If you will, permit me one more extended thought from what has quickly become Tito Week around here. (It's like Shark Week, but with snark instead of sharks.)
It's just that there are a couple of subtle insights in former Red Sox manager Terry Francona's new memoir that are getting lost amid the juicier anecdotes about his relationships with Manny Ramirez and Larry Lucchino and the championships and heartbreaks and other headline/excerpt material.
I want to spend a few sentences here acknowledging a couple of them, not just because they're part of what makes the book so engaging, but because they're particularly relevant to the current state and perception of the Red Sox. There are lessons to be learned here, reminders of some history that the Red Sox should strive to repeat and some they should not.
The first takes us back to August 2006. Theo Epstein was getting flame-broiled on the only significant sports radio station in the city -- talk about how things have changed -- for failing to swing a deal at the trading deadline to bolster a talented but injury-plagued roster. The Yankees went out and acquired Bobby Abreu, who promptly tormented the Red Sox in a five-game sweep that essentially lowered the curtain on Boston's season.
The backlash was brutal, the common, caterwauling refrain being that Epstein had sacrificed the season because he was unwilling to part with his precious prospects. Epstein, who had just returned to his GM chair after a brief hiatus spurred by philosophical differences with ownership (aka Sick of Lucchino Syndrome), saw it with a more clear-eyed, long-term perspective. Here's what he said at the time regarding the discipline necessary to take a big-picture approach when there's so much pressure to win immediately and annually, as recounted in the book.
"It's a longstanding impediment for the Red Sox. With the Red Sox there's been so much emphasis and building an uber team this year, so much focus on tomorrow's paper, so much focus on the Yankees. Some of that had to do with the end of the Yawkey regime. There's no doubt that we feel the only way to sustain success over a long period of time is to have a successful farm system ... Two years ago I said we were two years away. Finally we're at a point where the farm system is going to start paying dividends at the big-league level."
It actually had paid dividends before then. Jonathan Papelbon debuted on July 31, 2005, better remembered as the day Manny Ramirez was nearly traded for some baseball shepherd's pie made up of Mike Cameron, Julio Lugo, Lastings Milledge, and Aubrey Huff. Jon Lester came up in June 2006 and won his first five decisions. Kevin Youkilis emerged as a dependable everyday player in that window. Dustin Pedroia arrived in the August 2006 chaos and hasn't stopped chirping and hitting since. And just a season down the road, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz would make impressive debuts during the second World Series-winning season in four years.
That's an extraordinary collection of core players who arrived from within between championships. I don't think it requires a breaking news alert to suggest that's exactly the approach Ben Cherington is taking now. Perhaps the pressure is not the same -- the 76-113 record since September 1, 2011 has tempered daydreams of champagne celebrations and October duck boat parades just a bit -- but the discipline it takes to wait for the best of the farm system to arrive in lieu of a quick fix deserves praise.
Sure, there is risk in expecting Xander Bogaerts (my favorite Sox prospect since Hanley Ramirez) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (an on-base machine and the best defensive outfielder in the organization, Ellsbury included) to be everything their ability and the glowing Baseball America scouting reports suggest. They're being counted on to be important parts of the next great Red Sox team, and there's pressure on their shoulders. But belief in talented, determined players who are under team control for years isn't just the most prudent step toward building and sustaining a winning franchise. If it goes according to plan and the promise is fulfilled, it's far and away the most enjoyable way.
Of course, there is that gap that must be navigated until they arrive, and that brings us to an unnecessarily controversial comment Epstein made three seasons later when the franchise was at another crossroads and the next batch of prospects -- Ryan Kalish, Anthony Rizzo, Lars Anderson, Casey Kelly and Josh Reddick among them -- was presumably on the horizon.
Right -- the bridge year.
What Epstein said was more or less the same thing he said about patience in 2006, with one major difference -- he used a phrase that could easily be taken out of context, misinterpreted, and used against him in a way that had nothing to do with what he intended. Here's his original comment -- yep, the world premiere of the term we can't escape -- from December 2009:
"We talked about this a lot at the end of the year, that we're kind of in a bridge period. We still think that if we push some of the right buttons we can be competitive at the very highest levels for the next two years. But we don't want to compromise too much of the future for that competitiveness during the bridge period. We don't want to sacrifice our competitive during the bridge period just for the future. So we're trying to balance both of those issues."
As the book notes, it was a week later that the Red Sox gave a combined $98 million to John Lackey and Mike Cameron. So much for that. Cameron might have made some sense as a bridge to something younger or better -- he got hurt, and it didn't work. But Lackey was an overpriced luxury, and perhaps already damaged goods.
"I felt badly for Theo on that one,'' Francona recalls in the book. "I knew exactly what he meant, and it got taken so far out of context. I completely agreed with it when he said it. It [ticked] me off the way that it got twisted. He was saying that we're going to find a way to win, but we didn't want to commit money to players who weren't worth the money."
Which again brings us back to the present tense. The gripes about the Red Sox' approach this offseason have been consistent, if not relentless, and usually focus on their failure to sign Josh Hamilton. Who knows, maybe all of those emails and tweets are being ghost-written by NESN underlings on Tom Werner's orders, but it's disconcerting that after all the Red Sox have been through the last couple of seasons, after signing Carl Crawford for marketing rather than baseball reasons, after losing their way for a quick fix that only escalated the descent, and after getting a heaven-sent get-out-of-jail-free card last season from the Dodgers, that so many don't recognize or refuse to accept that the current approach across that bridge is the right one.
