October 4, 2008

THE GAMES ARE SECONDARY:

Red Sox and Francona: A Match Made in Fenway (JACK CURRY, 10/04/08, NY Times)

Terry Francona counted the tickets, then counted them again. Francona, the manager of the Red Sox, expected four tickets for the American League division series opener against the Angels, but was surprised when the team gave him eight. So Francona scrambled to find friends who could use the extra tickets.

Before Francona distributed the tickets, he studied them closer. Then he gulped. He actually had four tickets for Games 1 and four for Game 2, not eight for each game. He moved quickly to solve the self-imposed problem by sheepishly asking a club official if he could buy four more tickets.

“Where was my head on that?” Francona said.

As trivial as the story is, it gives an insight into Francona. That Francona even shared the details indicates that he is self-deprecating. That he purchased tickets instead of telling the friends he made a mistake shows that he believes in doing the right thing. That he responded swiftly to eliminate any confusion indicates that he likes keeping things simple. [...]

While the Red Sox have acted shrewdly in supplementing their established players with a batch of talented, homegrown players, someone still has to align the pieces. Someone still has to manage the $133 million team. That someone is Francona, a skilled communicator who may be the most underrated manager in the major leagues.

“He definitely handles everything about Boston great,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “The best I could compare it to is Joe Torre and how he handled New York.” [...]

Wakefield said Francona was deft at handling 25 different personalities, which he described as a manager’s hardest job. It is harder when one of those personalities is Manny Ramírez. Publicly, Francona always said the Red Sox would deal with a few Manny moments to get Manny’s production. Privately, Francona knew that Ramírez’s antics could be a drag. Still, until Ramírez was traded to the Dodgers last July, they somehow co-existed on successful teams.

Catcher Jason Varitek, the Red Sox’ captain, described Francona’s rules, which could fit on the back of a postage stamp.

“Play hard, play the game right,” Varitek said. “And, if you can’t follow that, you got some issues.”

Francona mixed pitcher Justin Masterson into important spots during the season and is now using him in those situations in the playoffs. Even if Julio Lugo returned from a calf injury this season, Francona was prepared to keep Jed Lowrie, a steady rookie, at shortstop. Pedroia hit .172 in the first month of 2007, but Francona’s support never wavered. Now Pedroia is a leading candidate to win the Most Valuable Player award.

Third baseman Mike Lowell called Francona’s willingness to trust and rely on young players an asset, but noted that it was an organizational strength, too.


The comparison to Joe Torre seems especially apt. While you'd not trust either to manage one game if your life depended on it, both are extraordinary at handling the complicated locker room, fan base, and press dynamics of modern sport. And a baseball season is such a grind over such a long period of time that the ability to keep a club functioning for 8 months is distinct from that of strategizing in a discrete contest.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 4, 2008 12:31 PM
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