From Mike Lowell to David Ortiz to Tim Wakefield, Terry Francona stands in the middle of it all. In some ways, the manager of the Red Sox is overseeing a clubhouse in transition, faced with many of the dilemmas no manager wants to encounter.
The 2010 Red Sox have their first official full squad workout of the season today, and Francona once again has one of the better rosters in baseball. He just might not have one of the best ones of his tenure. A fair number of players who have served Francona well over the last six years now stand on relatively unstable ground, caught between the prime of their careers and the seeming end of their time in Boston.
In Wakefield’s case, his spot in the rotation seems unsettled. In Ortiz’ case, the Red Sox probably cannot afford to be especially patient. In Lowell’s case, he is again the odd man out. In Varitek’s case, he has gone from captain and full-time starter to a backup catcher.
None of this is anyone’s fault. But if and when these issues intensify, Francona will be the one left to deal with them.
To this point in Francona’s tenure, let there be no doubt: he is one of the best, if not the best, manager in club history. People skills are his greatest asset. Overall, he has a very strong relationship with general manager Theo Epstein. None of this is a commentary on the job Francona has done so much as it is on the job he will face, particularly if things start to go wrong with a Red Sox team undergoing considerable turnover.
During Francona’s tenure, despite the perception, the Red Sox hardly have been trouble-free. In 2004, Francona’s first season in Boston, he walked into the storm that was Nomar Garciaparra’s deteriorating relationship with the organization. In 2005, while New England experienced a six-month hangover from the '04 title, he physically broke down in the earliest stages of the season. The 2006 Red Sox subsequently self-destructed following a five-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees and nearly dissolved into a mess of finger-pointing before Francona aggressively grabbed the wheel. The 2008 season featured the end of the tumultuous tussle with Manny Ramirez before last year’s end-of-season difficulties.
Only the wire-to-wire 2007 season stands out as a relative walk in the park, and rest assured that one wasn’t a picnic, either.
But this? This could be a headache from Day 1. Former Red Sox manager Jimy Williams once shook his head when discussing the challenge of dealing with veteran players because he regarded many of them as complacent and possessing a feeling of entitlement. Just ask Dante Bichette. Williams loved young players because they generally took instruction and played hard in hopes of proving themselves, and those players forever will be grateful to him. Just ask Varitek.
But now, for perhaps the first time in his career as Sox manager, Francona faces lineup decisions before the season even begins. Given the issues at the bottom of the Boston lineup, he cannot afford to be too patient with Ortiz, especially if Lowell is still on the bench. Lowell already is dissatisfied with his role – and has been since the middle of last season. Wakefield wants to be in the rotation to start the year. All of those stances are understandable given the contributions each of those men has made to the Red Sox, and yet Francona may be faced with the reality of having to tell each man something he does not want to hear.
And have I mentioned the second-guessing that will ensue if Mike Cameron fails to play well in center field if Jacoby Ellsbury shines in left? And what will happen if the Red Sox have trouble scoring runs while continuing to forgo the sacrifice bunt?
What will happen here is what always does when the Red Sox begin to struggle: everyone will blame the manager.
For all that the Red Sox have accomplished during Francona’s six-year tenure – five appearances in the playoffs, four trips to the American League Championship Series, two world titles – his best managing job may have come in 2006, the only time during his Sox career that there was no fall baseball in Boston. In August, David Wells threw up his hands in disgust after Keith Foulke blew a lead and Mike Timlin later blamed the offense, transgressions of team etiquette that sent Francona into orbit. The team subsequently traveled to the West Coast and called a team meeting, where he delivered the following message in no uncertain terms.
Enough of the nonsense. If we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose with dignity.
The infighting stopped.
This year, as the Red Sox prepare to take the field for the first time as a unit, there are already the underpinnings of unrest. Francona has shown in the past that he is fully capable of dealing with it. And yet, as the Red Sox enter what seems like a please-pardon-our-appearance phase of their evolution, the manager needs them to get off to a good start as much as anyone.
After all, if things go wrong, he stands to end up with the worst headache.
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