Signing proven, established, well-regarded if imperfect major league players to short-term deals is the smartest way to begin repairing this ball club, which had a truly abysmal roster last September. Chances are there will be a Mike Cameron or two among the bunch, a signing that just doesn't work out, because flops and busts always happen to every team in every single season. But many, if not most of the likes of Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew, should go a long way toward enhancing the core of Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Will Middlebrooks and David Ortiz, all of whom were hurt or uncharacteristically ineffective last year. And all the while, Bogaerts and Bradley and their prospect peers should and will be striding closer and closer to the big leagues.
That's how they escape this malaise.
I understand the skepticism to some degree -- Cherington has made mistakes (I cringe at trading young position players for relief pitchers), and this franchise has made it easy even for the few among us who don't naturally lean toward cynicism to doubt anything and everything they do. But the inability or unwillingness of so many to recognize the current approach as the most logical and the one with the highest potential payoff reminds me of one last Francona comment from the book.
He said it in regard to second-guessing he endured after deciding to pitch Tim Wakefield on regular rest rather than Josh Beckett on short rest during Game 4 of the 2007 ALCS against the Indians. But it applies on a much grander scale, particularly when it comes to those who who'd rather complain about what the Red Sox aren't doing rather than trying to understand what they are.
"I understand the fans and media second-guessing,'' Francona said. "I'm a fan. I do it. I just wish people would remember we know a few things about the team that they maybe don't know. I have more information than anybody. And it's my job to know the team."
... in his book that don't relate to drugs or Wade Boggs.
1. [Quoting his father, whose viewpoint he seems to share] Jackie Robinson was a modern-day Shaka Zulu -- he was the King who sold his own people into slavery -- so all Jackie did was sell us to Major League Baseball the same way. (pg. 28)
2. [On getting passed over for Bruce Hurst as the starter for Game 7 of the 1986 World Series] Bruce would tell you right now that I would have won that ballgame. I was a better pitcher than he was. I didn't pitch behind him in the rotation. He pitched behind me. (pg. 85)
3. If I was talking to [Josh] Beckett -- and he would listen to me -- I'd make him a great pitcher overnight. Not a really good pitcher, a great pitcher. He'd go out there overnight and turn unhittable. And if he let me call pitches from the dugout, he'd throw a no-hitter. (pg. 135)
4. Best teammate I ever had was Eddie Jurak. (pg. 137)
6. Ellis Burks was not a better baseball player than Chico Walker. (pg. 149)
7. Sammy Stewart -- can't get a better guy. (pg. 167)
8. Wes Gardner -- can't get a better guy. (pg. 167)
9. It astounded me when I met Johnny Pesky. He knew the dap handshake, the whole soul-brother handshake, tapping on your and and all that. (pg. 158)
Actually, I completely buy that one. And the one about Pesky, too.
I'm not sure whether to file "They Call Me Oil Can'' under fiction or non-fiction, and The Can, as memorable and charismatic as he was, isn't accountable for much of anything.
It's not "Ball Four'' or Dirk Hayhurst's "The Bullpen Gospels,'' but it's a fairly enjoyable read.
While wrapping up my previous post, I mentioned sort of casually how much fun it is to be re-reading "The Breaks of the Game'' again. The reaction to that note was a pleasant surprise, with several readers, tweeters and commenters either noting how much they too loved David Halberstam's classic on the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers, sharing their favorite basketball books, or in a couple of cases, asking for recommendations.
The discourse inspired me to pull together this post on my 12 favorite basketball books. While I checked this particular list twice, I should note that there are some highly-praised hoops volumes that might be noticeable in their absence. I started reading Adrian Wojnarowski's "The Miracle of St. Anthony's,'' lost it, and have yet to pick up a new one. Chris Ballard's "The Art of a Beautiful Game" is on this year's wish list. I've read most of Bill Simmons's "The Book of Basketball'' and enjoyed much of it, but I feel like there are few others more deserving of such a confidant title.
Here are my 12 favorites, in some order but with the coach's caveat that the lineup could change on any given day. Please, pass along your favorites in the comments or at @GlobeChadFinn on Twitter.
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THE STARTING FIVE ...
1. The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam (1981). Two anecdotes out of a million gems:
- On Sonics guard (and future Celtic) Dennis Johnson, who was unhappy about his contract and in full insubordinate mode at one point when his team crossed paths with the Blazers:
"Johnson ... seemed to be playing in a funk. He hoisted up long jump shots, and often when they failed to go in, Portland started a fast break. Midway in the third quarter Portland had a 17-point lead. When [coach Lenny] Wilkens took Dennis Johnson out, he seemed not to see the player. They did not talk and Wilkens's eyes seemed to be searching a distant corner of the Coliseum, as if someone seated there might hold up a sign on which would be written the secret of how to deal with so talented and so troubled a young man. Portland eventually won by five points. Dennis Johnson went 5 of 16.
Later in the locker room, a Seattle sportswriter approached him.
'Dennis, about those jump shots ...' he began.
'What jump shots?' DJ said. 'I didn't see any jump shots.' He turned to John Johnson near him. 'You see any jump shots? Were any out there? Not that I saw.' He seemed to be smiling.
