I Love Francona

9780547928173_lresTerry Francona loves baseball. I love baseball. So by the law of transitive property, I love Tito.

Hold on, don’t get carried away.

I’m not comfortable saying I love Terry Francona. While I like the guy, I can say I love the book, FRANCONA: The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy.

This book is vintage Francona and Shaughnessy, the opinionated, gifted columnist for the Boston Globe. Shaughnessy is neither a ghost-writer or a co-writer of this book, which lists Francona as the first author, he is more like the driver of the Francona/Shaughnessy team bus as this is written in third-person narrative.

As Shaughnessy winds you through Terry’s childhood as the son of Indians outfielder Tito Francona, through Terry’s playing days, numerous injuries, and initial managerial experience with the Philadelphia Phillies, Terry chimes in with anecdotes, insights, and clarifications. Very quickly names appear in the book that shows you how tightly interwoven Terry has been with the game since he was young and really what small community baseball really is.

Early on you learn how he met his wife (now divorced), the wonderful Jacque Lang as a freshman at University of Arizona. That’s also where he became best friends with Brad Mills, his bench coach in Boston and will be his third base coach with the Indians.

John Farrell was his teammate in Cleveland, his pitching coach in Boston and now his replacement, once-removed, in Boston. When I recently saw the two of them it reminded me of when I see my best friends from Playground 10, all hell may be going on around them but they were talking and laughing together as if they were in a dugout all their own.

We learn that he and Hall of Famer Andre Dawson would get their knees taped in identical ways. I must say as an aside, I have had my right knee replaced three times in 10 years and had additional surgeries that attempted to repair the damages in between, but I’ll take my knee over Francona’s. He has dealt with replacements, surgeries, pain, and complications that go well beyond mine. Too frequently after he was fired by the Red Sox, we heard about Terry’s medication and pain management. This book sets the story straight. I was able to pace my recovery, that too frequently failed, while Terry was back on the field each day, standing in cold dugouts, made worse by blood thinners he was taking to prevent blood clots from killing him.

If that sounds painful (and it was even to read about), that pain seemed minor to the pain that Tito had in his posterior from Manny Ramirez during the Red Sox years. Francona explains the seriousness of his medical conditions, but uses his knees as an excuse. Unbelievably, the same is true about Manny. Both Francona and I were at different parts of Logan Airport waiting for our kids to arrive on July 31, 2008. I remember it was around 4:30 pm, about an hour and a half after the trading deadline had past, when the news about Manny B Manny was heading to the Dodgers. I broke into a big smile because I had assured my Billy-Ball.com readers that Manny would be dealt. Somewhere else at that airport, Francona broke down in tears of relief upon hearing that Ramirez was gone.

I loved reading about Francona and Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Pam Ganley, David Ortiz, Derek Jeter (read the book to learn about their special relationship), Mike Lowell, and the clubhouse guys, who Francona treated with the love and respect that he showed Peter Gammons, when he was waiting in the hospital to support him after Gammons’ stroke.

The last seventy or so pages of the 344 page book deals with what proved to be the disastrous 2011 season and its aftermath. The blurb on Amazon.com from Publishers Weekly reads, “A searing indictment of Red Sox ownership….Red Sox Nation is eating up this new book… Francona’s account of big shots screwing up is exquisite off-season sport.”

That seems to be the storyline that had the media salivating about FRANCONA. For me, that’s not the story of this book. This is a description of Francona’s love affair with the game and the people he has to have relationships with in order to keep being the love affair alive.

Draw your own conclusions as to the quality of people like John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino. From my prospective, Francona didn’t rip into these guys (certainly not to the degree that I sense that Shaughnessy would have liked to), he just gave you the stories that will enable you to see what these guys are like.

We also learn about Theo Epstein, the middle man in the Francona/upper management “relationship.” Francona and Epstein were partners. They shared common enemies. Publicly, they had each other’s back. While there is nothing that is specifically or implicitly written, personally I was left with a feeling of distrust with Theo’s relationship with Terry. This has nothing to do with Epstein’s devotion to Carmine, the stat pack that spewed ideas through Theo to Tito as to how to manage the club on the field, this had more to do with my feeling that since Epstein was the guy in the middle, he was also the guy doing the bidding and manipulating for Lucchino and Henry (Warner seems to perceive the Red Sox solely as a marketing tool for his NESN media enterprise).

Terry doesn’t really rip into anyone in this book, he is a player’s manager and while he frequently rolled his eyes and expressed his frustration, he remains a team’s manager. I don’t consider this to be anything savage, just a keen observation:

“They come in with all these ideas about baseball, but I don’t think they love baseball,” he said. “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.”

There are many folks who write about Theo Epstein going into the pantheon of greatness if he can break the Cubs curse and get a World Championship, and yet it might be worth remembering that the Indians have not won the trophy since 1948 and that’s their only other championship since 1920 (the Cubs also only have two 1907-08). If Theo wins it all, he will be entitled to all the accolades he will receive, but if Terry wins with the Tribe, it also is not a feat be minimized.

After all is said and done, this book is a love story filled with the relationships and moments we all go through in love affairs. I sensed, that in many ways, the romance for Terry and the Red Sox management started to dwindle within moments following the 2004 championship. But there were two relationships that did not fade:

  • Every game that Francona managed in Boston was a sellout. Go to any event in Boston that Terry attends now and the ovation is louder and filled with more adulation than any other attendee.
  • Throughout all the pain and aggravation, after reading this outstanding book you know for certain that Terry Francona loves baseball.

If you’re looking to get ready for the season, you can’t do a whole lot better than to read FRANCONA: The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy, no matter which team you root for.