Extending Francona: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Sports Illustrated writer Jon Heyman tweeted Tuesday that the Red Sox “intend” to pick up manager Terry Francona’s two-year, $9 million extension, meaning that Francona will be with the ball club through 2013. Already the second-longest-tenured manager in Red Sox history, Francona and general manager Theo Epstein also tie Chicago White Sox GM Kenny Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen as longest-intact pair in Major League Baseball.

The Best Red Sox Manager Ever?

Between the extension and Monday’s induction into the College Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s been a pretty good week for Francona. And why not? He’s the best manager the Red Sox have ever had. Only one other manager- Bill Carrigan, 1913-1916- has won two World Series, and Francona blows all competition out of the water in both playoff wins (28) and total games (45). Only Joe Cronin (1935-1947) has more regular-season wins (1,071 vs. 654 for Francona), and only five managers have a better career winning percentage (.577). But of those five, none managed even half as many regular-season games as Francona has (1,134).

We don’t think of Francona as a great manager because of the way he carries himself. His posture, his smile, his sense of humor, his speech patterns, they all scream “folksy.” He doesn’t carry himself with the professionalism of Joe Torre or Tony La Russa, nor does he have the authoritarian qualities of Buck Showalter. When he gets into shouting matches with umpires, he looks silly, sometimes even anemic. He lacks the fire of Guillen, Lou Pinella or Bobby Cox. And if the players love him, they don’t show it as outwardly as the Rockies might with Clint Hurdle or the Rays with Joe Maddon.

What Makes Francona Great

Francona doesn’t display any of these qualities, and yet he does the two things managers have to do: make on-field decisions (lineup, relief pitching, etc.) that lead to wins, and talk to the press. Neither is an easy task in Boston. The Red Sox have had their fair share of prima donnas come through Fenway’s locker room, and Francona has had to deal with some of the worst. Pedro Martinez. Manny Ramirez. Curt Schilling. Even this current squad, devoid of melodrama though it appears to be, still has a few players whose cockiness demands constant attention, in particular Josh Beckett.

Francona seems undaunted by these players, an attribute that his predecessor, Grady Little, did not possess. Whatever we might think of Francona, he seems to get strong performances out his team, no matter the mental make-up of individual players. And to his credit, any issues that the team might have are kept internal. With the Boston sports media as obsessed with the Red Sox as they are, it’s impossible to keep serious intra-team conflict private for long. But that’s what Francona manages to do.

The only real fight the press reported was the Kevin Youkilis-Ramirez fight in June 2008, less than two months before Ramirez was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But given the players Francona has managed over the years, just one conflict reported in seven years borders on miraculous. It’s true that Francona usually manages a team so stocked in talent that any manager could be successful. But the same could be said about the 2003 Red Sox, and Little’s managing deficiencies directly cost that squad a shot at a World Series title.

Less recognized but equally valuable is Francona’s ability to handle Boston’s incessant sports media. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis described the press as “so reliably venomous that it was impossible to distinguish the poison directed at the new regime from the poison they’d aimed at every other person who had the temerity to pass through Fenway Park” (294-295). And there have been plenty of barbs slung Francona’s way since he took over.

But through it all, Francona has never wavered in how he deals with the press. No matter what’s on his mind, Francona always takes the time for pre-game interviews and post-game press conferences. He answers questions honestly, fully and respectfully without bending over backwards. He’s found a middle ground between Bill Belichick’s stonewalling and Doc Rivers’ obsequiousness. He keeps reporters away from the stuff he wants kept internal by essentially giving them everything else. It’s a smart, calculated move that makes for great press conferences and gives the organization an aura of stability.

Perhaps the best way to describe Francona would be to say he extends his own levelheadedness over the rest of team and the press. But whatever he does, the proof is in the pudding. Francona has won 654 games, an AL East title and two World Series rings.

Can’t argue with that.

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