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The calmest man in the clubhouse

He’s won two championships and cemented a special place in Red Sox history. But manager Terry Francona has accomplished something even more astounding during his six years in baseball’s craziest job: simply staying normal.

By Charles P. Pierce
May 23, 2010

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There’s a lot to be said for the second day of the season.

Opening day – or, excuse us, Opening Day. Or, perhaps, OPENING DAY! – is now a baseball cliche, an annual quasi-holiday for goldbricks. It’s when fans and pseudo-fans alike dust off all those verdant Giamattian odes to renewal and springtime and take them out for a walk, trading the lovely myth of Persephone for a celebration of well-barbered and richly appointed tin-pot nostalgia. It is the second day when baseball truly begins.

People are back at their desks, in the financial district or up on Beacon Hill. The jet fighters no longer roar overhead. The classic-rock undead no longer stalk the luxury suites, and the children doing freakish recitations of movie pep talks have been boxed up and transported to wherever the next row of microphones is set up. The second day is nothing more than the shouts of the people getting the park cleaned up for that night’s game and the low rumbling of small trucks and forklifts under the grandstand. Players arrive a few at a time, but not so many that their chatter drowns out the flat-screen in the middle of the room. Coaches walk around, heads down, studying computer printouts. The Red Sox clubhouse is no longer a place to be seen, the way it was on opening day, and the way it will be during the playoffs, if there are playoffs. On the second day, like the ballpark in which it’s housed, the clubhouse becomes just another place where people come to go to work, and Terry Francona is just another guy in his office at the beginning of the working day.

It’s more like an office than it used to be. The manager’s hole in the Sox clubhouse used to be equal parts office and after-hours saloon. It was shadowy and dank and forbidding, and so were far too many of the men who came to work there. Now, though, it’s bright and well-furnished. The desk is new and clean. Absent all the memorabilia and the gleaming wooden cribbage board on the right side of the desk, it might be the office of an unusually successful senior executive of an unusually successful firm making an unusually successful product. Which, in fact, is more or less what it is.

“The second day, it’s pretty much getting into the grind of the season,” Francona says. “You want to get all the firsts out of the way. I mean, everybody likes baseball on opening day. The flyovers are cool. But there’s always that anxiety to win, to say let’s play and get into the grind and then we’ll see how good we are.

“Hopefully you can get into a bit of a routine, because the guys are so routine-oriented, and myself, very much so. There’s always a lot of days off at the beginning of the season because of the weather, so guys are used to playing [in spring training], and then all of a sudden they don’t play. You want to get into the grind so you can see how good you are, or if you’re not good.”

The second day is also when everything else begins. The decisions and the second-guessing. The howling on the radio and the endless drip-drip-drip of edgy anxiety that comes with the job of managing an elite sports entertainment enterprise, made up of 25 fractious and insecure individuals, that is expected to succeed, year after year, in a place that obsesses about the product. That all starts on the second day, too, because the showbiz kids and the local celebrities are gone, and the team and its manager have the spotlight all to themselves again. It can blind you with its glare or roast you with its heat.

“We’re supposed to be good, and it’s hard to be good,” Francona muses. “There are times when it wears on you, especially in this town. On the other hand, I don’t know how many other places you show up where you feel you have a legitimate chance to win, every year.” Of course, while he “feels” his team has a chance to win every year, most of his customers “know” this to be a fact. Careers can disappear in the chasm between those two verbs, and he knows it. The trick is knowing it without ever letting it show. “He’s the same guy he ever was,” says outfielder Mike Cameron, who was coached by Francona in the rookie leagues 19 years ago and has gotten off to a shaky start in his first season with the Sox. “He knows about keeping everything intact.”

“I like coming to work,” says Francona, who lives in Brookline. “It’s a hard thing to explain, but I like it and it’s hard. There are times when it feels almost overwhelming, but I don’t know how else to do it. I don’t know how to turn the phone off or to turn this game off. I need to be here.”

He stops for a moment and greets DeMarlo Hale, the bench coach, who’s dropped by the office to begin his working day. The clubhouse is filling up fast, and it’s hard to hear the TV now, with all the cross talk. It’s the second day of baseball, and the season has finally begun.

