Rise and fall
It wasn’t easy finding the Hot Stove read of the season, “Francona, the Red Sox Years” co-authored by Dan Shaughnessy and Terry Francona. Shaughnessy is the rare Boston sportswriter who still delivers a punch and Francona was the Dudley Do-Right manager done wrong by the soulless Red Sox ownership.
It took me trips to the World Eye in Greenfield, Toadstool Books in Keene and finally Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro before finally locating a copy. Others are having similar troubles. Leverett’s Jay Frost said he’s reserved it at the library but, he added, “I’m 127th on the list.”
Shaughnessy and Francona conspired to write the book by doing sit-downs in Boston hotel coffee shops, at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, and once at a rest stop off the Mass. Pike. The much-anticipated tell-all hit the shelves three weeks ago (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 343 pages, $28).
The book works, but not as well as expected. Much of it is a rehash of what we already know, beginning with Francona’s life as the son of a major leaguer and continuing with his rise to becoming a big league manager. It didn’t help that Francona had final say over the manuscript. He is a cautious sort, and though angry and all-knowing about the Red Sox, he wasn’t about to jeopardize his future in baseball. As former Boston GM Theo Epstein said of Francona’s love of the game: “Some people compartmentalize the job. Tito compartmentalizes the real world.”
For his part, Shaughnessy had no problem ripping Boston’s owners and players, of the red line drawn in front of Nomar Garciaparra’s locker to keep reporters away, and of Red Sox chairman Tom Werner’s days in San Diego, when one newspaper labeled him “the single most-hated man in Southern California.”
The challenge was to deliver something new to an insatiable audience that devours every sliver of Red Sox news. Shaughnessy recounts Red Sox president Larry Lucchino berating two clubhouse workers over a missing box of World Series sweatshirts. “They wanted these official, marketing, licensed sweatshirts to be worn (during the parade),” said Epstein. “They were going to sell them. They were hideous … so I think we had the clubbies lose them.”
The owners were always seeking new means of revenue, including moving the bullpens closer to home plate. To do so required permission from the Mass. Historical Commission, but one member saw through the “safety” excuse. “Do you expect me to believe that when you’re adding 400 seats?”
“She laughed us out of the room,” said Francona.
Epstein is humanized in the book, taking an Ambien the night he traded Garciaparra and drinking five vodka tonics the night they lost 19-8 to the Yankees to go down 0-3 in the 2004 AL championship series. When they beat the Yankees the next night, he had five more, out of superstition.
Epstein let Francona play cards with his players for money. “No one could be a good big league manager if he’s a s**tty card player,” reasoned Francona. “It’s the same mentality (as managing). ... It’s amazing what you can tell someone at 35,000 feet over the heartland at three in the morning when you’re playing cards.”
Throughout the book, Shaughnessy delivers interesting nuggets about Francona, of spilling tobacco juice on his team-owned laptop, of cleaning out stats guru Bill James in poker, and of putting David Ortiz’s $50,000 earring in his pocket the night the Boston slugger returned from the on-deck circle and handed it to him.
He writes of John Henry making Francona fly to South Florida and waiting for an hour in his mansion, then giving him a 10-minute job interview and sending him back up north. After he was hired, Francona kept a framed letter from an angry fan on his office wall “telling me to stick the lineup card up my ass.”
His first spring training meeting with Pedro Martinez was nearly as disastrous as when first-year skipper Butch Hobson tried to be chummy with Roger Clemens and the Rocket blew him off by wearing headphones.
“You just want me to like you,” Martinez told Francona.
“No s**t. You’re right,” he answered.
Pedro was less of a headache than the Manny-being-Manny ordeal, or dealing with the stats-conscious brass upstairs. “The owner could not tolerate decisions that flew in the face of data,” writes Shaughnessy.
And Francona in turn “… was pretty tired of e-mails about Ortiz batting against lefties.”
The Red Sox won more games under Francona than any manager except Joe Cronin. They won two World Series and made the playoffs in five of his eight seasons, yet unfairly, his legacy to some was how his team squandered a 9½-game lead in the final month of the 2011 season.
The plan had been to win the World Series by acquiring first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego and free agent center fielder Carl Crawford from Tampa Bay, but as the saying goes, “Man plans, God laughs.”
In the summer of 1978, the Red Sox were leading the Yankees by 14 games when Yankees manager Billy Martin said, “Let’s see what happens if they lose their shortstop.” A few weeks later Rick Burleson threw his arm out and the Boston tailspin began.
Similarly, in the summer of 2011, winning was taken for granted. Boston had the best record in baseball, but playing third base was wearing down Kevin Youkilis and Crawford couldn’t adjust to playing in a baseball-crazed town. “He was tentative all year,” said Francona. “I’d tell him to go ahead and run. ‘If you’re out, I’ll tell people I sent you.’ (F---), he wouldn’t go.”
Meanwhile, Beckett, Lester and Lackey were in the clubhouse drinking beer, eating chicken and watching the NFL during their off days. During a Sunday afternoon game, Lester popped his head in the dugout and Francona sarcastically asked him, “How are the Jets doing?”
Another telling incident occurred when David Ortiz burst into a postgame press conference and barked at Francona regarding a scorekeeping decision. “I wanted my RBI,” he later explained.
“Guys were starting to think about themselves. It was a warning sign,” said Francona.
The starting pitching was 2-7 with a 6.45 ERA in September, and The Great Collapse reached its nadir on the final night of the season when Boston was eliminated from the playoffs by blowing a lead in Baltimore while the Rays came back from a 7-0 deficit to beat the Yankees.
That final night was “like watching a car wreck in slow motion,” said Epstein.
Within a week, both Francona and Epstein were out of the Red Sox organization. Francona left for the ESPN booth and Epstein departed for the Windy City to become the general manager of the Cubs. Not long afterward, reports surfaced from “team sources” about Francona’s misuse of pain medication and his broken marriage. “Does anybody leave here happy?” asked Dustin Pedroia.
“Francona, the Red Sox Years” is a sad indictment of the rise and fall of the Boston Red Sox under John Henry & Co. The team is 76-111 since Sept. 1, 2011. This year’s roster is stockpiled with journeyman ballplayers. Season ticket sales are down 10 percent. The streak of 793 consecutive sellouts at Fenway Park is in jeopardy. Long gone are the glory days when David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were the most feared three-four hitters in baseball and Curt Schilling was beating the Yankees on one good ankle.
It was fun while it lasted, but now it’s another team’s turn.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.