Tito Tops (Part One)

Editor's Note: The special championship commemorative issue of Diehard has just been released. The following piece on Terry Francona appears in the magazine. We hope you enjoy this free preview of our content and that you subscribe to Diehard by clicking on the links at the end of the story! (Part one of two)

Terry Francona was a few minutes late to his AL Championship Series workout day press conference at Fenway Park Oct. 19 because he was watching Joe Torre hold his own press conference in Rye, NY, where he discussed his decision to leave the Yankees.

Perhaps Francona was watching it knowing the ending is the same for every manager no matter how well he performs. Torre won four World Series with the Yankees and reached the playoffs in each of his 12 seasons, but his inability to steer the Yankees to a title since 2000—and an inability to even get out of the first round the past three seasons—made him a convenient fall guy both inside and outside the organization.

"It is a fight sometimes to keep the perspective," Francona said at his press conference. "I mean, we're sitting at 101 wins, and people don't seem to be very happy much of the time. That is a little perplexing, but that's the way it is."

There was some symbolism, too, in Francona watching Torre's departing press conference—a proverbial passing of the managerial baton between the speaker and the listener. Yet Francona is representative of today's manager in a much different way than Torre was.

Torre is a throwback to the day when the manager was the face of an organization as well as one of its most powerful people. Even the mercurial George Steinbrenner—who changed managers 20 times between 1973 and 1995—recognized Torre was untouchable for most of his reign.

The self-deprecating Francona would probably say it's a good thing he's not the face of the Sox. But recognition—inside and outside the organization—has been hard to come by for Francona despite his history-making success with the Sox.

He's the first Sox manager in more than 90 years to lead the club to multiple world championships. And presuming he manages through next season, he will be the first Sox skipper since Joe Cronin (1935-1947) to manage five consecutive seasons. Francona is one of only three active managers with multiple World Series rings (Torre and the Cardinals' Tony LaRussa are the others) and the only manager in history to win his first eight World Series games.

Still, Francona has yet to finish higher than fourth in manager of the year balloting. Eric Wedge and Mike Scioscia finished 1-2 in the balloting this year, when their teams were vanquished by the Sox in the playoffs.

"I think Tito is the most underrated manager," Sox assistant general manager Jed Hoyer said after the ALCS. "I think people haven't given him the credit—manager of the year type accolades. But look at what he's doing in the postseason, 2004 and this year. It's fantastic. He's well-prepared. He makes the right moves, and for some reason, people seem to overlook it. But they shouldn't."

But is Francona overlooked within his own organization? He seems to have a healthy relationship with general manager Theo Epstein, but there's never been a doubt that Epstein has the final say on just about everything and that Francona is viewed as an executor of the plan devised by Epstein and the baseball operations department.

In addition, while sub-.500 teams such as the Rays, Rangers and White Sox all gave extensions this season to their managers, the Red Sox still have Francona working under the terms of a three-year deal that will expire at the end of next season, when Francona is scheduled to make $1.75 million. Francona has declined comment on his contract status, but his comments after the Sox clinched the AL East Sept. 28—when he thanked John Henry and Tom Werner but did not mention Larry Lucchino, who serves as the team's head negotiator in contract talks—lent some additional intrigue to the situation.

Francona doesn't seem to be overlooked within his own clubhouse. In an era in which a skipper must be a "player's manager" in order to survive, Francona has managed to remain supportive of the Sox without losing his authority. Players appreciate his patience—particularly in a market where every move or non-move is dissected—and willingness to stick with what he believes in, even in the face of instant analysis and even in a short series.

"It's not about being the smartest baseball many anymore, I don't believe, even though [Francona is] incredibly smart," Curt Schilling said. "It's about surrounding yourself with the right people and putting your players in the best position to succeed. And sometimes that has nothing to do with strategy—it has to do with people skills, especially when you play in these markets, when you play in Boston and New York, you deal with things that no one else has to deal with."

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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