"FRANCONA: The Red Sox Years," by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, 343 pages (nf)
Terry Francona is the ultimate baseball insider, the kind of figure who, when he writes a book, can't believe how urgently the game's fans want to read it. Indeed, "Francona: The Red Sox Years" has been on the New York Times best-seller list for hardcover nonfiction for eight weeks now.
The wildly successful and wildly tumultuous years as Boston's manager are the chief reason for the interest, but the Sox owe the two World Series titles they won with Francona as skipper to his life in baseball.
The son of a big leaguer, Tito Francona, Terry Francona grew up around baseball and has never left.
One of the book's best anecdotes underscores the way the Francona family has been a part of Major League Baseball since 1956. In 1958, Tito Francona's wife was pregnant, so he called the general manager of the Detroit Tigers to ask for a $1,000 raise. The GM, John McHale, said no. In 1980, McHale selected Terry Francona with the Montreal Expos' first pick in the draft. "... All that time went by," Tito recalled, "and there we are in 1980 and the Expos draft Terry and John McHale is calling to get him signed. I said, 'John, how good is your memory? Remember when my wife was pregnant and you wouldn't give me the extra $1,000? Well, you're going to have to pay now. This is the baby.'"
Francona signed for a robust $100,000; he'd been the the best college baseball player in America that year and reached the big leagues the next season. A knee injury robbed him of his skills, but he played 10 Major League seasons, then went into coaching. He managed basketball legend Michael Jordan in Birmingham, Ala., when Jordan tried his hand at professional baseball.
Baseball son, bonus baby, big leaguer, manager with two World Series championship rings, ESPN announcer. Who doesn't want to hear his stories, to let Francona dish about superstar malcontents like Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez and Josh Beckett and tell what it's really like to be around "idiots" like Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar, a diva like Pedro Martinez and an ego like Curt Schilling on the way to Boston's first World Series title in 86 years?
But dishing isn't the likable Francona's style. He won more than 57 percent of his games over eight seasons with Boston because he protected his players in the sport's most brutal media market. ("There was no getting called to the woodshed when Terry Francona was in charge.")
In fact, Francona learned to be a great manager of people by watching how people treated his father and himself, and learning how to handle situations and personalities both frankly and diplomatically. (Although he does so with plenty of cursing. A life in baseball can also be a life immersed in swearing, and Francona's book, written with Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, feels to the reader exactly like being in big-league clubhouses and front offices. An Excel spreadsheet would have a hard time counting up all the F-words in this book.)
Francona could teach business seminars on leadership: Address problems promptly, but not confrontationally. Learn how to reach different personalities differently. Allow room for creativity, but maintain certain standards. Give credit freely to your employees. Defend and protect them publicly while dealing with problems privately. Remain calm and steady.
"One of (his) greatest strengths was to empower players and put them at ease and let them be themselves and feel great about themselves," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said. "... (He) created this insulated environment where the only thing that mattered was competing and having each other's backs. ... We were trying to let our hair down and get past the puritanical, anxiety-filled, rigid conflicts of the ear that preceded us in the late 1990s and 2001. We just wanted to relax and go play, and I think (he) really pulled that off."
He even left his wallet stuffed with $20 bills on his desk so coaches and clubhouse workers could take out loans he didn't track, a generosity for the little guy learned from his father and others in countless clubhouses.
The Boston pressure cooker had swallowed the Red Sox whole for decades, especially in 2003. In 2004, Francona took over in the dugout and proved the perfect manager to guide "the idiots," the 2004 Sox, to the franchise's first World Series title in 86 years. A second followed in 2007.
Francona and Shaughnessy tell some great stories from those seasons. (The book isn't written in the first person. It's more like Shaughnessy is writing with fantastic access to Francona.) They also spend a lot of time on the ugly denouement. The Sox appeared to be on their way to another World Series in 2011, winning 66 percent of their games (81-42) during the middle of the season. Then the wheels came off. They went a miserable 7-20 in September, becoming the first team ever to miss the playoffs after holding a nine-game playoff lead in September.
The collapse was blamed, in part, on players taking advantage of Francona's relaxed rules, intended to allow the players to police themselves. But as the Providence Journal's Tim Britton points out in his review of the book, Francona is the victor writing history.
Ultimately, he dishes on the team's owners, sticking them with much of the blame for poor player acquisitions and the Gotterdammerung of the Epstein/Francona era. Both depart at the end of 2011, and anyone who reads this book will watch the Cleveland Indians with interest this year, as Francona sets up shop in their dugout with his gum-wrapped chew and his unique leadership style.