Here's one foolproof way to find out if a Red Sox fan knows what the hell he or she is talking about. Simply hit him/her with this question: Say there, friend, what do you think of Terry Francona?
If said fan breaks into easy praise of the man they call Tito, cool.
Pull up a barstool, order a couple of frosty beverages, and enjoy some enlightened Sox chatter with a fellow diehard. Good fun.
However, should he/she start in with a raspberry-faced, raspy rant on "that idiot Fran-coma!!," well, we fear you've found yourself a genuine Sports-Talk-Radio Caller, the kind of lonesome loser who waits on hold for an hour and 45 minutes just to get hung up on after 20 seconds of airtime by a swollen, moderately informed professional bloviater. In encountering such beasts, it's best just to nod your head and back away slowly. That is, unless you like getting splattered by a hailstorm of idiot spittle.
All right, perhaps we're tilting a wee bit toward exaggeration here, and in a region in which second-guessing the Red Sox manager falls somewhere between a pastime and a birthright, the Francona bashing is understandable to a point. Old habits and all that. But times changed officially and infinitely for the better on the emancipating night of Oct. 27, 2004, and even for those who still search for sad comfort in misery, it's downright dumbfounding that they don't recognize how fortunate they are that Francona manages their favorite team. How soon they forget about the motley crew of preening narcissists (Kennedy, Kevin), slithering backstabbers (Kerrigan, Joe), and folksy nitwits (Little, Grady Bleepin') who preceded him in the home manager's office at Fenway.
This is the absolute truth: Francona is the best manager the Red Sox have had in your lifetime, and your dad's and dear ol' granddad's as well. (We'll spare the debate of Bill Carrigan's merits for today.) Some might argue that Francona is merely the runner-up to Dick Williams for such a truism, and the reason for such an opinion is apparent: The sweet sentiment of the "Impossible Dream" lingers with those whose lifelong affection for the Sox blossomed in the magical summer of '67. But that belief -- it's just plain incorrect.
There's a reason Williams ricocheted from one managerial gig to the next; he was Wilfred Brimley in a ball cap, a black cloud ruining a sunny day. Nowadays, his grumpy old man routine would cut it just long enough for his resident superstar to snort, turn his back, put on his headphones, and punch up Scott Boras on his BlackBerry.
Francona? He's the ultimate modern manager, well-rounded, communicative, and open-minded. He's an old-school, second-generation baseball lifer who also appreciates the progressive merits of statistical analysis. He's engaging and wry, a people person who deftly charms the ultra-cynical Boston media without ever spilling much resembling inside information.
Perhaps most important, his respect and affection for his players is genuine and reciprocated. He can relate to the citizens of his clubhouse on a personal, man-I've-been-there level, because during his 10-year major league playing career, he was every one of them at one time or another: The Big Man on Campus (he was the college player of the year in 1980 at Arizona and a first-round draft pick), The Hotshot Rookie (he arrived with the Expos in '81 as one of the game's elite prospects), The Injured Guy (devastating knee injuries robbed him of his early promise), and The Veteran Just Hanging On (he spent his latter career as the exact player Sean Casey is right now).
Francona's real baseball legacy is being built well after his playing days ended, and at the rate his managerial career is going, he may someday have something else in common with Williams:
Enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Exaggeration? Not if you objectively consider the resume he's built during his five seasons in the Boston dugout (the second-longest continuous tenure in franchise history): He's made outwitting the Angels' Mike Scioscia -- the consensus best manager in baseball despite a magic mountain of evidence suggesting otherwise -- an annual October tradition. During the cathartic 2004 postseason, Francona outmanaged Scioscia, Joe Torre, and Tony La Russa, and how's that for a triple play? He entered this season's American League Championship Series with a 25-10 record in the postseason, a .714 winning percentage that is the highest among managers with at least 20 postseason games. He's 8-0 in the World Series, and should the Sox overcome the pesky Rays in the ALCS, he'll have a better-than-decent shot at winning his third championship in five seasons. Bill Belichick, we might note, has won three in the past seven seasons, and that will likely become eight come January. Tell me again: Who's the resident New England sports genius?
If Francona has a flaw, it's that he sometimes puts loyalty ahead of logic, and that's typically the cause of his occasional strategic hiccups. From allowing Josh Beckett to give up the lead three separate times to putting his faith in rickety Mike Timlin, it's fair to say Game 2 of the ALCS didn't feature Francona's finest innings. But his cachet is such that, even on his bad nights, you must assume he had information and insight unavailable to you on the couch. At the least, he'll usually explain his line of thinking in the postgame.
Really, that's all you can ask. We're not claiming Francona's the perfect manager, for there is no such thing. But at this particular moment in this particular city, he's the ideal one. If you'd put down the telephone, take a sledgehammer to your radio, and pay attention, you might just realize as much.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org