“There’s one thing I’m going to be proud of after I’m gone,” Francona said in the days after it ended. “I think they’re going to find there’s more [expletive] that goes on than they realize.”
It is a testament to the duration and quality of Terry Francona’s time with the Red Sox that the book that he co-authored with Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe detailing his managerial tenure spans such a vast and complicated landscape in team history. “Francona: The Red Sox Years” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a compelling behind-the-scenes depiction, primarily from the vantage point of the manager’s office (often times from behind the swinging saloon-style door to the toilet therein), of an eight-year period that witnessed both the most spectacular successes in franchise history as well as some of the most devastating failures.
Unquestionably, there’s plenty of fascinating detail related to the pinnacles achieved by the Red Sox under Francona.
The case is made that the 2004 World Series was won in no small part through poker games on road trips. There is the revelation that on the franchise-changing steal by Dave Roberts in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees, Jorge Posada threw the ball from home to second in a blinding 1.79 seconds -- the best time ever witnessed by bench coach Brad Mills. There is the detail that Derek Jeter, after a time, started acknowledging Francona with a subtle salute before his first at-bat of every game, refusing to step into the batter’s box until the gesture was reciprocated. (Alex Rodriguez evidently did the same, only without Francona acknowledging it.)
There is an endearing depiction of the camaraderie between Francona and not just his players but also the less-visible members of the organization, particularly clubhouse attendants and staffers in departments such as community and media relations, as well as baseball operations.
When it comes to the players, Francona’s almost paternal affection for individuals such as Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester -- and abiding appreciation for bench leadership provided by players such as Gabe Kapler, Alex Cora and Eric Hinske -- glimmers.
Carmine gains definition, both in terms of the function of the information database and its practical application even for a computer-destroying force of nature such as Francona.
And, there is an amusing if somewhat disquieting exploration of the scatological humor that became a Francona signature in Fenway Park.
At the same time, the curtain is also lifted on some of the arguments and battles that Francona had inside the clubhouse, even as the manager served as a shield to keep some of those very same tensions hidden.
There is an account of the shouting match with Pedro Martinez in the first days of the 2004 season. Francona details his candid suggestion to Nomar Garciaparra in July 2004 that “maybe it’s time for you to move on.” There are recollections of fiery phone calls from Larry Lucchino shortly after the Garciaparra trade, when the CEO/president screams that the team’s play is “not acceptable.”
Francona suggests that at one point he was ready to quit in the middle of the 2005 season over owner John Henry’s suggestion that the manager publicly apologize to Manny Ramirez after one of the slugger’s in-season boycotts. He and David Ortiz both describe the growing tension in their relationship when the slugger struggled in 2009 and 2010 (including a clubhouse shouting match after Ortiz failed to run out of the box on a ball that hit off a wall). Details of the manager’s efforts -- and failure -- to get Josh Beckett to live up to his role as a pitching staff leader in 2011 are offered as well.
Even at the moment of the team’s greatest triumph -- the 2004 World Series, the Red Sox’ first championship in 86 years, and the 2007 title -- there are suggestions of ambivalence.
Francona encountered the ritual of Sox players taking a sip of Jack Daniels during the 2004 ALCS, and decided at that time to adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach. But after the team won the title, Francona acknowledges, “There was a lot that went on that made me uncomfortable. You don’t want a Boy Scout troop. When those guys got out on the field, they played and they picked each other up, but I was always making adjustments because we had so much going on all the time. I told Theo, ‘We can do this better, and still win.’ ”
Three years later, when the Sox again received the championship trophy, Francona is described as being bumped off the stage by the swelling ranks of owners, an act that Shaughnessy describes as “a moment of infinite humor and symbolism.”
Francona’s job with the Sox is portrayed as the management of a complex array of constituencies. At the same time that he negotiated the clubhouse dynamics with players and collaborated (and sometimes butted heads with) front-office members about strategy and personnel moves, he also faced an ownership group that comes off in relatively unflattering fashion.