Scholars have long disputed the value of simply being normal. Carl Jung pointed out that “to be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful,” which seems a bit harsh. Albert Camus was more sympathetic, noting that “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” Which means that Camus is a great deal more likely to have been able to manage a Major League baseball team, because in that job, to be able to create and to maintain a sense of being normal over a nearly seven-month season – if you’re lucky enough to make the World Series, that is – is nothing short of a gift, and in Terry Francona’s case, it is very much the ideal aim of the very successful.

“That’s a big part of it,” Francona admits. “I want there to be an atmosphere where they want to show up every day and do the right thing. We can have rules out the [expletive], but if they want to do the right thing, we’ll be a better team. It’s about consistency. If they win the other night or if they don’t, they don’t need to come in here and see me either bouncing off the walls or dragging my tail. It doesn’t work. It’s got to be the same every day.

“I know there’s a segment of our fan base that wants to see Billy Martin [the famously volatile manager of, most notably, the New York Yankees of the 1970s and ’80s ] come out and scream. That doesn’t help. My job is to not make life more difficult for our players. I just think that whenever there’s a big urge in me to lose it, that’s probably the time for me not to lose it. The guys are losing their poise anyway. So I’ve got to rein myself in, because that’s just the way our team works better.”

Which is part of the reason, a couple of weeks later, that he calls and explains why he wants to postpone having his picture taken as part of this story. The team is struggling. The town is restless, and he doesn’t want to pose for the generic hero shot in the middle of all of that.

“I don’t feel right, having my picture taken standing next to a wall, like I’ve got everything under control, while we’re playing this way,” Francona explains. Nothing is normal. Yet this season and in some ways the other seasons don’t count until it is.

Sparky Anderson, who managed both the Cincinnati Reds and the Detroit Tigers to World Series championships, always said that the greatest manager in the history of baseball was John McGraw of the old New York Giants. That’s because McGraw had managed the same team for 30 years. By that standard, Francona’s six consecutive full seasons with the Red Sox is his most impressive accomplishment. (He’s only the second man to do it.) Over that time, he’s become the best manager in the team’s history, and by a margin that is startling to everyone except whatever angry centenarians there are out there raging to keep alive the flame in memory of Bill Carrigan. This is a remarkable accomplishment, considering that in his only previous stint as a Major League manager, with the Philadelphia Phillies, things went so badly for Francona that by his fourth and last season there, in 2000, somebody slashed his tires in the parking lot.

Here, though, his teams have won the only two World Series championships the franchise has captured since the days of silent movies, and have done so without ever losing a World Series game. (Note: The Globe’s corporate parent, The New York Times Co., owns about 17 percent of the Sox.) Under Francona, they have made the playoffs every year save one. His teams have won nearly 60 percent of the games they’ve played, and they have not all been the same type of team, not even close. In winning each of his two world championships, Francona has had to establish normality among distinct groups of individuals with individual quirks and problems. He has won with the loud, raucous crew of “idiots” in 2004 and with a quieter, younger bunch in 2007. He has handled the many voices in the head of Manny Ramirez, and the one, single, stentorian bellow of Curt Schilling’s ego. He finessed the end of Pedro Martinez’s glorious career here in 2004, and he nurtured future MVP Dustin Pedroia through a horrendous slump when Pedroia first entered the starting lineup three years later.

“In ’04,” Francona explains, “I’d come from Philadelphia, where I had a young team, so I made some rules. Then I came here, and Johnny Damon had hair down to here. But I liked the way they were getting a personality. They had an identity, and they were together, so, yeah, I did try to get out of the way. I didn’t try to impose my will. In ’07, if the clubhouse was measured by decibel level, we wouldn’t have been as good.

“In ’04, it all happened so fast. I didn’t live here. I was new here, and that probably was a good thing. I didn’t know a lot. Then I moved up here, and I was kind of like, ‘Oh, [expletive].’ I started getting how important it was to people here.”

The job has eaten people alive. Joe McCarthy drank too much, and so did John McNamara. Pinky Higgins tipped a few, as well, but that was just one of his problems. He also was an unmitigated racist whom the team hired as manager twice. (He later became general manager.) Grady Little made one huge mistake in a playoff game against the Yankees in 2003 and pretty much wrecked his managing career. A year later, Francona’s team was down three games to none in the playoffs against those same Yankees, and it all turned around for him. It seems that Terry Francona’s greatest gift is his gift for the normal in a job that is anything but normal.

