of Casey Stengel that Warren Spahn famously said, "I played for him before and after he was a genius."

Terry Francona is not a genius, nor does he claim to be. But he's a thoughtful man who is the perfect manager for this particular organization, in this fan and media hothouse, and he was never better than he was in the last seven games.

Can a manager be clutch? You just saw it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

Pop-up GLOBE GRAPHIC: Running away with it
Pop-up GLOBE GRAPHIC: World Series composite box
Pop-up GLOBE GRAPHIC: Title holder

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