A few personal photos sit on a ledge in the corner of Terry Francona’s office in Fenway Park. There is one picture of Muhammad Ali and Francona shaking hands. Another depicts Tito Francona, the father of the manager, in the Indians uniform that he wore for six of his 15 big league seasons.
And then there is the third image. A laminated photo of Francona, beaming in his Red Sox uniform, features a caption that reads, “If I did what (the fans) wanted . . . it’s not physically possible. Anatomy-wise, you can’t do it.”
Francona made the remark in 2004. In his first summer as Boston’s manager, he received an onslaught of correspondence from irate Sox fans about his lineup cards, bullpen usage and fashion sense.
In that first year, it seemed impossible that Francona could win over one of the most skeptical fan bases in baseball. A man who admits that he was emotionally “beaten up” over the course of a four-year run as Phillies manager from 1997-2000 seemed likely to face a similar fate in Boston.
Four seasons, three playoff appearances and two World Series titles later, that is no longer the case. Francona can make a claim to the title of most successful manager in Red Sox history.
In 2007, he guided the Sox to a 96-66 mark that was tied for the best in the majors. Francona now owns a 22-9 postseason record, and he is the first manager to get off to an 8-0 start in World Series games. That record of success earned Francona the title of Baseball America’s Manager of the Year.
“It’s a well-deserved honor. He’s been fantastic for us ever since he got the job in 2004,” Boston general manager Theo Epstein said. “Sometimes he doesn’t get recognized for that because we have a highly competitive club year after year. Oftentimes, on clubs like that, managers tend to get overlooked. But he certainly helps to promote that kind of club every year.”
Taking Good With The Bad
In a market where managers are often polarizing figures, Francona has created an atmosphere of stability. In 2007, for the first time in recent memory, the Sox navigated a season without a whiff of significant public controversy.
There were no trade demands, no melodramas about pending free agents, no public blow-ups about roles and playing time. The accomplishment was not without its challenges.
“Boston is the whole package. You can’t just take part of the package,” Francona said. “The good part is incredible. There’s nothing like it. I can’t tell you how much I love walking down that tunnel every night, knowing we’re playing a big game. I love that.
“With that comes some of the other things that sometimes give a manager a headache. There’s an unbelievable amount of media and fan passion. That’s just part of it.”
Francona has learned to manage those challenges, largely through diligence. The Sox hired him in no small part due to his far-reaching commitment to preparation.
He typically arrives at his Fenway Park office eight hours before a night game, gets into uniform and begins organizing data. That early preparation allows Francona to deal with the many other constituencies he faces, whether the front office, players, medical staff or media.
“I’ve always been an early arrival guy, but it’s real early here. That’s by choice,” Francona said. “When the players start coming in, I don’t want to be sitting at my desk, looking over matchups or crunching numbers. Once the players come in, I want to be available, even if it’s to play a game of cribbage with (Dustin) Pedroia.”
Players laud Francona for maintaining a loose atmosphere in potentially suffocating circumstances. Yet his role as a tactician capable of balancing short- and long-term interests played a critical part in his team’s championship in 2007.
Francona has embraced his organization’s efforts to assume an increasingly homegrown shape. He has not fled from young players—most notably Pedroia, who hit .182 in April and went on to win the 2007 Rookie of the Year—even when they struggle.
That commitment is part of an overall willingness to strip individual contests of “must-win” labels during the regular season. Francona remains constantly mindful of the broader view, refusing to manage individual games with the sort of urgency that could cost him victories later in the season.
Hence, when Jonathan Papelbon needed rest in the first Red Sox-Yankees game of 2007, Francona entrusted a save situation to Hideki Okajima. That conservative approach, in turn, helped the Sox to employ Papelbon as a multi-inning force in the postseason.
“Everybody (in New England) wants him to manage every game of the season like it’s a playoff game, and he understands he can’t,” observed Sox righthander Curt Schilling, who also played for Francona with the Phillies. “He understands his players, he understands his people and he understands the long-term implications of all of that. He never wavers.”
Despite being one of three active managers to win multiple World Series (along with Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa), Francona refuses to trumpet his accomplishments.
“Everything that comes my way is directly correlated to the organization and the players,” Francona said. “I know I have a role in what we do and I take it very seriously, but without (Epstein), without the owners, without the players, I would be the same guy that I am in Philadelphia—run out of town and considered a dummy.”