These days, the 51-year-old’s health is more fragile than it appears. His playing career was hampered by multiple injuries, and over the past decade he’s endured serious problems involving staph infections and recurring blood-clotting. And so he is trying to keep the normal in his life, which includes his wife, Jacque, and four children, cultivating it as carefully in his home as he cultivates it in his work. It’s a gift, like all gifts, that he’s had to refine in himself.

“It’s almost like having a father figure here,” says Daniel Bard, the flamethrowing young relief pitcher whose role on the team has expanded this year. “He’s on your side, and he knows about not over-exaggerating a great outing or a really bad one. He does a good job of reminding us that it’s a 162-game season.”

And this season, like all seasons, resists normality in its own unique way. The team started very badly, dropping six out of seven games at home to the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston’s primary competition in the American League East. The club’s starting pitchers, who were supposed to be part of the team on which Francona could most depend, all began badly. He’d been handed a team reconfigured by general manager Theo Epstein to rely on pitching and defense, and the defense was as shoddy as the starting pitching. He also had a knotty problem in clubhouse diplomacy involving aging stars David Ortiz and Mike Lowell, made worse when Ortiz began the season barely hitting .200. As May began, some things that had gone wrong began to go right, most notably the starting pitching, but the day-to-day lineup was still uncertain, and the team remained behind both New York and Tampa Bay. There was no normal to the beginning of the season. Terry Francona had to find it all over again, and he didn’t want his picture taken until he had.

“I’m just uncomfortable with it,” he says. “You understand, right?”

When John Patsy (Tito) Francona brought his son into any one of the nine Major League clubhouses in which he worked during his peripatetic 15-year career in the majors – Terry was born in 1959, in Aberdeen, South Dakota – all the other players called the boy “Little Tito.” Gradually, the kid grew up and the adjective fell away, and by the time he was ready to start a career of his own, Terry Francona was carrying his father’s nickname for good. He doesn’t use it himself; he introduces himself as “Terry Francona,” but there’s hardly anyone else who doesn’t call him Tito. “I don’t mind at all,” says the son today. “I’ve been called worse.”

Terry Francona was a genuine phenom. He led the University of Arizona to the College World Series championship in 1980 and was drafted by the Montreal Expos. One of his first acts was to talk his way out of the Single A minor leagues and onto Montreal’s Double A team in Memphis. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay healthy. By 1990, when he was released by the Milwaukee Brewers, he’d bounced between first base and the outfield his entire career, and he’d had operations on his shoulder, his wrist, and his knee. “When I got injured and I couldn’t play the game, that’s when I missed it,” he recalls. “I was 24 years old, and I wasn’t playing, and that was hard. I’d come to the ballpark, and I’d be like a caged animal sometimes. I’d never in my life not played. I’d run. I’d lift. I’d do anything to burn off energy. I didn’t handle it well.” He gave it one more shot, agreeing to go to the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple A team in Louisville, Kentucky, where he played 86 games. Then, he says, he put his equipment bag “in the closet” and went off to learn how to sell real estate. It didn’t take. The Chicago White Sox offered him a job in their minor league system as a hitting instructor. It was the lowest rung on the ladder and Francona grabbed at it.

“I didn’t want to be a hitting instructor, but I loved it,” he says. “I loved the job. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I knew what I felt about the game, but I had never tried to tell someone else.”

What the White Sox saw was someone uniquely capable of handling brand new professional ballplayers. Francona later managed in the Arizona Fall League, where one of his players was a promising shortstop prospect named Nomar Garciaparra. “What struck me” about Francona, says Steve Cobb, the league’s director, “was his ability to manage people. He was a very good listener and he could relate very well to the younger players.” What those players sought, most of whom were away from home for the first time and none of whom had any experience at the professional level at all, was some sense of belonging. They wanted to feel normal. Francona was able to convey that.

He worked his way through the White Sox system. By 1993, he was managing the team’s Double A affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama. On this day, he got to the ballpark at 7 in the morning, the way he always did, and was called into a meeting in the trailer that functioned as the team’s offices. He was told that, starting immediately, he was going to be handed something unprecedented, an authentic phenomenon that was going to test the limits of normal in every way they could be tested. The world’s most famous athlete was going to come down and try to play baseball.

“I woke up a little when they told me,” Francona recalls. A couple of weeks later, Ted Koppel wanted to cover his team.

