Francona Stays One Step Ahead

Terry Francona is not the best "X's and O's" manager in baseball. In fact, he might not even be among the ten best.

Terry Francona has always been an enigma to me. In my judgment, he is a slightly above average manager of a baseball team from innings one-through-nine on game day. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it is. He knows the game and has a passion for it. Lots of people do.

To frame it another way, my contention is that if a baseball manager's only job were to show up twenty minutes before first pitch and manage the game, then Francona would not be much better than a .500 manager. In fact, when he was the Manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, he was well below that, at .440.

However, being the manager of a Major League Baseball team this day in age might be no more than fifty percent about actually managing the lineups, the pitchers and the bullpen. "X's and O's," as we commonly refer to them as, are but one component of being a manager.

I was reminded of this once again when Manny Ramirez, the artful Dodger, returned to Fenway Park for the first time since forcing the Red Sox to trade him by committing the ultimate sins against baseball, intentionally under performing. Managing Manny has so precious little to do with baseball coaching. When he is at the plate, he takes care of it all by himself. Keeping his head straight before and after his at-bats so he is able to actually help your team as a hitter requires the acumen of a hybrid teacher, psychologist, parent and babysitter.

Professional managing has seen a radical shift in job description since its inception. I am sure that managers always had to balance personalities and egos, but nowadays, that might be the primary role of the team's theoretical leader. (I have to say "theoretical" because in a game where dollars rule, managers are often in the middle of the road among men wearing uniforms in the clubhouse with respect to salaries. That can skew the power structure sometimes.)

In the modern era of baseball, with the salary structure as it is, teams like the Red Sox and New York Yankees will now have a plethora of talent, perhaps even an All-Star at every position. They should win almost by definition, and a great tactician of a manager should not even be necessary because when playing the game by the book, these teams should prevail far more often than not. So General Managers don't necessarily go after the best in-game managers. The GM's try to take care of that part of the game with their off-season signings.

Joe Torre is a tremendous ambassador for the sport, a great guy with the media and a very knowledgeable baseball man. However, before and since his tenure with the Yankees, he's an average manager. Some want to rank him among the best managers of all time. Why? Because he has so many World Series wins on his fingers, simply. I believe that Joe Torre was a great manager for the New York Yankees, not a great manager in a vacuum.

That is no small accomplishment. I absolutely feel that the Yankees would not have won so many Championships during their recent run without Joe Torre. However, Torre and Francona are the poster boys for the new type of "perfect manager." They might not have the highest baseball IQ's among managers, but they have both perfected an art in managing teams with individual players who have enormous and often conflicting egos.

Going back to the fantasy world of just throwing a random 25 players together and having a manager show up just before game time and manage the team, I would want Lou Piniella, Bobby Cox or Bobby Valentine, to name a few, before I would call upon Francona or Torre. Those are better pure baseball managers in my opinion, but those three would not even make a list of managers I would want to manage the 2010 Red Sox or Yankees.

Francona has plenty of pure baseball knowledge in him, so he should hardly feel under-dressed in a room filled with great baseball managers past and present. What sets him apart from just about everybody else in the room is his ability to check his own ego and his preference for how the game should be played. "Tito" Francona the player would have tried to break a bat over Manny Ramirez's head with the antics Manny pulled in Boston, and long before the Final Act in 2008.

Ramirez routinely failed to run out grounders, flyouts and long base hits that he thought were going to be home runs. He played the outfield so dispassionately that it left observers wondering if he cared at all. I have no doubt that Francona gave Manny a piece of his mind in private, but he never took to the media with had to have been his great disgust. Instead, Francona actually played a big role in embracing the, "Manny being Manny" mantra, which was lightly veiled code for, "Manny acting liking a selfish buffoon."

Tito has made a name for himself by taking players like Manny and getting the most possible out of them within a newly structured concept of the term "team." Perhaps Phil Jackson is the patriarch of this type of team, one on which the better the player you are, the more you get to make your own rules. That is a simple task when it comes to the blessed few whose game exceeds team management's desire to have those players act like mature adults. However, the nightmare comes in holding the remainder of the roster accountable to one another in working toward the ultimate team goal, winning. It is in this area that Francona earns every cent he is paid.

He managed extremely strong and willful egos during the 2004 campaign in the persons of Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Kurt Schilling, David Ortiz and closer Keith Foulke. That team had plenty of talent to win the World Series that year, yet arguably, very few managers could have won the whole thing like Francona did. Nomar's trading deadline departure was one of the biggest stories in baseball when it happened. Tito just kept moving forward.

I can only imagine what that clubhouse was like. perhaps we will never know, but what we all know for sure is that Francona has led Boston to two World Series victories since taking the reigns in 2004, and nobody here needs a reminder of just how long of a drought there was between Championships. Torre did similar things with the Yankees. He meshed gigantic egos into a Championship team.

The argument that teams like the Red Sox and Yankees buy Championships is too simple. They obviously have a huge leg up on the competition by loading up the roster with great players, but it takes more than that. Sometimes, even when a team on paper should be a lock to win 95 games at a minimum, it takes a clever baseball man to make sure the team does not get in its own way, or more to the point, make sure that the parts don't implode the sum of those parts.

On that level, Francona is a genius. He looks to have an answer for almost every problem that can arise on a team. He is criticized by some for his loyalty to guys with whom he has gone through the baseball battles even in the presence of apparent empirical evidence that suggests that he should turn the page on those players careers. In the end, that loyalty almost always pays off. He keeps the team going no matter what, including in the aftermath of devastating regular season losses and/or injuries.

As this issue goes to press, the Sox are facing the injury bug in a huge way with Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz and Victor Martinez set to miss various amounts of time missing from the lineup. Francona will manage to get the Sox through this stretch with their playoff hopes still intact. That is what he does. He stays at least one step ahead of the next drama to hit his club.

In all of these respects, Terry "Tito" Francona might well be the best manager in the MLB at this moment.

I will sit quietly and enjoy the ride.

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