At some points, principal owner Henry is described as sensitive and supportive, as when he sent Francona emails of encouragement during difficult times in 2004. Yet overall, the Sox owner is portrayed as aloof and socially awkward, someone who kept Francona waiting an hour in his house for a 10-minute interview and whose primary contact with the manager over his final years came through disenchanted emails wondering why Ortiz remained in the lineup against lefties. Chairman Tom Werner is portrayed as someone desperate for organizational relevance and so focused on NESN ratings that he struggles to appreciate the team’s on-field success. Lucchino is an impossible-to-please, fist-shaking boss who forever came off as distrustful of his manager.
Ultimately, the many rich vignettes serve merely as a backdrop to the more significant theme that emerges from a book written in the aftermath of Francona’s departure/dismissal/firing (don’t call it a firing!) from the Sox after the collapse of September 2011. Francona and Shaughnessy (who interviewed not only the manager, but also several key voices inside and outside the organization to add considerable depth to the tome) offer a view of the tensions and relationships that, the book suggests, corrupted the shape of the organization over time.
(In fairness, it’s worth pointing out that the theme has been explored before. The account offered by “Francona: The Red Sox Years” is not unfamiliar to those who read Seth Mnookin’s terrific “Feeding the Monster,” published originally in 2006 by Simon & Schuster. However, the Francona/Shaughnessy collaboration emphasizes a different period in franchise history with the primary perspective coming from the manager’s office, whereas Mnookin’s book featured primarily the perspectives of the front office and ownership.)
Ultimately, there’s a shadow that ends up stretching over even the club’s greatest successes. The book opens with one of its most striking anecdotes, as the Sox prepared for the Duck Boat parade. Members of the motley team were supposed to wear team-issued sweatshirts (intended to be marketed, and described by former GM Theo Epstein as hideous), but the apparel was misplaced before the players could wear them.
“Francona overheard Lucchino muttering, ‘Can’t you guys do one thing right?’ [Expletive], Larry, we just won the [expletive] World Series, Francona thought to himself. That should be good enough.”
In subtle protest, Francona wore a University of Arizona hat (rather than a Red Sox cap) in the World Series parade.
That moment offers the first suggestion that concerns about marketing and perception -- and the desperation for short-term success, sometimes at the expense of the long-term success of the baseball operation -- started to take the organization in a direction with which Francona and the front office struggled. The pattern continued with trips to Arizona in spring training in 2005 (a trip that Francona described as “the beginning of (ownership and Francona) starting to butt heads and me asking, ‘What are we here for?’ ”), the trip to Japan in 2008, the ever-growing on-field throngs of fans during batting practice and more.
Those commercial ventures were part of the growing influence of the so-called Monster, a term that gains a great deal of life through Shaughnessy’s interviews with Epstein. The former Sox GM, now the president of baseball operations with the Cubs, expanded considerably on the themes he explored during the summer about the big-money, big-market decisions to add outfielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez after the 2010 season (at a time when the book suggests that Sox were panicked about diminishing NESN ratings).
“It was my fault. I [expletive] up by giving in to that,” Epstein is quoted as saying. “There was always a tension between the scouting and development approach and what I call ‘The Monster.’ ‘The Monster,’ especially after we won the first time, was that we had to be bigger, better. There had to be more, more, more. We had to push revenues. It became a bit more of a distasteful, self-congratulatory tone to some of the things we were doing as a franchise.
“It’s hard to take winning and translate that into a day-to-day modus operandi for the club. There was always an inherent tension between what we were good at, what we wanted to do -- the long-term approach -- and this Monster. Talk about the arc of the decades. I think our group was really good at fighting that Monster and being true to our approach in the early and middle years, then toward the end – and I blame myself for this -- we sort of gave in to it. Seeing the reaction we had when it mentioned the ‘horror’ of seeing young players develop, seeing the impact it might have had on revenues, and having some discussions with the business people.
“There came a point where we were almost too big and I lost my willingness to cling to the patience and the approach I thought made us good. I thought we gave in and tried to take the shortcut, and I don’t think there are any shortcuts in baseball. We tried to take a shortcut by throwing money at some problems, and the irony is that led to even more problems.’ ”
Ultimately, those shortcuts contributed to the downfall of Francona. The former Sox manager acknowledges in the book the challenges that came to characterize the club in 2011, the sense that several players had gone from caring about the team to obsession with individual accomplishment.
