NEW YORK -- This is when the manager of the Red Sox truly earns his money, when Terry Francona typically is at his best. His team and its season are unraveling, and Francona has been around long enough to know that there is really only one thing he can do.
“If I go and tell ‘em to hit -- I think they’re already trying to do that,’’ Francona said early last night following a 5-0 loss to the New York Yankees that pushed the Sox 5 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East. “The energy level is there. We’ve just been putting up zeroes for a lot of innings now. I think sometimes you balance that. If I thought the effort was terrible I’d say something, but I don’t think that’s the case.’’
Screaming fits? Broken chairs? Turned-over tables? That is not Francona’s style and it never will be. It is one of the primary reasons he has lasted this long in Boston at all. Until Francona came along, the Red Sox had gone roughly 60 years without a manager who survived at least five full seasons. Francona did that while winning two World Series and making four playoff appearances, the kind of run that has made him the most successful manager in Red Sox history.
Yesterday, in particular, the manager had quite a day. Francona’s afternoon began with him attending the midday press conference conducted by David Ortiz. (Francona stood just off to Ortiz’s right and was the only uniformed member of the organization in attendance.) He shook Ortiz’s hand when the player concluded his remarks. Once the game started, Francona rushed out to the field to protect Dustin Pedroia when the player argued about a disputed foul tip. Then Francona was back on the field again after Ramon Ramirez was ejected by home plate umpire Jim Joyce, who believed that Ramirez deliberately threw at Alex Rodriguez.
After all of that, Francona fielded questions following another frustrating defeat, people wanting to know everything from the Sox’ overall level of concern to whether Francona regretted putting Kevin Youkilis in left field.
“If there’s a criticism about Youkilis playing in left field, it certainly needs to be directed at me, not him,’’ Francona said following a day on which Youkilis was involved in a pair of misplays (though neither led to a run). “He’s doing something to try to help us win games.’’
So is the manager. He’s trying to prevent any level of panic. He’s trying to keep his players upbeat and focused. He’s trying to take as much pressure off them as possible. Anyone who believes it is a manager’s responsibility to undress his troops probably does not understand baseball very well and certainly does not understand Terry Jon Francona.
Of course, this is precisely how it is supposed to work. Up until the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, former Sox skippers were all but strewn about the Mass Pike like the carcasses of broken-down cars. From Darrell Johnson to Grady Little, the job and the pressure got to them all. Then came general manager Theo Epstein, who hired Francona in the fall of 2003. Six years later, Epstein still has hired just one manager during his career -- Francona’s predecessor, Little, was hired before Epstein became GM -- and the Red Sox have unprecedented stability in the manager’s office. In Boston, when he climbs the ramps at Fenway Park to visit the front office, the manager is no longer a dead man walking to his execution; rather, he is a fully invested partner about to sit in on a planning meeting.
The manager isn’t going anywhere, folks. This year, remember, Francona is in the first year of a three-year, $12 million contract extension that runs through 2011 and contains a pair of club options through 2013. Francona didn’t panic when the Red Sox fell behind the Yankees, 3-0, in the 2004 American League Championship Series, and he didn’t panic when the Sox fell behind the Cleveland Indians, 3-1, in the 2007 ALCS. While baseball fans and pundits clamored for the Sox to alter their pitching rotation and shake up their lineup, Francona generally held steady. Largely because Francona was fully willing to accept defeat, the Sox came back to win both times.
His general philosophy: If you have to start doing desperate things to in an attempt to affect the outcome, it usually means you’re not good enough.
Three years ago, during a 2006 season that marks the only year of Francona’s Red Sox career in which the team failed to make the playoffs, the skipper of the Red Sox did what might have been his best managing job. The Red Sox were in the midst of a long August series against the Yankees, just like this team, when the wheels started to fall off. Just prior to the Yankees series, reliever Mike Timlin, in an attempt to defend Red Sox pitchers, effectively criticized the Boston offense. During the Yankees series, pitcher David Wells threw his hands up in disgust when Keith Foulke blew a save. Manny Ramirez went into Operation Shutdown and the Sox went into a flat spin, their season consumed by injury, ineptitude and frustration en route to a third-place finish.
Immediately after the Yankees swept the Sox in a five-game series, the Sox traveled out west. Prior to the road trip opener, the manager called a team meeting. Francona told his players that it was perfectly acceptable to lose so long as they continued to give effort, but that it was entirely unacceptable for them to lose with no dignity. The Sox continued their downward trend and finished 86-76, but the shenanigans stopped.
Now, three years later, the Red Sox are losing again. Incredibly, despite the current feeling around this team, they are currently a playoff team. The manager of the Sox is as frustrated as anyone else, but Francona refuses to point fingers, blow his top, lose his dignity. There is, after all, still a great deal of baseball to played.
Between now and the end of the regular season, Francona intends to learn the same thing he set out to discover when the season began in April.
He just wants to see if the Red Sox are good enough.
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