UPDATED: How Many Franconas Do They Think Are Out There?

Presumably the realization is just beginning to sink in now in Boston – and with the rumors that he’ll be the next one out the door, it must be sinking in at levels higher than Theo Epstein – that the Red Sox are now faced with a task far more daunting, and far more likely to result in disaster, than even playing their games in September turned out to be: Finding somebody to manage the team in 2012 who can merely do as well as Terry Francona did last month.

The Yankees-Tigers meeting in soggy New York over the weekend was filled with baseball people trying just to come up with somebody – anybody – who could handle the pressures of ownership, an intense fan base now driven crazier by eight years of entitlement feelings their ancestors hadn’t known since 1918, and the media. Throw in the startling recent comments by some Boston players and you can add in to the mix the fact that Tito apparently kept the lid on a team full of Prima Donnas and protected them against reality at every turn. Remember, in New York, if you are raised on the Yankees and you feel they have done you wrong, you can switch to the Mets (or more likely, vice versa). I know from my time living in Boston that there are people who proclaim themselves Red Sox fans who maintain a seething hatred – often kept below the surface – towards the franchise. I know of one who believes the team  shortened the lives of many of his male relatives. There are Red Sox fans who gain as much satisfaction from when there is turmoil as when there are titles. These folks can get bent out of shape very, very easily, and a surprisingly large number of them wind up with the area’s newspapers and radio stations.

After three days at Yankee Stadium, I didn’t hear one managerial suggestion that wasn’t fatally flawed. Worse yet, I didn’t hear one baseball person nominate somebody without saying that the nomination was fatally flawed. Some of the names have shown up at the bottom of a column by my old friend Gordon Edes. He writes mostly about Epstein’s future, but the last part focuses on five guys  supposedly already kicked around inside the cramped offices of Yawkey Way:

Among the names that have surfaced in internal discussions are Indians coach Sandy Alomar Jr., Rays coach Dave Martinez, Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin, minor league manager Ryne Sandberg and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who has a mutual option to return to St. Louis.

There is also an assumption that DeMarlo Hale, the long-suffering bench coach for the Sox and the minor league manager of the year – in 1999 – will get an interview. The name “Joe Torre” has been thrown around, and despite the fact that he found his office job as dull as it sounded, I’m thinking this is highly unlikely. The name “Bobby Valentine” has been leaked, too – presumably by Bobby Valentine.

But let’s go with the bold print name there first. Tony LaRussa? Seriously? This man went ballistic at least twice this year facing the scrutiny of the St. Louis media. The St. Louis media is three writers and a guy from KMOX Radio. It’s hard to say for whom this would be a bigger disaster: the Red Sox, or LaRussa. As was agreed at Yankee Stadium when this name was floated (almost literally) there over the weekend: by June 1, a “Manager Tony LaRussa of the Boston Red Sox” would have fallen asleep at a traffic light in at least six different New England towns.

The next name would be Sandberg’s. Now let’s review what I wrote here last year at this time when Cubs fans were understandably clamoring for their old hero to assume the reins at Wrigley. The Cubs loved Ryno’s work ethic, his willingness to go back to Peoria and fight his way up the chain, but they saw nothing in his managerial skill set that even made him a rival to Mike Quade. When you are beloved in a town – irrationally, gigantically, statue-sized beloved – and you’re not a good enough candidate to edge out Mike Quade, you’re probably not a good big league skipper in the making. The Red Sox interviewed him a year ago for their AAA job at Pawtucket but before they made up their minds, he took the equivalent post with the Phillies. They seem to have a higher opinion of Sandberg, given his high-profile roles with the big club in Spring Training and again in September, but they’re not looking to retire Charlie Manuel any time soon, either. It could easily be that the Cub snub woke Sandberg up – and if that’s the case, the Sox would presumably be challenged for his services by several teams, and maybe even the Cubs again, now that new ownership is in full control.

Speaking of which, David Martinez and Sandy Alomar, Jr. are the front-runners for the White Sox job. Martinez, the Rays’ bench coach, was GM Kenny Williams’ teammate in Montreal 20 years ago and seems a cinch for the Chicago job unless something goes wrong. If it does, Alomar is a fine baseball man and as a player was a great calming influence on the high-strung Indians of the ’90s, and was just named bench coach for Cleveland. But each has a serious drawback: not only have they never managed in the majors, they’ve never even managed in the minors. How quickly would this start the Red Sox fans’ verbal riots in the event of a 4-10 start? What credibility would they carry among Prima Donna players? If Martinez has a particularly inspirational effect on the terrified Carl Crawford, that might be reason enough to overlook the inexperience, but I’m thinking the Red Sox are still stinging from the well-intentioned but disastrous decision to promote Joe Kerrigan to manager without any previous experience at any level.

So then there’s Mackanin. This is a solid baseball man who had two all-too brief stints as interim manager at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and never got the serious shot he deserved at either fulltime job. Mackanin knows his stuff, managed forever in the minors, and just turned 60 years old – which is a problem for the Boston position. Francona aged a century at the helm in Fenway, and he had already had an idea about the kind of media pressures he might face, from his unhappy years in Philadelphia.

So there are the problems. Terry Francona’s successor has to be a young, respected man, with a major league track record, an ability to hurdle the media, the fans, and the Prima Donnas. He has to have enough personality to get the benefit of the doubt from the fans, media, and players going in – but not so much that any of them feels he is overshadowing them. And he has to be an improvement on Francona.