- On the news of forward Kermit Washington's unwanted trade from San Diego to Portland and the reaction of his wife, Pat:
"She had visions of a long rainy winter in Portland with Kermit on the road most of the time, while she lived among people she had never met before. Later that afternoon, some of the neighborhood kids, aged thirteen and fourteen, came by. They played basketball with Kermit on his own home court in the backyard almost every day and had come to regard him as less a distant professional star than a neighborhood playmate. When they knocked on the door, Pat Washington answered it. 'Can Kermit come out and play?' one of the kids asked. 'He can't,' she said. "He's been traded to Portland. He's already gone.' 'But he didn't say goodbye,' one of the kids protested. 'How could he do that?' I don't know how he could do that, she thought, that's the NBA. The boy, she noticed, was near tears. So was she."
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2. Heaven is a Playground, Rick Telander (1976). I haven't read this one in several years; with a refresher, it might rate No. 1 on the list. Telander (who later wrote for Sports Illustrated and is currently a well-known columnist in Chicago) spent the summer of '74 running the courts in the legendary pickup games in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where Fly Williams was a playground legend with a knack for self-destruction and future NBAer Albert King was a shy 14-year-old prodigy. Telander is unsparing and honest, but his affection for his asphalt companions that summer shines through. Every time I hear "Don't Rock The Boat,'' a summer song perpetually blaring from King's radio, I think of this book and smile.
* * *
3. Loose Balls, Terry Pluto (1991). A raucous and absolutely hilarious oral history of the ABA, recounting the superstars (how I wish I'd seen Dr. J in his Nets days) and characters (menacing John Brisker, doomed Wendell Ladner) that made the maverick league as memorable as its red, white and blue basketball. Reading it is like hopping into the time machine Marvin Barnes refused to board.
* * *
4. When the Game Was Ours, Jackie MacMullan (2010). Larry and Magic are justifiably a well-tread topic, so it's downright remarkable, though probably not surprising, that MacMullan mines so many fresh details of a basketball rivalry that became a genuine friendship. Who knew Larry and Magic were teammates once before they played on the one and only Dream Team ... and that their coach didn't particularly recognize their greatness?
* * *
5. 48 Minutes, Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto (1987). Framing a book around the play-by-play of a seemingly random January 16, 1987 game between the Celtics and Cavaliers proves the perfect device for expounding not only on the state of the two divergent teams, but on the league and sport as a whole.
* * *
6. Life on the Run, Bill Bradley (1977). Ostensibly a journal of the final few weeks of the admirable but aging Knicks' 1973-74 season, the forward and future senator writes thoughtfully and gracefully about the social structure and persistent monotony of a professional athlete's existence.
* * *
7. Unfinished Business, Jack McCallum (1992). I'm a sucker for season-inside diaries -- it's kind of my longstanding dream to write one someday -- and McCallum, the longtime Sports Illustrated basketball ace, has two superb ones to his credit. "Unfinished Business,'' a look at the 1990-91 Celtics (Dee Brown's memorable rookie year, the beginning of the sunset for the Big Three), has more juicy insight than Seven Seconds or Less, his similarly styled account of the run-and-gun 2005-06 Phoenix Suns.
* * *
* * *
9. A Season Inside, John Feinstein (1989). "A Season on the Brink" is his masterpiece, but I enjoyed this follow-up more, probably because I liked Danny Manning, David Robinson and Steve Kerr much more than I do Bobby Knight.
* * *
10. The Short Season, John Powers (1979). There are countless excellent books about the Celtics' many successes -- one that also deserves mention here is Ryan's Celtics Pride, published in 1975. But this is a diary of a season when everything didn't go right for the green -- do the names Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks ring a bell? The casual access afforded the author is a relic of the past, but it makes for a true insider's tale.
* * *
11. FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, Bethlehem Shoals and the Free Darko crew (2010). The writing and artwork are as elegant as the game itself.
* * *
12. The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith (1993). Or, when we realized the smiling Nike-produced image was just that and that His Airness was really a mean-spirited, hyper-competitive [pretty much any expletive applies]. Come to think of it, I should probably read Halberstam's accounting of Jordan, "Playing For Keeps.'' Bring it, Santa.
Whenever I'm charged with cleaning out the garage or the attic or some other cobwebbed and possibly tarantula-infested cranny of our home, I always seem to stumble upon a terrible sports book such as this relatively recent discovery that has been lost, generally with good reason.
I'm never sure why I bought them, beyond the usual obssession-with-sports thing that led me to purchase and read other literary gems such as "Nails," in which Lenny Dykstra proved it is possible to "write" more books than you've read. But I always remember where I bought them. They came from an old discount bookstore at Cook's Corner in Brunswick, Maine. Though the name of the place eludes me (Nonesuch Books, perhaps?), I loved the place and usually stopped in a time or two to load up every trip home from college. Most books weren't always worth the buck or two they cost -- Obsession: Timberwolves Stalk the NBA, anyone? -- but for an aspiring sports writer they were a joy to mine, and every now and then one proved to be solid gold.
On my desk here is one of those bargains amid the bargains: "No More Mr. Nice Guy: A Life of Hardball, by Dick Williams and Bill Plaschke. (Nope, it's not written in one-sentence paragraphs.) It's memoir of one of the superior managers in modern baseball history, a Hall of Famer who won a pair of championships with the Oakland A's in the early '70s, managed some supremely talented Montreal Expos teams later in the decade, and even took the San Diego Padres to the '84 World Series. (This morning, Chris Jaffe at the Hardball Times has a thorough look at Williams's career highlights.)
