Benevolent and Loyal Order of Honorable Ancient Red Sox Die Hard Sufferers of New York  since 1965

March 6, 2013 - 3:39 pm

Book Review: Francona - The Red Sox Years

If William Shakespeare had written a Western novel, it would have been Francona - The Red Sox Years.

Sheriff Terry Francona rides into a town demoralized by its inability to compete with the citizens of a larger neighboring town, wins two World Series championships and enforces the law for nearly eight years. In a classic western, a successful Francona would maintain law and order in the now-prosperous town for many years and eventually ride off into a glorious mesa-filled sunset.

But this is a Shakespearean tragedy.

In the sheriff’s eighth year, with the town apparently on the way to a third championship and the promise of more successful years in office (the town council can exercise a two-year contract option), several of his deputies challenge his leadership, resulting in a calamitous collapse of the town’s fortunes.

In the climactic scene, the sheriff, a good guy who wears a white hat, is driven from the town by the members of the council. Their names are John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino. They are bad guys and wear black hats. A fifth central character, Theo Epstein, who wears a white hat most of the time, tries but fails to avoid the painful outcome.

Even with its tragic conclusion (or maybe because of it), Francona - The Red Sox Years is eminently readable, especially for Red Sox fans. It’s full of vignettes, like:
· A young Terry accompanying his father Tito, an accomplished major leaguer, into big league ballparks and meeting stars like Joe Torre, Reggie Jackson and Ted Williams -
· The rookie Francona playing for Dick Williams, the take-no-prisoners manager of the Impossible Dream Red Sox pennant winners of 1967
· Francona failing but learning as a first-time manager of the Philadelphia Phillies
· The interview process that Francona goes through before being hired by the Red Sox that should be required reading for every job applicant
· David Ortiz handing a bewildered Francona a $50,000 diamond ear stud before he goes up to bat because league rules prohibit wearing jewelry while playing
· Kevin Millar saying after the devastating defeat by the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS that put the Sox down 3-0, “Don’t let us win tonight. If we win, we’ve got Pedro going tomorrow, then Schilling, and then anything can happen in game seven.”
· Manny being Manny . . . and being Manny . . . and being Manny . . . and being Manny much too often, and being traded.
· And the infamous fried-chicken-and-beer-in-the-clubhouse during the September meltdown of 2011.

Until this last incident, Henry, Werner and Lucchino were sometimes good guys and occasionally wore white hats. Afterwards they were clearly the bad guys.

Well before the September meltdown, however, the three were shaded with a subtle brush of disdain.

Among other portrayals of their personalities, Henry is described as “eccentric”, Werner as “constantly trying to assert his importance” Lucchino as “trigger-tempered” and the three as a “vaunted trio. ”

There is a reason for this.

The two names on the cover of Francona - The Red Sox Years are Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy. Francona was the contributor, Shaughnessy the author.

The author is a master of controversy - and controversy sells. Wikipedia’s summary of Shaughnessy’s career includes the phrase, “Known by Red Sox fans (and some players) as being overly negative and critical . . . ”. There is also a blog that’s dedicated to critiquing his work.

I believe that Dan Shaugnessy is a fine writer. I also believe that he is a direct literary descendant of Dave Egan, a sportswriter for the Boston Record and Boston Herald in the 1940’s and 1950’s. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that Egan infuriated me as a youngster.

Ted Williams was my idol. He also was Egan’s target for scorn and disparagement that went well beyond the bounds of critical reporting. I haven’t a clue why Egan was so vitriolic. Perhaps it was because of some slight by Williams towards him. Ted’s dislike of the media was genuine and well publicized, but Egan’s unfavorable writing far surpassed that of every other reporter who covered the Red Sox.

Perhaps Egan felt he was justified in his attacks. Or perhaps it was because Egan realized that while the vast majority of fans - like me - hated what he wrote about Williams, we read his columns just so that we could get angry with him. Perhaps Egan knew that he could differentiate himself from the other reporters by being a negative journalist. By being controversial.

In any case, Francona - The Red Sox Years is controversial because of the stark contrast depicted between Francona, whose life is a total commitment to baseball, and the Red Sox ownership, about whom Francona says, “They come in with all these ideas about baseball, but I don’t think they love baseball. I think they like baseball. It’s revenue, and I know that’s their right and their interest because they’re owners - and they’re good owners. But they don’t love the game. It’s still more of a toy or a hobby for them. It’s not their blood. They’re going to come in and out of baseball. It’s different for me. Baseball is my life.”

This may be Francona’s disapproval of the attitude of the Red Owners towards the game he worships, but to me it’s an accurate statement of the attitude that owners in professional sports teams should have to the teams that they own.

Baseball is a sport, but it’s also a business. Owners have an obligation to treat their team ownership as a business - all the time. While that shouldn’t preclude them from sometimes rooting as a fan would, their involvement with their team and its actions should always be business-like. All fans are painfully aware that regardless of their love of the game, players, coaches and managers also treat it as a business when contract time comes around.

The book was written, of course, not because of Francona’s historic time as manager of the Red Sox but because of how Francona became the ex-manager of the Red Sox.

The climactic episode is a post-mortem meeting two days after the final game of the season

In a they-said-he-said exchange of statements, Werner has Francona admitting “ . . . he lost control of the clubhouse . . . he was very forthright about it, that he was not the right person to continue as manager going forward.”

In the next paragraph, Francona says, “I never said I lost control of the clubhouse. I said I hadn’t been able to reach some of the guys. I was just trying to take accountability. But I viewed that meeting as a charade.”

In the paragraph that follows, Lucchino says, “He went through an analysis of how things deteriorated and things that contributed to the decline. Right after he finished, we asked him, “What should we do about these things, how do you propose to deal with it? And that’s when he said, “I’m not the man to deal with these things. They need to hear a different voice down there. I’m not the guy.”
Going into the meeting, Francona is described as being convinced that the Red Sox management didn’t want him back and that there was no way that they would exercise the option to extend his contract. Werner and Lucchino come across as suggesting that all parties should take more time to think about the issues before reaching a conclusion. Epstein is portrayed as sympathetic and supportive of Francona, but . . . “when Lucchino was asked if . . . he thought Epstein played both parties against one another, the CEO paused for several seconds and said, “I feel in my bones a certainty of certain things that I don’t want to say publicly, and this is one of them.”

One is left to wonder what Francona would have said that if his contract had been extended. But then of course, the book wouldn’t have been written.

So what’s the real story?

Who knows? Make up your own minds. You pays your money and you takes your choice. That’s why they have horse races.

What do I think?

I think that they all screwed up.

I think that Henry, Werner, and Lucchino were so stunned by that dreadful September, that none of them tried very hard to keep Francona. Theirs was a management failure. I think that Francona was so upset that he hadn’t been offered his contract extension early in 2011 that he went into withdrawal mode. His was a failure to fight for his job. I think that Epstein had mentally checked out and was thinking more about Wrigley Field than Fenway Park.

None of them wore white or black hats - just gray hats.

It was a tragedy.

But as a long-term Red Sox fan, I’m used to tragedies.

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