To this day, there are conspiracy theories. By 1993, the theories go, the National Basketball Association was scared to death about the gambling proclivities of Michael Jordan, the game’s biggest star. According to the people inclined to see wheels within wheels, the NBA told Jordan to take an informal two-year suspension, during which time Jordan decided that he wanted to try to become a baseball player. Whatever his motivation, Jordan signed up with the White Sox, and in 1994 the White Sox sent him to Birmingham, where Terry Francona would be his manager.

It was just what baseball needed. The sport was about to be paralyzed by the worst labor dispute in its history, a strike that would cancel that year’s World Series. Jordan’s sudden descent upon the game’s bus leagues was exactly the kind of distraction the game was looking for. The Birmingham Barons were an instant sensation. Koppel showed interest. Tom Brokaw visited the team one day. Birmingham played to full ballparks all around the league.

Jordan struggled mightily; he simply couldn’t hit real baseball pitching. Meanwhile, Francona tried to maintain a consistent routine, for Jordan’s sake, but also for the sake of the other players on the roster, whose chances of making the Major Leagues were far better than Jordan’s ever were. “The word around the club was that you’d get fined if you mentioned the word ‘circus,’ ” says Curt Bloom, a longtime friend of Francona’s and the team’s radio voice, talking about how Francona and the coaching staff tried – all in fun – to establish some sense of normality itself. “Then it went to ‘rock star’ and ‘rock tour.’ Those got banned.” Once, the staff heard a rumor that Francona himself had used the word “circus” and jokingly called him in to reprimand him, even though Francona had never said it.

“Because he’d been exposed to a Major League life his whole life, Tito handled it like nobody else I know could have,” Bloom says. “I don’t think Tito was overwhelmed. I knew it was the perfect fit. I knew he wouldn’t be overwhelmed. He wouldn’t treat it like a circus. They were about the same age. They shared the same generation.”

Francona worked hard to keep the phenomenon from swamping the franchise. He joked about handing Jordan the $16 per diem that Double A

players were granted for their meals. He and Jordan played marathon games of Yahtzee on the bus. (Jordan didn’t like to lose.) And he came out of the whole thing with a healthy respect for the endless wilderness of hype in which simply playing the game every day can get lost.

“It taught me to be organized, and it gave me a lot of experience that nobody else gets at the Double A level,” Francona says. “You live and learn, and you find out about all the things you need to do as a Major League manager, about talking to athletes and to star guys. ESPN didn’t want to hear about Randy Hood or Mike Robertson, who were both working as hard as Michael was. I don’t know if I knew I was learning it at the time. I was just trying to survive.”

His health has been compromised by complications after his various surgeries. Between the 2002 and 2003 seasons, he was hospitalized for several weeks after knee surgery because of staph infections and blood clots, which are now being controlled by something called a Greenfield filter that was implanted to prevent what otherwise might be a fatal thrombosis. At one point in that period, he nearly lost his right leg. Francona recalls during that time being moved from an open room to something like a penthouse. He was convinced that they were setting him up to deliver some really bad news. “I remember telling the guy, ‘OK, tell me the truth. I’m dying, right?’ ” In 2005, he had to leave a game at Yankee Stadium because of chest pains.

“I’ve got to be careful. I didn’t used to feel fragile. I used to feel indestructible. I have to keep an eye on things now. There are days when I’m on my feet a lot and I gotta sit down for a while.”

He is sitting down now, after the second game of the year, a tough 6-4 loss to the Yankees. He is wearing his trademark red windshirt and the round glasses that make him look like an English professor just in from a run. It is already time for a crisis. David Ortiz isn’t coming close to hitting the ball, and the questions are beginning to fly at Francona about replacing Ortiz as the designated hitter with Mike Lowell. “I really don’t think two games is enough to judge,” he says. “If he goes 0-for-4 or 3-for-4 this early, it’s not how you judge him for the season. It would be nice to get him on track, though.” The second day of the season is always when the job of baseball begins again, and normal seems as elusive as ever.

Charles P. Pierce is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at cpierce@globe.com.

THE LONG VIEW Terry Francona, who posed for this portrait after some hesitation, manages to keep his cool no matter what the club's record is. (Photograph by Josh Campbell) THE LONG VIEW
Terry Francona, who posed for this portrait after some hesitation, manages to keep his cool no matter what the club's record is.
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