Adversary to Ally

Terry Francona, the Red Sox manager, has been through quite a bit this year. Before we get into what he’s done this year, I thought we should take a look at his history, so I went over to BaseballLibrary.com to look him up. The following is the little summary of Terry Francona’s career.

The son of ’50s and ’60s major league player Tito Francona, Terry was The Sporting News College Player of the Year at the University of Arizona in 1980, and was the Expos’ first-round draft pick in the 1980 free agent draft. A line drive hitter with little power, Francona played less than two seasons in the minors — after hitting .352 at Denver (American Association) in 1981, he earned a promotion to Montreal. With the Expos, he spent half of 1982 and half of 1984 on the DL with a recurring knee injury; the 1984 injury was particularly devastating, as Francona had been hitting .346 to that point. After hitting .267 in 1985, he was released to make room for impressive rookie Andres Galarraga at first base. He played single seasons with the Cubs and Reds in 1986-87, then signed a minor league contract with the Indians for 1988 and hit .311 after joining the parent club in mid-season.
Francona finished up his playing career in 1989 with the Milwaukee Brewers. Three years later he got his first job as a manager at Single-A South Bend, followed by a 1993 promotion to Birmingham, the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. In his first year with the club, the Barons won the Southern League crown. A year later his team was swamped by press coverage when NBA star Michael Jordan joined the team in an effort to start a baseball career. Although Francona wasn’t able to teach Jordan to hit, Baseball America still named him the “top managerial prospect” in the minors in ’94.
After compiling a 296-266 record in the minors, Francona was hired after the 1996 season to replace Jim Fregosi as manager of the Phillies. In his first year at the helm, the Phillies finished dead last in the NL East for the second straight year.
Francona’s Phils flirted with .500 the following season, but swooned after catcher Mike Lieberthal went down with a hip injury in late July. Despite another late-season meltdown in 1999 (caused in part by injuries to Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling) the youngest manager in the majors kept a calm, positive attitude. His reputation as one of the game’s rising young tacticians remained intact, and the 40-year-old skipper received a two-year extension through 2002.

Alas, Francona’s extension went for naught as he was fired the year after signing the extension, being let go prior to the final game of the season, which management allowed him to manage anyways. Curious. Anyhoo, Francona went from a 68-94 record to 75-87, 75-85 the next year, and then slipped back to 95-97. Larry Bowa then took the team to a 86-76 record the next year in 2001. Francona then bounced around the majors, coaching. He took a job as Athletics’ bench coach in 2003, and oversaw Keith Foulke and became familiar with the Red Sox team when the Red Sox stormed back after a 2-0 deficit in the ALDS to take three straight. Francona engineered a coup d’etat when he interviewed for the vacated Red Sox managerial seat. Theo was so surprised and enamored of Francona, he was basically hired on the spot.
Francona so far has managed the Sox to a season-high 20 games over .500, to a 73-53 record. His club has gone on fire since the trading deadline. I hardly think this is any accident. While ‘The Trade’ really improved the club in every aspect of the game, Francona suddenly became a very good manager. Even Boston.com’s @bat Insider’s weekly report card has praised Francona in the recent weeks, saying he has made good decisions, both offensively, defensively, and with regard to his bullpen usage.
I remember one of the games we most recently had against the Yankees. One of the announcers (I can’t remember who, there were so many over the course of the series) noted that Joe Torre came out to hook a reliever and bring another one, and said that was what made him good, he knew when to. I then had a bolt of realization come to me – Francona was actually a slower hook than I normally saw, and Torre had a quicker hook. Lo and behold, ever since then, I’ve noticed Francona has had a quicker hook than normal. Perhaps the ‘trust’ factor in the bullpen has helped, but I think Francona took a couple of notes out of Torre’s notebook and is starting to apply them.
In Gump Revisited, which you may remember me linking a few days ago, the discussion shifted to Francona. I e-mail off and on with Andy Lavin, he of Marlins Today who is both a Marlins and Red Sox fan. He noted in one of his e-mails that the

Sox are a season high 19 games over .500. They’re on a pace to tie last year’s 95 win season under Grady. And keep in mind how healthy last year’s squad was. Think we have to start giving Tito his due props. Between all the injuries, the Nomar trade, and Send ’em Sveum running baserunning suicide missions, this team has overcome a TON this year…

Rhody Sox (or Sam, who leaves comments in this blog regularly, and also writes for Raystalk) said this was no surprise. They got Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to settle matters. I replied that Grady had BK Kim and a better Derek Lowe, which would help offset this, considering Lowe is that much worse this year. CR67dream, founder of the Cardiac Kids which I frequent, then said something, which actually spurred this column;

There is no question in my mind that Gump had a hell of a lot more to work with than Tito has this year. On top of the Kim and Lowe factor, Gump had a healthy Nomar and a healthy Trot all year long. [Ed. note: And Francona also has not had/has a healthy Williamson, Burks, Youkilis, McCarty, Bellhorn, Leskanic, Reese, Mueller, Mendoza, DiNardo to boot!]
Francona has shown an ability to grow and learn from his mistakes, whereas Little was stubborn as a mule and wouldn’t adjust his thinking for anything. The only time Tito made me furious, I mean Gump-level furious this year is when he left Pedro in with a 10 run lead in the pouring rain. Pedro almost got hurt, and for what? He almost lost me there, but I have been able to at least try to be objective since, and he has been at least OK for the most part since.

It had never registered before, but it really is true! Francona does try to grow and learn, and he actually pulls that off. Sending Pedro out in the rain … I’m not sure what he was thinking, but I’m sure he got a gentle talking-to from Theo after that. Also, Francona has started outfielder Dave Roberts frequently recently (watch out, Emily Dickinson!). While I am a big fan of Roberts, I would prefer Kapler start. However, when I first read that Francona would be starting Roberts, Francona basically said that he was unhappy with the at-bats Roberts was getting and if he wanted Roberts to be key down the stretch, he needed to get Roberts playing time to stay sharp. Genius. I doubt Little would have done that, to be honest with you. Most managers would have just had Roberts start one game, then go back to the bench and maybe pinch-hit/pinch-run Roberts more. Not Francona – he shows a commitment to getting Roberts sharp.
‘Kiss My Aase’ said that “Mrs. KMA has noted that she’s surprised I’m so mellow regarding Tito, because she put up with me raging about Grady for two years. I just haven’t seen a pattern of incompetence, which was Grady’s hallmark.” You may remember the Sports Guy who writes over at Page 2 of ESPN last year saying he had a feeling Grady was going to blow it – and this was before the playoffs. I can honestly say that this year, I am confident going into the playoffs that Terry Francona will be part of the solution, not the problem.