Book Review: “Francona – The Red Sox Years” By Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy
Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona was at Major League Baseball’s winter meetings in December of 2006 when his cell phone rang.
Francona picked up the phone and heard the voice of one of his young star pitchers on the other end.
“I’m cancer-free,” Jon Lester told Francona. “You’re my first call.”
“That’s so great, Junior,” said Francona. “Thanks so much for calling. Now go get ready for spring training.”
Francona put down the phone and started crying.
That brief interaction with one of his youngest – and at the time, ill – players shines a complimentary light on the man, Terry “Tito” Francona.
Francona’s ability to connect with his players has been certainly one of the main ingredients in his success as a baseball manager.
Francona steered the Boston Red Sox to two World Series championships and was still at the wheel when it all went gurgling to the bottom of Boston Harbor at the end of the 2011 season.
Francona’s Red Sox championship journey began with yet another horrific Red Sox loss to the hated Yankees, this one in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. Aaron Boone did his Bucky Dent impression to an even more dramatic degree, blasting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th inning to turn Yankee Stadium into a pinstriped frat party.
Francona had been run out of Philadelphia after four sub-.500 seasons by a flawed Phillies organization. Twenty-nine year-old second-year Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein quickly scooped Tito up. It proved a match made in Red Sox heaven as Francona and Epstein ably guided the hometown club to heights it hadn’t seen since, well, 1918.
Francona would gobble up the “Moneyball” theories and endless reams of statistical information provided by the GM’s minions and grind them through his “nuanced old-school ” shredder, keeping the good, tossing the bad.
Francona’s clubhouse accounts and insights on his approach to the game make for a dream read for baseball fans in “Francona – The Red Sox Years.” His ability to manage divergent, high profile personalities, particularly the very different personality that is Manny Ramirez, makes for a fascinating case study. Francona’s Red Sox teams won two World Series titles (2004, ’07) and won at least 95 games in five of his eight years (2004-’11) at the helm.
His co-writer, irrepressible Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, is a historian of everything Red Sox. Shaughnessy has witnessed an awful lot of the pain and, finally, the gain of one of the more intriguing franchises in Major League Baseball history. Shaughnessy is the perfect voice to lend historical perspective to Francona’s eight years in Boston.
Epstein, Francona and a host of Red Sox stars come off well while the Boston ownership absorbs more than a few well-deserved body blows. That said, where are the Red Sox without the almighty dollars that went into building the championship seasons of 2004 and ’07?
Sure Epstein deserves credit for insisting the Sox build from within, leading to the 2007 championship. He also has a claim to what the team accomplished in 2013 – winning its third World Series in 10 years. Epstein was hired as the GM of the newly high-flying Chicago Cubs at the end of the 2011 season but the 2013 Red Sox had his fingerprints all over them.
Francona’s no-nonsense personality carries the biography from when at age 11; he introduces himself to Red Sox legend Ted Williams at his father’s bequest, to taking on the Red Sox front office as a respected manager.
Tito’s baseball lineage is linked Forest Gump-like to the great and consequential players of the game in such coincidental fashion that it is almost spooky. Terry’s dad, the original Tito Francona, had a very serviceable 15-year major league career in which he batted .272.
Life inside the world of Boston Red Sox baseball is aptly described by Red Sox lifer and columnist Mike Barnicle. “Baseball is not life and death, but the Red Sox are,” he says.
As Shaughnessy would explain, “This is why years spent managing the Red Sox are like dog years. They age you disproportionately. Those before and after photos of U.S. presidents looking young and vigorous on Inauguration Day, then tired and gray four years later? It was the same with the men who worked in the small corner office of the Red Sox clubhouse.”
Did Francona survive the Boston cauldron? Well, what major league manager survives in the end? Joe Torre survived for 12 years in New York and did not leave under his own terms in the end.
Francona’s end in Boston was no tragedy. Sure, they got him in a way, but he left a legacy and is a legend in the eyes of the dyed-in-the-wool Red Sox fans. Doesn’t that say it all?
Postscript: Terry Francona never missed a beat as a manager after leaving the Red Sox. He was hired to manage the Cleveland Indians in 2013 and took the club to the World Series in 2016, falling in seven games to Epstein’s Cubs. Five of Francona’s seven Indians teams have won at least 90 games.