Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review: Francona (2013)

By Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy

You'd think that the man who managed the Boston Red Sox to not one but two World Series titles, who ended an 86-year "curse," would have lived happily ever after in that job. You'd think that he would have been named manager for life after the 2004 season, let alone the 2007 season.

But Boston isn't America's toughest baseball town for nothing. It's rare to see someone exit there with smiles all the way around. Carl Yastrzemski did it. Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Mo Vaughn, and a host of others didn't. After 2011, you could add Terry Francona's name to the end of the latter list.

Now more than a year after departing, Francona has come thoroughly clean about his time in the Boston baseball pressure-cooker. "Francona" is a sometimes startling and always fascinating look at what it's like to be a manager under such intense circumstances.

For those who aren't charter members of Red Sox Nation, here's a brief recap: Francona came in to Boston as manager in 2004 after a relatively unsuccessful stint with a rebuilding Philllies' team. The Red Sox were still a little shaky after coming very close to winning a pennant the year before, but Francona came in and provided stability and sanity. He tells a story here about his first spring training, when he greeted Manny Ramirez for the first time and Ramirez wouldn't even talk to him.

But Francona's managerial style won most of the team over. He was a proud baseball lifer, who never trashed his own players in public and tried to make sure everyone respected the game. It worked, as the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918. It certainly will be great fun for any Red Sox fan to read about that season through Francona's eyes.

There were plenty of ups and a few downs in the years to come. The biggest high came in 2007 when Boston won another World Series title, but there were other playoff appearances and good seasons. The biggest low was in 2011, when the team collapsed in the season's final month and missed the playoffs. Afterwards, in a set of circumstances that seemed to leave everyone involved and spouting different versions of the truth, Francona was not asked to return as manager.

What's interesting about the book is its construction, which is a word carefully chosen. It's not written in Francona's voice. In that sense it is like Joe Torre's book with Tom Verducci on Torre's years with the Yankees. Verducci more or less cleaned out his notebook while giving Torre considerable space to present his view points.

Shaughnessy more or less stays in the background with a few exceptions. Francona has even more time than Torre to discuss his life as a Boston manager. The important part, though, is that Shaughnessy also spends some time in the book quoting other people in the story. The versions of events from former general manager Theo Epstein are particularly illuminating and honest, particularly in battles with ownership. Perhaps with Epstein now with the Cubs, he felt free to be candid about his time in Boston, because he certainly is. Other players chime in as well to add some credibility.

The major villains here are John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino, the top executives. They come off as distant and more interested in feeding the revenue-producing and money-munching machine they created, particularly in the final years of the saga. The section about ownership worrying about the television ratings of the team instead of how to put together a winner has received wide discussion in reviews and articles. To be fair, it is Francona's book. Also to be fair, they didn't use this opportunity to talk about their actions in most cases.  There seem to be enough clouds over parts of the story to make anyone wonder where the actual version of events, like Francona's dismissal, fell.

One bit of warning - the language isn't for the kiddies. Oddly, this does make the quotes seem very authentic and reflects the intensity of the feelings of the people involved. It was a good decision to publish the book that way.

The Red Sox have been a fascinating baseball franchise almost continuously since 1967. "Francona" throws back the curtain on what went on during its greatest era, and it's impossible to look away while racing through its pages.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

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