Of course, in this corner of the baseball universe, only one line -- one year, one season -- on his impressive résumé matters. As the dugout mastermind of the 1967 Red Sox, the irascible Williams was more responsible than anyone, Yaz included, for shaking off the lethargy and cronyism of the Tom Yawkey ownership and making the Impossible Dream season a reality. You're damn right they would win more than they lose. Like the Big, Bad Bruins, the '67 Sox are the forever enduring darlings of Boston sports fans of a certain generation, the team who made all of this happen. Williams's death last Thursday at age 82 was a somber reminder of how long ago that was, and yet it also brought reminiscences of a summer at Fenway never to be forgotten.
Later Thursday night, I pulled Williams's book, published in 1990, from a shelf in my home office and began skimming through it. It's a remarkably entertaining memoir for anyone, let alone a sports figure Williams comes across as a charming, funny, stubborn, politically incorrect, brilliant, unapologetic grump. Pretty much how he was always perceived, in other words. But it's his candor about the famous players he managed -- and almost to a man, feuded with at one time or another -- that makes the book such a fun read.
He has nothing but praise and admiration for Nolan Ryan, who played for him with the Angels, or Tony Gwynn, who came up with the Padres during Williams's reign. Many of his other players weren't so lucky. So consider this a special edition of Nine Innings, featuring nine comments from Williams's book about those who played for him. I could list about 90. And if you ever see a copy or run across it on Amazon, buy it. It's way better than "Nails."
1. On taking away Carl Yastrzemski's captaincy upon taking over as manager: "Maybe I could have done it more gracefully. Maybe Yaz and I could have gotten off to a better start if I'd called him into my office and asked him to resign as captain. Yeah, and maybe I should have asked everyone on the team how many games they wanted to play. And maybe I would have lasted in Boston about six months. And had my [expletive] living room repossessed. The hell with grace. I wanted wins. . . . Yaz didn't have the outgoing and enthusiastic makeup to be a chief anyway, but he could be one hell of an Indian. And I needed that Indian."
2. On Jim Lonborg, the eventual AL Cy Young winner in 1967, proving his toughness to Williams during a July 21 game against the Yankees by hitting Thad Tillotson, who had beaned the Red Sox' Joe Foy earlier in the game: "For Lonborg, the season of his life was just getting started. In that one incident, he had proved to me and to the rest of the league that he wasn't just going to be another frightened kid with talent. He was going to be a scary kid with talent. All by not being afraid to pitch inside."
3. On a certain infamous comment about slugging first baseman George Scott: "Scott was a likable guy with a weight problem -- in both his belly and his head. I once said, 'Talking to him is like talking to a block of cement.' Everybody thought I was joking, and even Yaz told somebody it was a rather cruel joke. But it was no joke. I meant it."
4. On Tony C. "In the end he did come back [from his tragic beaning in 1967] and I was very happy for him, just as I was deeply troubled by his heart attack several years ago and his death in early 1990. Say what you will, the guy was a fighter. Between the lines there was nobody who played harder, as his great comeback years witness. He was a fighter and so am I, and that's probably why we got into so many verbal scrapes. I'm never sure who got the better of who, but I know that by having Tony Conigliaro in there fighting every day, the game of baseball was the winner."
5. On the 1975 Angels, who hit just 55 home runs all season: "These Angels were cursed with several things, beginning with what obviously bored reporters called an incubator infield. Indeed, we were young: first baseman Bruce Bochte was in his second season; second baseman Jerry Remy was a rookie; shortstop Orlando Ramirez was in his second season; third baseman Dave Chalk was in his second full season. It wouldn't have bothered me that their combined total of home runs was just seven, or that none of them batted better than .285 or knocked in more than 82 runs. I could have lived with that had I seen promise of improvement in the near future. The problem was, only one of them, Remy, really got much better. It was obvious that my Angels were the Peter Pans of baseball -- nice, cute kids who would never grow up."
6. On Reggie Jackson and the early '70s Oakland A's, who won three straight World Series, two under Williams: "The clubhouse had three leaders. Reggie, [Sal] Bando, and Catfish [Hunter]. Reggie was the guy with the lungs, the vocal one. His constant talking gave his teammates something to both laugh at and rally behind, and the best thing about it was that it was an act. I knew, because I used to be the same kind of actor myself. Reggie was really just a talented but very sensitive and insecure person. In other words, get through his bull and you found a guy who'd play his [expletive] off for you."
7. On the Montreal Expos superb young late '70s outfield of Andre Dawson, Warren Cromartie, and Ellis Valentine: "I'll always mention Dawson first, because he was everyone else's third choice. Of the three, he was always the slow learner, the who'd need the most work and wouldn't go nearly as far. Our scouts would sit around and collect foam at the corners of their mouths while talking about Valentine's natural all-around ability and Cromartie's incredible bat. 'And,' they always would say, 'we've always got Dawson.' As if Dawson didn't even belong in the same speech. You know what happened. You could have never left the beer garden and still know what would happen. Dawson, working every day . . . became a future Gold Glove and Most Valuable Player and one of baseball's leading citizens."
