As Fox's pinch hitter, Francona connected
It’s the tried-and-true method for remaining in the public consciousness for accomplished coaches and managers who find themselves between jobs. Land a prominent role as an analyst for a year or two, offer enough insight and candor to impress future employers without being so critical as to torch any bridges, and a return to the sideline or dugout is pretty much inevitable.
Such a path has been trod by countless people who have the skill set to succeed on television, including Celtics coach Doc Rivers (who went from the Magic to ABC to the Boston bench) and Orioles manager Buck Showalter (who left ESPN to take over the Orioles in 2010).
Former Raiders and Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden is the scowling poster boy for such an approach, with his entertaining but rarely opinionated commentary on “Monday Night Football.’’ Gruden has been forthcoming about his desire to coach again since the day in April 2009 he was hired by ESPN, so if there’s any surprise with that guy’s career path, it’s that he has remained with the network as long as he has.
So in the aftermath of Terry Francona’s well-received stint filling in for analyst Tim McCarver on Fox Sports’ coverage of Games 1 and 2 of the American League Championship Series, the former Red Sox manager was asked: Is he considering giving television a shot before he pursues another managerial opening?
“Ah, I really don’t know,’’ Francona said Tuesday. “I did it for two days and it was a great experience, but my attitude was do the two and move on, and I’m completely comfortable with that.
“It wasn’t like a tryout or anything. They just needed someone to fill in. I was happy to do it. And I’m glad I did it.’’
Francona said the experience was far more enjoyable than he anticipated when Joe Buck, Fox Sports’ lead baseball play-by-play voice, called him in the days after his parting with the Red Sox and suggested he fill in for McCarver, who underwent a minor heart procedure.
“Was I reluctant at first? Hell, yeah,’’ said Francona. “When Joe first called, I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ But he said, ‘Think about it,’ and I talked to him a little bit, and I was in a place where I wasn’t feeling real good about myself and a lot was going on.
“So I called him back and he said, ‘I’m telling you, you’ll be glad you did it.’ And instead of saying no, I said yeah.’’
The partnership was mutually beneficially, for Francona brought out the best in Buck, his good friend since 1990, when Buck was a fledgling broadcaster for the Triple A Louisville franchise while Francona was hobbling through the final year of his injury-plagued major league career.
For all of Buck’s talent, he acknowledges that baseball isn’t his favorite sport to call. During a particularly uneventful game, he can seem to be on cruise control with McCarver.
But he was at his best working with and mentoring his friend Francona.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t very nervous,’’ Francona said. “I was borderline terrified. I have no experience. I did one game in the Arizona Fall League years ago, and I was terrible. I know how I feel about the game of baseball, but I’m not an announcer.
“Joe kind of convinced me of a couple of things. One, that I didn’t have to be an announcer, and just talk. And two, he would walk me through the whole thing.
“I’ll tell you what. He baby-sat me from the minute I got there. And everybody, actually. There are some great people there. They made me feel so comfortable and confident that it allowed me to give my opinion.’’
Fox took some initial criticism for choosing to pinch hit with a novice such as Francona rather than one of its established analysts such as Eric Karros or Mark Grace. Some wondered whether going with Francona was a ratings ploy, given the controversial events in Boston.
It did not take him many innings to win over the skeptics. While there were rookie mistakes - he did not offer a word during a couple of early replays - it soon became easy to appreciate his novel approach in contrast to the verbose McCarver. When he didn’t have anything to say, he didn’t say anything.
Yet he did not lack for candor and insight, providing inside baseball detail in an accessible and sometimes prescient manner, whether he was elaborating on Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler’s hitting approach with two strikes (Francona pointed out how Kinsler adjusts his feet in an attempt to hit the ball to right field a moment before he singled to right field) or raving about Texas lefty C.J. Wilson’s killer cutter (which the lefty promptly used to strike out a batter).
And he was genuinely funny, whether he was lamenting that he wasn’t allowed to chew tobacco and curse in the broadcast booth or joking when the camera focused on the animated Victor Martinez Jr., the young son of Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez, that he was either waving to the camera or “had spotted the hot dog guy.’’
Francona showed the engaging personality that Red Sox fans came to appreciate through his weekly interviews with WEEI and his postgame press conferences on NESN during his eight years in Boston. While his tenure with the Sox ended in stunning controversy, his Fox stint stood as a reminder that he’s a baseball man of great acumen, one who shouldn’t be tuned out but makes it enjoyable to tune in.
If his image needs any rehabilitating before he manages again, television is the perfect instrument.
“[Fox] wanted me to talk as a manager, a guy that had just seen these teams,’’ Francona said. “Again, not as an announcer, because I don’t know how to do that. But as a guy who had that recent familiarity. And that makes sense, because that’s what I do, that’s who I am, and that’s what I did.
“Joe told me I’d walk away happy and being glad I did it. And he was right. This was a unique experience. Who knows, maybe it’s one I’ll have again.’’