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Managing to thrive

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / March 23, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Sitting in the shade of the third base dugout on a recent sunny morning here, Red Sox manager Terry Francona began his daily session with the media by pulling out his cellphone and replaying a voicemail he'd received in the aftermath of signing a three-year contract extension.

The caller was clearly agitated.

"I just found out from a doctor friend who lives up there that those people have lost their [expletive] minds," the message began. "Theo Epstein and your good friend, the very personable Larry Lucchino, gave your ass a three-year contract with two option years? They've lost their friggin' minds. Do they want to win? You stunk as a player and anybody who knows anything about this game knows you're not a very good manager. Why would they make a mistake like that?

"You tell Brad Mills and all those guys that I think it's good somebody is that stupid enough to give you a contract extension, so they can keep their jobs."

Had Francona's cellphone number popped up on one of those Internet message boards where he is routinely referred to as "Francoma?"

Nah. This was an inside job. The man who left the message was Marty Brennaman, the longtime Reds broadcaster who has been friends with Francona since he played for Pete Rose's teams in Cincinnati in the late '80s.

You can afford to laugh when you're Terry Francona and you've just signed a $12 million contract that has placed you near the very top of the salary scale for major league managers, and your deal is structured in such a way that you could become just the second manager in the 107-year history of the franchise to remain on the job for as long as a decade.

But in an area where the football coach, Bill Belichick of the Patriots, is routinely regarded as a genius, Brennaman's spoof of Francona's critics was a humorous reminder that the Sox manager does not yet elicit similar acclaim for his skills, despite a résumé as glittering as any manager the club has ever had.

Two World Series titles in four seasons on the job. Eight Series wins without a loss, the most Series wins without a loss in history. Three postseason appearances in four seasons, including the team's first division title since 1995. A regular-season winning percentage (.579) exceeded only by Hall of Famer Joe McCarthy (.606) among those who have managed the Sox for at least 350 games.

So why hasn't somebody already picked out a block of laminated basswood for Armand LaMontagne to carve another statue of a Boston sports icon?

Because it's different, Joe Torre said, when you manage in Boston or New York.

"When you're in those two cities, it's not what you did last week, it's what you do next week," said Torre, who will go to the Hall of Fame for winning four World Series titles in a span of five seasons with the Yankees, but still had a parting of the ways with the Bombers last fall after they failed for the sixth straight season to advance to the Series, leading him to a job with the Dodgers.

"The passion in the two cities, it's just ongoing, so even though you can feel pretty proud of what you've accomplished, you know that as long as you're wearing the uniform you better be thinking ambitiously. I mean, I learned it's a different set of pressures for him. All you heard about was 1918. Then he wins the World Series. Now what? A Red Sox fan I ran into right after they won the first World Series - I was in Florida - recognized me. He says, 'The only problem is, we have nothing to bitch about anymore.'

"It's funny stuff, but it puts more pressure on you. Now that you've proven you can do it, you need to do it again."

Mysterious lack of recognition
Francona, who cut his teeth and took some hits managing in Philadelphia, where in four seasons the Phillies twice lost more than 90 games, has an understanding of where the fans are coming from in any discussion comparing him with Belichick.

"The baseball manager in Boston is always going to be open to second-guessing because people care so much," he said. "Everybody thinks they know baseball because they've all played it. That's just the way it is. It's actually been pretty calm. Maybe there's been a crazy week or two. But I read about Grady [Little]. That was unbelievable. I couldn't fathom that."

But while Francona has not faced anything like the blast furnace that consumed his predecessor, Little, neither has his name been an automatic entry in conversations regarding the game's best managers. In voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America for Manager of the Year in 2004, held before the Sox became the first team in history to rally from a three-games-to-none deficit when they beat the Yankees before sweeping the Cardinals, Francona finished fifth. He placed far behind Buck Showalter, who won for guiding the Texas Rangers to a third-place finish. Last year, when the Sox won it all for the second time, Francona finished fourth (Cleveland's Eric Wedge was the winner) and did not receive a first-place vote.

(Full disclosure: I had one of two votes cast by the Boston chapter last fall and voted Francona second behind Torre.)

Dusty Baker, a two-time Manager of the Year now in his first season with the Reds, shakes his head at the lack of recognition for Francona.

"I think a lot of people probably talk about their big payroll, the players they have, this and that," Baker said. "I imagine in that organization you probably hear more about Theo [Epstein] than Francona.

"I don't know who the general manager of the Patriots is. Nothing against [Scott Pioli], but I don't know him. Terry's a heck of a guy, too. It's not easy being in that market, with everybody's expectations, and deliver."

When Pat Riley was winning back-to-back championships with the NBA's Lakers in the 1980s, his role was frequently diminished in public, people saying that with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, all Riley had to do was roll the ball onto the floor and the Lakers would win. Francona, who can write the names of David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez on his lineup card on a daily basis, hears some of the same stuff.

It's nonsense, Torre says.

"We've talked so often about the personalities of the Red Sox - they're all over the place," Torre said. "But Don Mattingly and I have talked about this: When they get between the lines, they're united.

"To me, there's only one place where that can come from, and that's your manager. Whether the manager is laid-back, has meetings, or talks to one guy at a time, it's certainly a reflection of the manager. I know Terry certainly doesn't crave that kind of validation. I'm still looking at it from afar, and I know this young man and I know how much he cares, but I don't know why [the lack of recognition] is."