8. On Mark Langston, who Williams accused of asking out of games when he managed him in Seattle: "I perceived Langston as I feel much of baseball finally perceived him when he cost the Montreal Expos the pennanty in the late summer of 1989 by choking on his next few starts. Gutless. Anybody can pitch for a loser, which Langston did very well for the Mariners before I arrived. But let's see you pitch for a winner. That's the sign of a true competitor, which Langston is not. . . . C'mon Langston. Let's see you pitch for a winner. Let's see you be a winner."
9. On Bill Lee, whom Williams managed as a rookie with the Red Sox and later in Montreal: "Once when I needed Lee to pitch, he showed up at the clubhouse with bruises and cuts, looking like he'd just left a 10-rounder. He told me he'd been hin by taxicab while jogging. How had he gotten to the clubhouse? I asked. The guilty cabbie had driven him. Lee said he'd even tipped him. I tried not to faint before telling him to sit out the game. Later that season, on a trip, I spotted him jogging along a marina and shouted to him, "Be careful, you don't want any boats to jump out and hit you!"
If you're among those Red Sox fans convinced that the offseason exodus of Carl Crawford among others means the Tampa Bay Rays will cease being anything more dangerous than a nuisance in 2011 and beyond, well, let's just say we have some suggested reading for you.
Jonah Keri -- the esteemed baseball and business writer, Expos fan, and, lest we forget, ambassador of the Friendly Toast, the official breakfast place of this blog -- makes a case as entertaining as it is thorough in his new book that the Rays, even with their financial disadvantages, are as smart, thorough, and progressive as any organization in baseball.
The book, titled The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took A Major League Baseball Team From Worst To First, details how the Rays' current management team -- namely owner Stu Sternberg, president Matt Silverman, and general manager Andrew Friedman, all of whom come from a Wall Street background -- resuscitated the franchise after the disastrous inaugural ownership regime of Vince Naimoli.
"The Extra 2%," which hit the shelves today, is a worthy companion to "Moneyball" on that edge of your baseball bookshelf that bumps up against the business section. It's a terrific read, insightful, breezy, and overflowing with fresh anecdotes. Long before you turn the final page, you will respect not only the Rays' results, but the process in which they got to them.
What follows is a fun conversation I had with Jonah a few days ago regarding the book , the Rays, and how it all relates to the Red Sox. Warning: The Q&A is long. We think you'll find it worth the read; we know you'll love the book.
Before we get to all the good baseball stuff from the book, let's start with the prologue to the project. How did the "Extra 2%" come about?
Keri: "It's a funny story. I used to post on an Expos message board in the late '90s. I read Bill James as a kid, wrote about stats before -- well, Rob Neyer was writing about stats before, but not a lot of other people -- and I was just some guy. I was not a professional writer, I was just some guy. And I would write things down. Some people thought I was totally bonkers or an idiot or whatever, and some people were like, 'Oh, that's kind of interesting.' But nothing came of it and I went about my business and I started writing more about baseball.
"So almost a decade later, like in 2007, I got an e-mail from this guy. He said, 'You don't know me, but I was username AZbullpen coach on the same Expos board as you.' He said, 'I love what you did, kept tabs on you, and now I'm editor at Random House. We should totally work together.' I was like, 'Cmon.' I thought it was one of my buddies or something. But no, it turned out the be for real. The next summer, when the Rays started doing well, I got a call from that guy [Paul Taunton] along with Steve Wulf, who is part of the ESPN book venture, and they both said, 'Hey, we want to do a sports and business book, and we feel like you would be a good fit.' I went to New York, met with them, and it was a great fit as far as my curiosity for sports and business is concerned. Michael Lewis was not available is my guess."
We talked a couple of times about the project as you were working on it in various phases, and it seemed there was always some new discovery or piece of information that you were fired up about discovering, whether it was the tragicomic tyranny of the Vince Naimoli ownership era or Joe Maddon's background that almost destined him to become a manager or the remarkable business acumen of Sternberg, Silverman, and Friedman, and the current regime. Was there one thing that stood out to you as the most interesting?
Keri: "No, it was a lot of things, really. One of the things about 'Moneyball' -- and there are going to be some comparisons to 'Moneyball' -- Michael Lewis is a fantastic storyteller, but he has a specific narrative and he's going to go with it. That's not a criticism, that's just the way it is.
"I did not go out and say the scouts are fat and lazy. That's just not my style. I'm not saying I'm right and he's wrong, it's just a different approach. So I really dug in and found out kind of the opposite, that the Rays were really built on scouting and player development. I wanted to get into that they drafted, whoever, David Price first overall, that's all good, but tell me a little more behind that. Tell me a little something more about player development. I wanted to know how it is they kept their pitchers' mechanics consistent throughout the minors. I wanted to know how they created fully-formed prospects who come up to the majors and contribute immediately, and call them up at the right time so they weren't wasting service time. A lot of teams will bring guys up and for the first two or three years [they're terrible] and don't mature until later. That's terrible for the Rays, they need rookies to be good.
"I learned about that, I learned about Joe Maddon after spending a day with his family and friends and everybody that he ever knew in his hometown, I learned about stadium economics, I learned about Vince Naimoli. Good god, Vince Naimoli. There's definitely a narrative that flows throughout the book, but you can also read it as 12 different entities or 12 different messages as far as the chapters go. I really tried to give something to the reader that they could learn from, hopefully, and I was learning a lot with them."
