Sox Think Dearly Of John

Indians general manager Mark Shapiro had one message for the Red Sox regarding John Farrell, who played a pivotal role in getting both teams to the American League Championship Series: (FREE PREVIEW OF COMMEMORATIVE CHAMPIONSHIP ISSUE CONTENT!)

Enjoy him while you've got him.

"We felt [his] influence here as a farm director," Shapiro said before Game One of the ALCS. "I felt it when he was a player. And the Red Sox are benefiting from that now as a pitching coach.

"They won't have the benefit of that long, because he'll have other opportunities come his way in the years to come."

There's no doubt about that—nor that the benefits the Sox derived from Farrell in 2007 were as tangible as they were immeasurable. Sox pitchers posted a 3.87 ERA, the best in the American League and nearly a full run better than their 2006 mark of 4.83. Sox relievers recorded a 3.10 ERA, best in the majors and the second-lowest mark in team history.

To see the Sox thrive under Farrell's leadership and win the World Series is to forget just how impossible a task he appeared to have when he was hired Oct. 16, 2006. Indeed, it was the type of combustible scenario straight out of the reality television handbook: New coach comes in and has to build relationships with a demanding 40-year-old who may be bound for the Hall of Fame, a headstrong and wary 27-year-old coming off the worst season of his career, a 40-year-old knuckleballer and a 26-year-old Japanese import who retains iconic status in his homeland.

And that's just the starting rotation. How about trying to find a closer and set-up men out of spare parts assembled over the winter? How about following the general manager's mandate to create an environment in which young pitchers can step in and thrive in a demanding market? And how about doing it all while reporting to perhaps the most thorough front office in the game?

Who needs Sox Appeal when you've got this? Except Farrell turned out to be perfectly qualified to navigate all the potential potholes and craft fruitful relationships with his pupils as well as his bosses.

In an era where disconnect regularly exists between multimillionaire ballplayers and their minimally salaried—and minimally secured—coaches, Sox pitchers were unusually and universally devoted to Farrell. Part of it is his mere appearance, which commands respect: The 6-foot-4 Farrell could still pass for an active player even at age 45. And with the most distinctive jaw east of Bill Cowher and a vise-like handshake, he strikes an imposing yet approachable presence.

In addition, the pitchers were impressed with his work ethic and his willingness to put in the time necessary to get to know each pitcher's personality and repertoire. "He's the complete package," Curt Schilling said. "He understands that every one of us is such a different animal when it comes to coaching, teaching and talking. He knows exactly what I need to do and he knows what to say and how to say it."

That gift came in handy during an introductory meeting between Farrell and Josh Beckett in Texas last winter. What was supposed to be a get-to-know-you session turned into three hours of brainstorming and jump-started Beckett's emergence as a 20-game winner.

"I think it started with getting to know him as a person first, or at least laying the groundwork for a relationship that would be trusting," Farrell said in May. "Because if there's any recommendations [that] were to be made, there's got to be some credibility attached to that message and a clear understanding."

Farrell won Schilling over early in the season with his detail-oriented nature before he helped the one-time ace morph into a craftsman after he missed nearly two months with a sore right shoulder. Getting Schilling, who used to overpower batters with a high-90s fastball and impeccable command, to pitch to contact and rely on an upper-80s fastball and an array of off-speed stuff—including a developing changeup—wasn't easy for either teacher or pupil, but Schilling credited Farrell's patience and approach for helping him make the transition that allowed him to post a 3.34 ERA in nine starts following his return and a 3.00 ERA in four playoff appearances.

"It's been an incredibly arduous and long road and a process that's had its peaks and valleys, but John has stuck with me and worked as hard as I've ever had a pitching coach work to get me to where I need to be," Schilling said.

Jonathan Papelbon, who returned to the closer's role late in spring training, enjoyed a dominant and healthy season. Hideki Okajima, an afterthought when he was signed in November, turned into one of the most dominant set-up men in the AL after Farrell taught him a changeup in spring training. Manny Delcarmen, who was inconsistent during brief big league stints in 2005 and 2006, posted a 2.05 ERA and allowed only 45 baserunners in 44 innings and said Farrell played a big role in helping him make adjustments in the middle of an inning or an at-bat.

The ability to connect with young and/or inexperienced pitchers may be Farrell's most valuable trait. While the Sox can afford to acquire Beckett and then sign him long-term—or re-sign Schilling to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $8 million with the expectation that it'll be worth it if he can pitch 125 innings—general manager Theo Epstein believes the foundation of a successful franchise lies with homegrown pitching.

After the Sox did not offer Dave Wallace a contract for 2006, Epstein said he was looking for someone who could "…create an environment where pitchers can come and thrive and the different adjustments that I felt we needed to make in all aspects of our pitching operations. How we evaluate them, how we acquire them, how we support them once they're here."

Prior to joining the Sox, Farrell spent five seasons with the Indians as their director of player personnel. Of the 11 Indians pitchers to appear in an ALCS game, seven came up through the system under Farrell's watch.

"When we clinched [the AL Central] this year I text messaged him," Shapiro said. "[He wrote] ‘You should have been on the field with us. You played a role with a lot of these guys.'"

Farrell's front office tenure and experience with cultivating young talent made him Epstein's top choice, but it wasn't easy luring him from Cleveland. He and his family live there and Farrell was thankful to the Indians for setting him on the front office track.

"It was not an easy decision, and I say that only because the two opportunities—two situations—that were in front of me were extremely rare and ones that aren't taken lightly," Farrell said. "Ultimately, being able to work with Theo, Tito [Francona] and [to] allow a competitive fire to come out within me on a nightly basis is what drew me here.

"That's not to say that I was looking forward to leaving Cleveland, because it was an opportunity given to me to enter that path in a post-playing career that I'm forever thankful for."

That path once appeared to be headed straight towards a general manager's office. Now? Farrell was so successful with the Sox that he is being mentioned as a future manager—quite an accomplishment considering the history of failed pitching coaches turned managers (remember the Joe Kerrigan Error?). The Pirates reportedly tabbed Farrell as the top candidate for their managerial vacancy, but Farrell declined an interview shortly after the World Series and will return to the Sox in 2008.

How long he stays after that is anybody's guess.

"John's an impact guy—he's one of those people that would be successful in anything he did in life," Shapiro said. "He can be an impact general manager. He'd be an impact major league manager because he has this great set of attributes. He's a great communicator. He's extremely intelligent. He prepares meticulously. When you combine those things…with the experience of having played in the big leagues, you've got a guy whose limits are boundless."


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE

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