September 13, 2008

Terry Francona

If you enjoy reading about nice people, check out Red Sox Rule:  Terry Francona and Boston’s Rise to Dominance by Michael Holley.  Since 2003, Francona has been as successful as a baseball manager can be, with an 8-0 record in World Series play.

Yet he has never gotten a single first-place vote for Manager of the Year.  He makes far less money than other managers whose teams win fewer games and championships. He does not call attention to himself, and does not care who gets credit when his team wins.

But he accepts the blame when his team loses. In New England, that blame gets loud, profane, and pervasive.    Any Red Sox manager has far more background noise in his life than any other baseball manager, from talk radio, people who don’t care if you overhear them talking about your husband or father, and the 130 reporters who cover the team every day. Francona accepts it as part of his job, gives the media what they need without defensiveness, and never bases a baseball decision the mob’s reaction.

Terry was a good hitter in the big leagues, son of another good big league hitter, Tito Francona.  Horrible injuries to both knees cut his playing career short.  To her family, his mother was a saint, who could cope with anything.  She died of cancer the year Francona stopped playing and started managing in the minor leagues.  That year, Francona had two big losses to cope with:  not playing baseball, and not having his mother to help him cope.

He managed a terrible Philadelphia team to four losing seasons, then coached and scouted, hoping for another chance to manage.  His last coaching job was with the Oakland A’s, where he learned “sabermetrics,” a new statistics-based method for making baseball decisions and evaluating talent.  Sabermetrics allowed the A’s to compete successfully with the Yankees and Red Sox, who could afford to pay millions for top talent, while the A’s could only shop for bargains.  Sabermetrics showed them which bargains to buy.

Before his first season with the A’s, Francona spent the winter surviving a heart attack, blood poisoning, and internal bleeding in his legs, each one life-threatening by itself.  What kept him going through the pain and emotional ups and downs were his wife and children, and knowing that he had to to report to spring training with the A’s on time.

While Francona was with the A’s, a new group of owners bought the Red Sox, and were determined to apply sabermetrics to their team.  They hired Theo Epstein, the youngest general manager in baseball history, and a sabermetrics disciple.

That year, Sox manager Grady Litle blew a 5-run lead and a trip to the World Series by leaving  pitcher Pedro Martinez in the league championship game too long.  Traumatized New England fans ran Litle out of town on a rail, which was fine with the team’s management because Litle managed by instinct, and ignored statistical data.  If he had read the statistics, Litle would have known that the great Martinez became ineffective after throwing 100 pitches.

Epstein and Francona bonded instantly at Francona’s grueling all-day job interview.  In Boston, Epstein and Francona could practice sabermetrics with a huge budget, not a shoestring like Oakland’s.  In Francona’s first year, 2004, the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, and another one two years later.

Francona is manager of the most successful team in the 21st Century, and his job does not interfere with his successful family.  He married a woman like his mother, who copes with everything, including his irritability during the baseball season.  He checks in regularly with an enormous circle of old friends; he had time to counsel a friend through a personal crisis during the playoffs.  Nice guys don’t always finish last.

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