The aspect that is going to be eye-opening to my audience is not only the collective intelligence of the Rays front office, but their desire to seek every possible advantage and the progressive ways in which they do so . Entering the project, how aware were you of the depths of the Rays' quest for information and how they got the organization to this point?
Keri: "It occurred to me as I'm researching the book, I'm thinking 'Well, wait a minute.' Maybe this whole extra two percent idea, I came in thinking they just scout well and they draft well.' But there's a whole chapter about marketing, and that's not something I set out to do when I started the book.
"It became obvious as I went that that was very important to them because of all of the damage Naimoli and his cronies had caused. So to send all the ushers and everybody to Disney World basically for reorientation . . . you know, some people aren't going to find that all that interesting, they're going to want to talk about batting average. But I thought it was fascinating, and I thought it was part and parcel for how they turned this organization around. So that's what I found with the extra two percent. It's two percent of anything you can absolutely think of -- what their parking attendants are like, that they upgraded the quality of their food. They still don't draw all that well, and they've got some financial issues, 13 percent unemployment in Tampa Bay doesn't help. But listen, but they are much better off, on the field , but even off the field, they really, really are much better off than they used to be."
Speaking of the original ownership, Vince Naimoli comes across as the right man to get a franchise in Tampa/St. Pete after MLB jerked them around for so many years, and the absolute wrong man for just about every other aspect of ownership. To call him temperamental and thrifty is probably generous on both counts. Hypothetical question, playing off his most infamous moment as the owner. If you were a Tampa/St. Pete cop, you pulled over Naimoli, and he pulled the "Do you know who I am card," what would your answer be?
Keri: (Laughs): "Uh, not good, not good . . . do-you-know-who-I-am doesn't usually play well, and Vince Naimoli's tenure is encapsulated perfectly well by do-you-know-who-I-am. There's a story about that he lobbied the city of Tampa complaining that he didn't have a parking spot reserved just for him at the airport. When a raccoon lurks around his property, he writes these letters to the city about the quote "pesky raccoon who's terrorizing his family." And then there's the stuff just within the day to day operations. One of the great stories -- and this is something that I found out that I'm not sure has ever been reported before -- he didn't have e-mail until 2003. That's really weird. Every company had e-mail by then unless you're talking about some mom-and-pop shop or something. You can't run a major league organization that way, but he did. And it's not just that he hadn't heard of e-mail. He knew what it was. He just didn't feel like it was useful. He wanted people to write memos, he wanted people to write on both sides of memos [to save paper] for that matter. And it had to be his way. Just to have a micro-manager of that degree, and someone who kind of ruled with an iron fist, sometimes that can be a positive thing. This was not a positive way. People were scared for their jobs. Ushers threw an old lady out of the park because she brought in a Ziploc bag full of 15 cashew nuts. And manifested itself all the way down from the top.
"It's the opposite with Stu -- and with Stu, I don't even mean Stu. I mean Matt Silverman, because it's not just that Stu delegates. He lives in New York and gets criticism from people in Tampa. But he hands off. He talks to Matt every single day. But Matt's the guy who is in charge of the team. And from that, Matt is going to delegate. The guy in charger of stadium operations, he is going to do his thing. The guy who is in charge of public relations is going to do his thing. And on and on it goes. And that's a very Wall Street mentality. When you're at Goldman Sachs and you're the CEO, you do not get your hands duty. You're down like seven levels before there are people trading. From that respect, I don't think Stu thought it was below him to do that kind of stuff. The culture was always, hire good people, and then trust them to do a good job."
Joe Maddon, then Mike Scioscia's bench coach with the Angels, was a candidate for the Red Sox managerial opening that went to Terry Francona after the 2003 season. He got the Rays job in November 2005, and it's fair to suggest both franchises ended up with their ideal manager. You posed the question in the book: What would have happened had Maddon gotten the Boston job and, hypothetically, Francona ended up running the Rays? New England demands an answer!
Keri: "You know, in my mind, Joe Maddon is probably the best manager in baseball. Nobody does tactically . . . I love the fact that he's open-minded. He will try things. I talked about it in the book, the Danks Theory, but there was a point where they were getting slaughtered by Mike Mussina every single time. A couple of their stats guys said, hey, look, maybe we should start righthanded hitters against [the righthanded-throwing] Mussina because he kills lefties, and they smoked the guy. They did the same against John Danks and Shaun Marcum and it kept working. It's two or three games per season, but in the AL East, if you can find a way to win 2-3 games by turning your bats around, that's gigantic. He was willing to do that.
"I think Francona has some of that, I don't think he goes quite as far as Joe, but he is somewhat intellectually curious, and he still has good player management values. Both of those guys do that very well. Dustin Pedroia is his own character. I think that Francona has a way with him. Manny Ramirez is his own character. I think Manny Ramirez is going to do fine under Joe Maddon. All these things play out well because they are good managers of men and they are open-minded. So I think it's possible that the two teams would have ended up with pretty similar results. Maddon's my No. 1 manager in baseball, but you could make a case that Francona is No. 2."
I'd have them flipped. Francona has to deal with more ancillary stuff because of the demands and magnitude of the market, for one thing. But we all have our biases.
Keri: "Well, it's exposure, and you see how he is all the time. Forget about the subjective things with Francona. He's an old-time Expo, so I've been a Terry Francona fan for 30 years. He was a great singles hitter. He wrecked his knees, but until then he was a real good hitter. Underrated player. And you wouldn't know it now, but he had great hair." (Laughs.)