Respect where it counts
Through the work of Bill James, who pioneered meaningful statistical analysis in baseball and wrote a book about baseball managers 10 years ago, and others, like the folks at Baseball Prospectus, it's possible to draw a snapshot of Francona's in-game strategy. He doesn't bunt much - the organization does not believe in giving up outs - he infrequently uses pinch hitters, his team attempted more steals last season, and his decisions to intentionally walk a batter rarely backfired. His starters threw 100 or more pitches fewer times the last two seasons than they did in 2005, the number of quality starts spiked last season, and his relievers were much more effective while used in roughly the same numbers last season.

But focusing on how Francona is regarded by people outside the game is missing the point, said pitcher Curt Schilling, who has been with Francona in both Philadelphia and Boston.

"In the game, I think it's what it should be," Schilling said. "He's very highly respected and highly regarded. I think one of very few similarities he and I have is that he could give a [expletive] about what people outside the game think. He cares what his players think, what his organization thinks, what his family thinks, and I don't think he really cares beyond that.

"That's one of his strengths. Anybody in baseball that knows the game has an immense amount of respect for him. The Kevin Kennedys of the world [former Sox manager, current Fox analyst] know how impossibly hard this job is. Not only is he good at it, he's still got his sanity, and there's a lot of guys who don't have that after managing for a year here."

Unlike Schilling, third baseman Mike Lowell barely knew Francona before he came here.

"I think he's respected more within the game than on the outside," he said. "I think other managers and players understand the market he is in. Tito's not a big guy to write a book about the fundamentals of pitching, or his bunt defense philosophy, so he doesn't advertise it. That doesn't mean he's not good at it.

"Tom House as a pitching coach, well he has 17 videos coming out. That's not Tito's style. I think players like that, because the attention is not on him in this market. That would be just another distraction if your manager craves attention.

"I think also he's sarcastic, he's funny. Everyone says Belichick is funny and all that, but he doesn't portray that to the media. He portrays it as, you know, this is straight business, I've got to work on my game plan and all that. I think Francona's style makes him more approachable. It leads people to say he's not into that grind of writing out lineups, but he is. You can't not be if you're succeeding at this level."

There may be no one who understands better the vagaries of a Francona-vs.-Belichick comparison than the football coach himself. Belichick, who estimates he watches 10 to 15 games a year, including two or three where he takes his kids to Fenway, notes that his spring sport growing up was lacrosse, so he claims no special baseball expertise.

Belichick, who said by phone he was in Florida "looking for football players" but also paid a visit to old friend Tony La Russa, the Cardinals manager, in spring training, said he probably speaks with Francona several times a year.

"If it's true, then it's unfortunate, because what Terry has done is so special," Belichick said of Francona not receiving his due. "They went so long without winning and now they have won two [World Series]. But that's the way it is in sports.

"For a certain element, whatever you do is not good enough, whether you've won 18 straight games, won a World Series or an MVP. Instead, they'll talk about a bad pass or a bad game.

"But that's sports, and I don't begrudge it. That's the way it is. I'm sure Terry is very comfortable with himself and the job he's done. What someone else thinks, what are you going to do about it? If you spent all your time worrying about that, you couldn't do your job. The guy that has to be satisfied with you is your owner."

Sox captain Jason Varitek said Francona wins points just for breaking the 0-for-86 Series slump. "That in itself was a difficult obstacle," Varitek said. "And he may not get the recognition he deserves from the strategy side. There's more strategy in football, more quiet strategy in baseball. And there's a huge human element in baseball."

There's no overstating how well Francona handles people, Schilling said.

"I don't think managing the game of baseball is what Tony La Russa thinks it is," Schilling said. "I don't think it's being the smartest guy in the dugout. To me it's like the President, who you surround yourself with defines you. Tito's got the best bench coach in the game, he's got some of the best base coaches I've ever been around, the hitting coach, the best pitching coach I've ever been around.

"Those are the guys who coach the players. Tito manages the game, but has help managing the game. To me, it's like running a Fortune 500 company, putting people in the best possible position to succeed. That makes him the best manager."

Approach and atmosphere
Francona is back in the dugout again. "I was on the Dan Patrick show," he said, referring to the nationally syndicated talk-show, "and he asked me, 'If you were going to steal something from the White House, what would it be?'

The Sox had just been honored by President Bush. "I didn't know where to go with that," Francona said. "Then he said, 'Would you rather be asked about steroids?' I said, 'Maybe.' "

Someone asked Francona if there is a point just before the game that he walks into the clubhouse and tells his players that it was time to focus on that night's game.

"I usually go to the dugout around 6:30 or so," he said. "Depends who's on our club. In '04, I started to leave early, because 20 of 7 Johnny Damon was naked, then 5 after 7, he's on second, fully clothed.

"I guess part of it is I trust them. I trust they're ready to play."

On another morning, alone in his office, Francona talked further about how he approaches his job.

"We have a great team," he said. "I know that. I know that we have a big payroll and we're supposed to be good. But we also deal with other things here to try to make an atmosphere conducive to where they can play.

"That's an important part of what we do. I've adjusted my thinking about some of the things I've wanted to do, because it wouldn't help us to be better. What I'm trying to do really hard is have an atmosphere where these guys want to do the right thing and where they feel like they can do the right thing, and when they don't do the right thing, they don't get pummeled.

"There are times if I have to say something, I'll back off and do it later. There are other people that will trounce on them. Somebody has to protect them. That's me."

In 2008, on a Red Sox team that has won two World Series in four seasons, somebody might argue that's the sign of a good manager. Best that they don't hand a phone to Marty Brennaman, though.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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