Patience pays off for wily Francona
He was hired after a seven-hour interview in November 2003, though his boss, Theo Epstein, wondered aloud at the time, "Is he too nice?"
He has been fired thousands of times over the course of four summers by people who pledge allegiance (obsession?) to the Red Sox and scream, "Has he got a clue?"
Has he got a clue?!? Does pine tar go on bats? Does the rosin bag have a home on the mound?
Yes, Terry Francona has got a clue.
He's also got his fingerprints all over two World Series trophies, a 22-9 postseason record, three playoff appearances in four years, a .579 winning percentage, and a World Series record (the only manager to go undefeated in his first eight games).
But what is at the heart of Francona is this: He most definitely understands that loyal fans form an unwavering foundation to the Boston Red Sox, so when they vent, part of him appreciates the passion. It's just that this baseball lifer is firmly committed to a way of doing his job that serves his players and team management first, not the fans' fickleness.
"If I'm not confident enough to know what I'm doing, they've got the wrong guy," said Francona, who concedes he reads the newspapers and knows how fans are reacting on sports talk radio. "[But] if I wake up in the morning and I let what somebody said affect my day, then shame on me. If I let it affect the way I manage, that's a very bad move on my part."
It is here where Eddie from Everett, Tyler from Tyngsborough, or Wally from Worcester could recite a litany of "bad moves" by Francona, their lives perhaps irreparably damaged by any number of the 273 regular-season losses suffered by the Red Sox since 2004. (And who cares that they have won 375 times during that time?) After all, Jonathan Papelbon hasn't converted every save situation. Nor has David Ortiz hit a walkoff home run in every ninth inning. Why doesn't Francona plan for those times that they don't?
The manager knows the team can win games, but he can't win over all the fans, an aspect of the job he apparently accepts.
"People kept telling me, 'The place will eat you alive,' " said Francona. "But it never [has] gotten that way for me. There were a few nights I went home with a headache, but it never got to the point where I didn't think I could handle it."
His friends, however, rush to his defense.
"A lot of people don't know how good he is. He gets blasted a lot on the radio, but those fans don't know what's behind some of the decisions," said Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills, one of Francona's closest confidants. "They don't know if maybe a guy has a hamstring [injury] or a bad arm. Terry takes those bullets a lot of the time and people will never know those things. Sometimes it's important that way for competitive purposes."
It was hours before Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox having staved off elimination behind the brilliance of Josh Beckett in Cleveland two nights earlier. Now they would have to do it again, and a reporter asked Francona how he would phrase his motivational speech.
Francona offered a heavy sigh, then a wry smile.
"This isn't Sunday football," he said. "We don't meet before every game. They know how to play the game and what's expected."
There, the 48-year-old had revealed his secret blueprint. He lets his players play, puts faith in their abilities, and trusts their commitment. Nothing dramatic about that. Then again, there's no need. It's baseball, after all, not brain surgery.
"You run into a lot of guys who say they are players' managers," said Mike Timlin. "And then you never get to speak to them. Terry is quite the opposite. The door really is always open. He has the players' backs."
Ah, but that's the problem - or so the nitpickers and naysayers will suggest. Francona is too loyal to his players, and example after example will be dragged out, only these critics forget shining examples of the manager's patience proving beneficial.
In the 2004 ALCS, for example, Johnny Damon was 3 for 29 and the talk radio crowd was calling for his benching. Francona's loyalty was rewarded in arguably the most memorable Red Sox game in history, a Game 7 in Yankee Stadium in which Damon hit two home runs, including a second-inning grand slam, and drove in six runs to fuel a 10-3 win. Mark Bellhorn was another target of the fans' venom, yet it was his three-run homer in Game 6 that paved the way to that historic comeback in '04.
This season, Francona's decision to keep J.D. Drew in right field infuriated fans. Let the record show that in Game 6 of the ALCS, a mere hour after the manager had stated, "They know how to play the game and what's expected," Drew hit a first-inning grand slam, the key blow in Boston's rally from a 3-1 series deficit to a second AL pennant in four years.
By all means, credit Drew. But how about Francona, who stuck with the outfielder?
"He's a huge part of this team," said Mike Lowell in the aftermath of the Red Sox' four-game sweep of Colorado in the World Series. "He doesn't hit or pitch . . . 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."
His uncanny way of handling veterans Manny Ramírez, Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Kevin Youkilis, Jason Varitek, Drew, and Beckett has been seamlessly intertwined with his mentoring of Dustin Pedroia, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, and Jacoby Ellsbury - and all the while, what is clearly understood is that Francona is enjoying every moment.
That is why, as the anticipation built and the pressure surrounding the ALCS and World Series mounted, Francona appeared not on edge, but at ease.
"The games are so much more enjoyable this time of year," he said. "The players and the coaches that we go through this with? I'm crazy about [them]. So, I actually really enjoy it."
The constant scrutiny? He accepts that it's somewhere in the job description. Perhaps in small print, but it's there, and Francona vows that it won't break his spirit, not when he's surrounded by so many players who are equally loyal to their manager.
Jim McCabe can be reached at email@example.com.