Talking to Red Sox fans and hearing from readers, I get the sense that the majority of fans around here think the Rays have peaked. A big part of that perception is because of all of the departures in the offseason -- Carl Crawford switching allegiances, trading Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, basically having to rebuild their entire bullpen. But given the depth of their farm system and that they have may have internal upgrades in a couple of spots, it strikes me as dangerous to presume that they will be going away anytime soon.
Keri: "Yeah, I think that predicting them to be as good as last year is probably pushing it, even for the biggest Rays optimist or cheerleader. But they do do a good job of plugging holes, and someone like Garza for instance, and Bartlett, too, they got those guys in an unbelievably good trade that was considered very [gutsy] at the time. They gave up Delmon Young, who was coming off what seemed like a very good rookie season, very good young guy, No. 1 prospect according to Baseball America, 96 RBIs as a rookie. And they traded him for Garza and Bartlett, who became linchpins of the 2008 AL champs. So to flip them just three years later, that was interesting.
"But they have replacements, just like they did with Delmon Young. And in this case, the replacements are great. Jeremy Hellickson might be as good as Matt Garza or even better than Matt Garza right now. He's a frontrunner for AL rookie of the year. And I like Reid Brignac at shortstop. Bartlett was a serviceable player but not great. Brignac is younger, certainly a better fielder, and he has upside. He's hit some big home runs at Yankee Stadium, done some things over his short career.
"With the bullpen, had they kept all those guys [Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour were among the departures], they would not have been as good as last year -- every single guy had a career year. Benoit, I don't know if many people realize, that was almost Eckersley-esque what he did last year. Forget about Soriano. Benoit was un-freaking-hittable. He had something like an 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was dominant, just a killer. Obviously Soriano was great, Balfour was great, so they just had the 7th, 8th, and 9th locked down. If you were trailing in those innings, you were going to lose automatic.
"But had they kept them, they wouldn't have been as good. Major League baseball teams pay for whatever happened most recently, and because these guys had career years, the got monster contracts. Soriano got $35 million to be a setup man. That's crazy. Benoit, who was coming off major surgery a year ago and was signed by the Rays on a minor-league contract, ends up making $750,000 last year. He got what, $18 million from the Tigers? Just unbelievable. They were not going to be in the running then even if they had a $90 million to $100 million payroll.
"Now, it is a question mark. You don't know what young guys like Jake McGee will do. I really like Adam Russell, think he's the guy to watch in that bullpen. But we don't know if they're going to succeed. [Kyle] Farnsworth has a bad reputation, but he's actually been pretty good the last two years. But we don't know. It's one thing to say we're going to save money, and it's another thing to find the right guys. We don't know if they've found the right guys. But there's a process. They get guys with good strikeout rates who keep the ball in the ballpark who on paper at least have a chance to succeed."
The one guy who is the most challenging to replace is now here in Boston. While Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon were intriguing signings and Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings have promise, there's no way around the fact that Carl Crawford leaves a tremendous void, is there?
Keri: "Yeah, the one thing that is going to be hardest to replace is Crawford. Manny Ramirez, there's a chance he's the best hitter on the whole team, including Evan Longoria. If you talk about advanced metrics wOBA, things like that, he's better than Longoria even at this point in his career. So if he's healthy he'll be fantastic. But Manny's value is hitting, and that's it. Crawford brought everything, of course. Sox fans are going to love that -- he can run, obviously, he can catch the ball, he has become quite a dangerous hitter. That's going to be tough to replace. Carlos Pena [the longtime Rays first baseman who signed with the Cubs over the winter] hit .196 last year, so a lot of the losses aren't a terribly big deal and made a lot of sense. But Crawford is the double-whammy in going over to the Red Sox."
It's been fun this spring to learn about Crawford as more than just Mr. Tampa Bay Ray, the guy who tormented Jason Varitek for nine years. His work ethic, his leadership skills, his personality away from the field. What are the Sox getting in him away from the field, and how is he evolving as a player from your perspective?
Keri: "The No. 1 characteristic of Carl Crawford is that he works like a lunatic. The guy's running up mountains, squatting 800 pounds, and it's not for show. He doesn't do it because there's a reporter there, he does it all the time. And you know what's so funny about Crawford? In the 2008 season, which is kind of the reason the book took place, he was hurt, he had a hamstring problem, even when he was in the lineup he was clearly playing hurt. It's hard to know how much that affected him that season, especially when he had hamstring problems, because to a player of his skills, hamstrings are everything. But he really just kept getting better from there. In 2009 he got better, and 2010 he got even better than that, adding power, too. [A career-high 19 home runs.]
"It's unfortunate that Fenway doesn't play well for lefthanded pull-hitters, really. It takes a bomb to get it out of there in right-center. Adrian Gonzalez is going to be awesome because he sprays the ball around the field with power. Crawford's not going to hit it 360 feet to left-center, because that's not really his skill-set. But tons of double and triples are in play. He might be on a home-run trajectory -- had he signed with the Yankees, he might have hit 25 or so home runs this year. He will show an incredibly broad set of skills, though I do think it's a quasi-waste to have him playing in such a shallow left field as Fenway's. His instincts are amazing. If you've ever watched him play left field at Fenway, he fields the Monster as well as Yaz, Jim Rice, anyone whose played out there for 10 years and knows all the nooks and crannies. Crawford gets that. He'll go up the wall when he needs to, he'll play the carom, he'll hold guys to singles, and that's as a visitor. Forget about the fact that now you've got him for seven years.