Now who would that be? I kinda see a Bob Melvin type in here, but as the Mariners and Diamondbacks each discovered to their chagrin, there aren’t as many of him as they thought, either. The A’s smartly locked him in long-term after he very quietly did a superior job stopping the Oakland ship from sinking to the bottom of the sea this summer.

Anybody else?

Wait – I got it. Give him a month to recuperate and then see if this Francona guy will take the job.

Update: As tweeter Mike Mendez reminded my rain-addled brain: On Halloween night, 2005, Epstein resigned from the Red Sox and sneaked out of Fenway Park in a holiday Gorilla costume. Less than three months later, on January 19th, Epstein’s successor was named – and he got the added title of Vice President. Epstein’s successor was…Theo Epstein.

12 Comments

What about Bruce Bochy? Isn’t his contract with the Giants up, has the big league experience both as a player and manager, plus world series hardware.

Keith:

In regard to Sandberg, aren’t you giving the vaunted Cubs front office just a little too-much credit for being able to recognize and evalulate managerial talent?

Sincerely,

The Ghost of Vedie Himsl

I think Dusty Baker would be perfect for this role…
#pleasetakedustybakerawayplsplspls

In all seriousness, the Francona firing is the best news the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay rays have gotten all year. If Theo Epstein is gone as well, I could see a return to the bad old days very quickly. Combined with the imminent demise of the Yankees from advanced aging, the two team era in the AL east may finally be coming to an end. Which is a very good thing for baseball, which means it will drive Bud Selig over the edge. “We’ve got to keep adding playoff teams until we have both NY and Boston in”

That’s one of Keith’s best posts. I can’t think of anyone who could take Francona’s place either. But Francona wasn’t known as a great manager when the Red Sox hired him. It seems like they did it just to make their new acquisition Curt Schilling happy. Then Francona turned out to be better than any manager they ever had. So maybe it will be a completely unexpected name. Since Keith is friends with Francona maybe he knows if his friend really wanted to leave. It sounds like he did. I guess if he had been offered a contract extension and made to feel like he was wanted (as he should have been) he might have stayed.

They will have to go back to that Francona…because he is one-of-a-kind! “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” I can think of another Tito who would whip that team into shape, but he is dead. Good work, Keith.

About Sandberg: one of the problems with hiring someone as beloved as Sandberg is in Chicago is firing him. Bill Veeck told the story of how he wanted to remove Lou Boudreau as Indians manager but found him too popular among the fans to risk it, and even if Veeck exaggerated, I believe it. Once the Indians had won the World Series and slipped, and Boudreau’s skills had begun to slip, THEN it was possible to fire him.

Now, I am not a Red Sox fan–I wanted them to win in 2004 and break the supposed curse, and I was happy for them in 2007. But Red Sox fans have, as you say, now developed a sense of entitlement. In this case, though, Francona may well have realized that he had lost the clubhouse–as good a guy as he is and as good a job as he has done of keeping the Sox alive and successful, there does come a tipping point. Even the supposedly beloved Tommy Lasorda stayed too long–for reasons similar to Joe Torre’s point last year that he realized he was having trouble communicating with players who were so much younger than he is. How many times could Dodger players hear Lasorda’s speeches, especially when they were younger players who hadn’t come up under his tutelage? Francona may have run into a similar brick wall, and now will wind up with a good job in a city where the writers won’t demand his firing for losing on opening day.

8 years managing the Red Sox is enough. … great run … 2 world series titles … lots of great teams. … The media pressure? Just don’t read the newspapers, or listen to talk radio and it is all good.

I think the Astros will fire Brad Mills and the Red Sox will hire him. Meanwhile Francona is working for the Evil Empire– not the Yankees, but FOX. I wonder if Keith is giving him any pointers on the art of broadcasting. “If you run out of things to say, don’t make noises with your hand in your armpit like Nelson Muntz.”

After the Red Sox’s September 2010 remake of “Apocalypse Now,” heads were obviously going to roll, and Francona had the dubious honor of playing the role of “Chef.” Next head to be liberated from its shoulders will be Wonderboy Epstein’s. In my fifty years of spending way too much time watching and reading and thinking baseball, I’ve reached a few provisional and one certain conclusion. Every success sows the seeds of inevitable failure. Things work, right up to the point where they don’t. Whatever Terry Francona was doing in 2004 worked, though I have a suspicion that Kevin Millar and Johnny Damon provided more leadership than he did. It was a spontaneously delicious cart of apples, and the manager’s job was not to upset it, which Terry refrained from doing, a la Miller Huggins. The day after the Sox won that Series, I emailed my best friend, a New York Mess fan in South Bend, Indiana, saying simply, “Now they’re just another team.” The Red Sox lost something when they won in ’04 that they can never recapture. No longer are they bred to a harder thing than triumph. In the last couple of weeks, the Boston Herald and Globe have “thrown the rat meat on the floor,” in the unforgettable words of Gen. Joseph Stilwell, about what was going on in the Sox clubhouse this past season. Not training, getting fat, pitchers drinking on their non-start days. The Globe ran a great article on how the next generation of “Red Sox Nation,” kids too young to remember anything but triumph, reacted with stunned disbelief to Las Medias Rojas getting bounced from the playoffs, which now starts so late that they ought to call it the Winter League. In sum, I think that Terry Francona was the placating Neville Chamberlain figure who won the war, twice, but then lost the peace.

If only the Red Sox had learned from the White Sox, who broke an even longer curse (and in sheer tragedy, the Black Sox scandal trumped any trade of Babe Ruth) without making a federal case of it for all those decades, nor rubbing people’s noses in it once it was broken. But no, people in Boston have to be drama queens.

I hope Tito pulls a Theo and comes back.

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