Yes, there was chicken and beer (the habit of ordering fried chicken during games, incidentally, traced to respected teammate Mike Cameron in 2010). J.D Drew evidently developed an obsession with hunting video games, and evidently would retreat to the clubhouse to play them in late 2011, while on the disabled list. And the starting pitchers would spend Sundays in September watching football games in the clubhouse (a behavior on which Francona once called Lester).
All of that, the book suggests, was evidence of a clubhouse where the players were too invested in themselves and not their teammates. Those issues were further compounded by the departure of some of the respected voices on the coaching staff (Mills and particularly pitching coach John Farrell) and a host of issues related to the medical staff. In addition, the team faced ongoing rumors of Epstein’s departure to the Cubs and owners who seemed disconnected from the club.
None of those factors were as significant as the on-field failures (specifically, the meltdown of the rotation in September 2011), but they created an environment in which Francona acknowledged that he hadn’t been able to reach the clubhouse. Whether he was fired or elected not to come back (a subject explored in the book by Francona, Epstein and the team’s owners) is ultimately immaterial. He was gone.
In the end, there’s a sad reality to the circumstances of his departure and its aftermath, notably including the suggestion that Francona was self-medicating with painkillers in 2011.
(The book addresses the allegations of self-medication at length, with the revelation that Francona (who suggests that he took less painkillers in 2011 as a result of his many surgeries than he did in 2004) actually took part in the MLB drug program in 2011 while seeing pain management specialist. In one notable passage, Francona acknowledges that potential ramifications of his involvement in the MLB drug program.
“I said to [Dr. Larry Ronan], ‘This will come back to bite me in the [expletive]. I know how [expletive] works here. This will [expletive] me someday.’ ”
He was right.)
From the vantage point of early 2013, it feels as if September 2011 eroded the sense of what both Francona and the Sox accomplished in the previous years. One month serves as a form of poison in a well that formed over eight years, an uncomfortable reality that remains difficult for those who lived through it to place in context.
It’s telling, for instance, that in the acknowledgments section, Francona offers “[t]hanks to the Boston Red Sox for allowing me seven years and five months of the hardest but best years of my life.”
Glaring in its absence is that final month, of course.
Meanwhile, Epstein explicitly stated his concern about the violence done in one month to the broader spectrum of Francona’s accomplishments in discussing the Boston Globe report in October 2011 about Francona’s use of painkillers and marital woes (which resulted in his residence in a hotel) in his final Red Sox season.
“The article was unfortunate for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it threatened to taint Tito’s legacy,” Epstein says in the book.
That same claim, of course, could apply to Epstein himself (the former GM seems well aware of the fact, noting, “In a way, I’ll never recover from September … For us to lose not only our competitiveness and our place in the standings, but our identity as a team was painful to watch. I’ll never really get over that.’) as well as the Red Sox owners, not to mention the players who want to be identified with the team’s championships rather than its unraveling. A period of spectacular success ended in a moment of spectacular failure.
For now, perhaps because that failure is so recent, the principals to that broader body of work are struggling with the weight of a final, discordant note that has obscured the harmonies that preceded it.
In reading “Francona,” it’s difficult to avoid that conclusion. Francona, Epstein, the Red Sox owners -- all (quite understandably) are trying to fight for their legacies in Boston, to preserve the memory of remarkable accomplishments while struggling to reconcile them with the horrific end. The task is an imposing one, and for now, even 349 pages appear inadequate to accomplish that challenging trick.
That fact does nothing to lessen the value of the book, which will appeal to both casual and obsessive followers of the Sox. Even so, “Francona: The Red Sox Years” underscores the fact that the postscript to a remarkable decade in franchise history will be no less complicated than the era itself.
In that sense, the book serves as an unmasking. For years, Francona -- and others -- did what they could to keep the (expletive) hidden. Invariably, more (expletive) will come to light over time (is John Henry still working on his book?), a development that simultaneously can add to and diminish the appreciation of what the Sox accomplished during Francona’s tenure.