"This is a guy who works extremely hard, he's supremely talented, has very good baseball instincts . . . and I reject the notion, by the way, that this is a lot of money for a speed guy. What often happens with speed guys, and Bill James has talked about this, is that they tend to develop other skills. If you have five tools to start, even if speed is your most prominent, those other skills will develop. Like Bobby Abreu was super-crazy fast when he was a young player and a great fielder, and OK, those skills kind of went away, but he kept the on-base ability, throwing, started hitting for more power and other things came on. I think you could see that with Crawford as his career goes on. Right now, he's kind of a hacker and has moderate power. Maybe he just notches it up a little bit, a few more walks, a few more bombs, as the stolen bases and baserunning goes down just a check, and we're still talking about one of the three or four fastest guys in baseball as we sit here right now."
The Bobby Abreu reference reminds me of how many great what-if stories there are in this book. What if Chuck LaMar hadn't traded him for Kevin Stocker? What if the Rays had drafted Mark Teixeira instead of easy-sign Dewon Brazelton with the third pick in the 2001 draft? And the greatest one of all, and one Red Sox fans can relate to since they have a similar story with this player: What if the Rays had listened to the scout who desperately wanted to draft Albert Pujols?
Keri: "You know, I think if you talked to somebody within a lot of teams, the story may be apocryphal or maybe not, but they'll be like, 'Oh, yeah, we were in on Albert Pujols too,' because you have 29 teams who don't want to have egg on their face, they want to make you believe they were in on him. But this particular scout [who coveted Pujols for the Rays], Fernando Arongo has a great reputation in the game, scouted and signed a ton of guys, Jason Bay and a ton of others.
"This story about Pujols had been reported before, but I don't think it was quite teased out as much as I did. I really talked to Arongo for a while, about driving down to meet Pujols for breakfast at Denny's and all of this and how much he got to know Albert and how much he believed in him. It was really fascinating how it went down.
"And yeah, the what-if, you can talk about that with any franchise, you can talk about the Sox and all that, but for the Rays, especially when they were the Devil Rays, it was much more painful. It was such a vicious cycle. If they had Pujols, then maybe they don't go out and spend for the [Hit] Show [when they signed fading sluggers such as Jose Canseco and Greg Vaughn], dumping all of this money on them, losing a guy like Abreu. . . they didn't do a good enough job with homegrown guys at first, and because they created a spiral situation, things kept getting worse on top of worse. They could just never recover. One of the things I talk about in the book is what is [then-GM] Chuck LaMar's role in all of this. Some of the blame goes on the scouting directors and player development and all of that. But LaMar is a good scout, a very good baseball man, and the nicest guy you could ever meet. He took two hours of his time to tell me how he went wrong. Who does that? But he even said, 'I was not cut out to whip a domineering boss into shape.' And that's what they needed because of Naimoli. And because they didn't have that, they got screwed, and because stuff like missing out on Pujols went down and Teixeira and all of that, LaMar didn't lobby enough, and then he didn't lobby harder to prevent further damage.
"So there was a vicious cycle going on with the Rays that, frankly, can happen with any team. You look at the bad years of the Red Sox, there's things compounded on top of each other, in the latter Yawkey years and before the current regime. It wasn't just one thing that was bad, it was a lot of things. A losing climate, dot-dot-dot. That was the story of the Red Sox at those times, and it was the story of the Devil Rays for sure."
A couple of years ago he delivered "Patriot Reign," about . . . well, I suppose even Arlen Specter is familiar with that topic. And now Holley, the affable WEEI midday co-host and former Globe columnist who also collaborated on Tedy Bruschi's biography, gives us "Red Sox Rule," an anecdotal look at the life and career of Red Sox manager Terry Francona.
I'm not suggesting there's a formula in play here, but should a certain basketball franchise claim its 17th NBA title come June, I fully expect Holley will have "Celtic Crown" available on Amazon.com in time for next season's tipoff.
And you know what? I'd buy it, which isn't something I'd have said before reading "Red Sox Rule." I'll admit, I first cracked open this book's cover with some skepticism. Francona often seems mildly annoyed with Holley during the manager's weekly WEEI interview, so I was somewhat surprised to learn he's agreed to do a book with him. But most of my initial reluctance was rooted in the fact that "Patriot Reign," while engaging, wasn't what I hoped it would be. Holley's access to the secretive Patriots was unprecedented, and yet there were few nuggets of real insight, other than that the coaching staff thought Patrick Pass was a sissy and Lawyer Milloy could be a divisive teammate. I was left wanting more, but probably not in the way the author intended.
That said, I'm glad to report that "Red Sox Rule" possesses the substance to accompany the style. It's similar to "Patriot Reign" in tone and length - at 207 pages, I wished it was about 50 longer - but it is rich with fresh details and compelling stories, from Francona's time as Michael Jordan's manager in Birmingham (my favorite chapter in the book, actually), to his near-death experience due to pulmonary embolism, to the strange, boiler-room attempt to assuage Jonathan Papelbon's ego when the team was on the verge of the ill-fated Eric Gagne trade last summer.FULL ENTRY
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.