John Farrell stepped to the podium for the first time as manager of the Red Sox, and within seconds of opening his mouth he assured us this will be different. Farrell teased Ben Cherington about needing "quality" players, a playful remark that was both funny and, as is often the case, true.
Farrell grinned. Cherington laughed. And the Red Sox were devoid of all the nonsense, antics and tension that came along with their previous self-promoting and sorry excuse for a skipper.
Whether Farrell and Cherington will succeed here is anybody's guess, so let's not get so giddy today that we toss common sense into the dumpster with the parody that was Bobby Valentine. All we really know now is that the Red Sox should be free of the dysfunction that ate at them throughout the 2012 season, from the moment the three-headed monster of John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino forced Valentine onto Cherington like some outgrown suit to be worn on Easter Sunday. The beauty of Farrell is that everybody wanted him and Farrell wanted to be here, so the Red Sox should be able to communicate and function the way a storied franchise is supposed to.
No controversies over the coaches. No disputes about the shortstop. No politicking over the role for someone like Daniel Bard, whether Cherington and Farrell agree or not, because there is certainly the sense that the Red Sox are again working together.
At least for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, the contrasts were striking on Tuesday, from Farrell's inaugural press conference at Fenway Park to Valentine's nighttime interview with Bob Costas, to whom Valentine continued to spew his political garbage. Valentine's latest jab was delivered at David Ortiz, the former manager claiming Ortiz "decided not to play anymore" after the August trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Whether Valentine is right or wrong is hardly the issue. The point is that nobody gives a damn what Valentine thinks anymore because he was nothing short of a caricature during his time here.
Think of it. A year ago, Cherington was forcing jokes with Valentine, trying to give the appearance of chemistry. There wasn't any. There never was. Meanwhile, Valentine came and left Boston with the vain notion that a manager makes the players and not the other way around, something Farrell dismissed the moment he stepped to the podium.
Get me some players, Ben. Or we're screwed.
And this time the chemistry was real.Unlike Valentine, too, Farrell knows exactly what he is in for here, and it speaks volumes that he was willing to come back. Farrell remains close with Terry Francona, for whom he served as pitching coach, and we all know Francona's tenure here did not end well. Francona's breakup with his bosses was so bitter that he initially and rather publicly declined to attend the 100-year anniversary celebration of Fenway Park, and you can bet your life that Francona has informed Farrell of whom (not) to trust.
And yet, Farrell came back. He wanted to come back. In the process, he jilted a Toronto Blue Jays organization that had doubts about him anyway, no matter the half-hearted protestations coming from north of the border.
The challenges Farrell now faces in Boston are considerable, and he is well aware of the holes on the Red Sox roster, no matter how many times he talked about the core of talent the Red Sox still possess. Yes, Farrell has a handful of decent-to-good relievers to go along with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury, among others. But he also made reference to the need for starting pitching and "a couple" of hitters, the latter of which just happen to be the kind that reside in the middle of the lineup.
What the Red Sox lack, of course, is centerpieces. A true ace. A legitimate No. 3 hitter. The chances of getting either this offseason seem decidedly slim, either on the free agent market or via trade.
Nonetheless, we all know this wasn't really a 69-win team in the literal sense, that the Red Sox folded like a pocket schedule in the wake of the Aug. 25 deal that essentially signified the end of their season. After Beckett, Gonzalez, and Crawford were dealt, the Sox went a wretched 9-27 over their final 36 games, the kind of ineptitude that hadn't been seen here since the Joe Kerrigan era. The Red Sox of this September were an absolute laughingstock, on the field and off, internally and externally.
For whatever it is worth, Farrell, like Kerrigan, is a former pitching coach, and the list of those who have successfully transitioned from pitching coach to manager is relatively short. There are many theories as to why. Pitching is proactive, singular in focus, a special skill. Positional players have to hit, run, field, throw. Farrell even acknowledged that his desire for an "up-tempo" style - that is, a running game - is borne from his experience as a pitcher, when he found the presence of potential base stealers to be distracting.
And yet, this year's American league champions, the Detroit Tigers, ranked 13th in the league in stolen bases. Last year's World Series winners, the St. Louis Cardinals, ranked dead last in the NL. The 2010 San Francisco Giants similarly ranked last in their league, which puts stolen bases well behind pitching and hitting in the must-have category.
Nonetheless, Farrell is unique even among pitching coaches because of his background, smarts, polish, and toughness. He was a director of player development with the Cleveland Indians. He is smart enough to know what he does not know. And unlike Valentine, Farrell understands good managing means taking virtually none of the credit and most all of the blame, that passing the buck ultimately gets you a worthless interview on the Bob Costas show.
Maybe Farrell will lead the Red Sox back to a championship and maybe he won't.
But at least he isn't a sideshow.
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