Four managers have guided their teams into the postseason in three of the past four years. Two are future Hall of Famers–St. Louis’ Tony La Russa and the New Yankees‘ Joe Torre. Another is the Angels skipper Mike Scioscia, generally regarded as one of the best in the business.
And the fourth? That would be Boston’s Terry Francona, who rarely if ever seems to get any credit for the Red Sox‘ recent run of success. It was Francona who managed the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years in 2004, then took Boston back to the playoffs in 2005 before the team slipped to third place in the AL East last season.
Francona is also the man who guided Boston to its first division title since 1995 this past season, and who’s now steered his club into the ALCS, where the Red Sox and Cleveland Indians are currently tied at one game apiece, resuming tonight at Jacobs Field after Sunday’s off day.
Few managers of a high-profile club like the Red Sox could have a lower profile than Francona. He is never mentioned in the discussion of the game’s top managers, and the national perception is that he is a nice guy who stays out of the way and lets his talented roster basically run itself. However, Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills feels that perception is unfair. And it is Mills who knows Francona as well as anyone in the game. Mills and Francona were teammates at the University of Arizona and with the Montreal Expos. Mills has also been Francona’s bench coach during all four of his seasons with the Red Sox. Mills was also on the staff during Francona’s first tenure as a manager, with Philadelphia from 1997-2000.
“He’s got to start getting those accolades because the players play for him and they win for him,” Mills said. “He’s got to be one of the top two or three guys in baseball the way he runs the game. He prepares. Somebody needs to take notice, to give him the credit he should have. I don’t understand it but now is the time.”
However, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who also played for Francona in Philadelphia, believes his manager is very similar to Torre. “He’s a tremendous man, just like Joe Torre,” Schilling said. “It’s not about being the smartest man anymore, though both are incredibly smart. It’s about surrounding yourself with the right people and putting your players in the best position to succeed. Sometimes that has nothing to do with strategy, and everything to do with people skills. In markets like Boston and New York, you deal with things that no one else has to deal with. He does as good a job as anyone has ever done here at it, and he really is a highly underrated manager because he’s a very good game manager as well. It goes beyond just knowing how to handle people. He knows the game and how to utilize his players.”
Francona manages in one of the biggest media markets in the country, but he doesn’t use that platform for self-promotion. He has bought into the Red Sox’ philosophy of using statistical analysis along with scouting reports to prepare for games, and make strategic decisions and never takes credit for any of the successes in Boston. Francona also has the benefit of a self-effacing style of humor, which was on display when a reporter asked before Game One of the ALCS if he should get the same respect in the Boston market as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose team is 6-0 this season and has won three Super Bowls in six years: “I don’t think I’d be a good football coach because I really don’t know much about it. Really, I’ve never thought about how much credit I should get. I don’t wake up in the morning and run to see how I’m being perceived in the newspapers. I think to do this job correctly you have to have enough confidence in what you’re doing, go do it and if it does work or doesn’t work, answer the questions and move on.”
It is that low-key approach that endears Francona to his players. “Tito doesn’t want the credit,” Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. “He just worries about the players. He wants what is best for us and that’s why we love him and play hard for him every day.”
Francona has a 375-273 regular-season record during his four years with the Red Sox; during his four seasons with the Phillies from 1997-2000, he was 285-363. After being fired in Philadelphia, he then spent one season as a special assistant to then-Indians GM John Hart, then one year each as a bench coach with Texas and Oakland before getting his second managerial shot.
His thoughts on how experience has changed him? “I’d like to think I’ve grown as a manager because I was really young when I got the job in Philadelphia and I learned some things along the way there,” said Francona, who was 37 when he managed his first major league game. “Really, though, it all comes down to the players. I’ve been blessed to have a lot of great players, who are really great people, too, during these last four years. Ultimately, you better have good players and any manager knows that. You’re only as good as your players.”
However, Francona’s players also believe they are better because of their manager. “He is always prepared for every situation, but it’s more than just the strategy,” Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said. “He knows how to read the team, understands the type of people we have and how to attack the different personalities. He also adapts to the personnel and delegates responsibility to the coaching staff. He has a great feel for the game and even a better feel for people, which makes him a great guy to play for.”