Sunday, February 17, 2013

Francona: The Red Sox Years: A Book Review

I was a regular contributor to the Dan Shaughnessy Watch website several years ago.  Before I became a contributor, I had always been entertained by Mike B’s takes on Shaughnessy’s writing and was happy I had found a kindred spirit in decrying Shaughnessy’s laziness, hyperbole, position-shifting, and failed logic.  I detested Shaughnessy’s constant desire to become a part of the story as well as his penchant for isolating certain characters (e.g., Curt Schilling, Bill James etc) for mean-spirited personal attacks.  I was fortunate to become a contributor to this site for several years.  I think I was motivated by my own illogical desire – that somehow either Globe editors or Shaughnessy himself would come to see what fools they were for thinking that Shaughnessy’s writing was thoughtfully provocative, profoundly revelatory, and brave.  I finally realized that my attempts were quixotic and I decided to move on.  Fortunately, this site persists thanks to the terrific efforts of Roger and Mike.  While I can’t speak to their motivations, my hunch is that they simply derive a sense of satisfaction from poking back—they provide a venue for those who believe that Shaughnessy’s rule as the king of the Boston sports media is hollow.  Roger and Mike continue to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes.  I appreciate them giving me a chance to be a guest writer for today.

I do think we (Roger, Mike, other contributors to this site, and I) have collectively always tried to be somewhat reasonable.  There are occasions where Shaughnessy pens a thoughtful and insightful column and the efforts, though rare, are acknowledged.  I personally think that his new book, co-written with Terry Francona, is one of those efforts.  It’s a great read and I had a hard time putting it down because I found it so enjoyable.

The weekend before The Red Sox Years was released, there was an advance article in the Sunday Globe Magazine about how it came to be that Terry Francona would collaborate with Shaughnessy on a book about his Red Sox tenure.  It was fairly obvious that Francona, in his tenure as Sox manager, had developed little regard for Shaughnessy.  Francona would complain that Shaughnessy would get stories wrong (there’s a surprise).  Francona, who operates upon a strong belief system that there is a right way to do things, found that Shaughnessy’s writing in the Globe violated Francona’s sense of propriety.  Apparently, Francona’s desire to tell his story about his Red Sox years trumped any bad feelings that Francona previously held and he gave it a go with Shaughnessy.  But their collaboration did take time to evolve.  Francona and Shaughnessy reached an understanding that Francona’s voice had to trump Shaughnessy’s.  This meant that Shaughnessy had to step back from his typical level of vitriol (“snarkiness” may be more apt term here) and help Francona tell the story in his own voice.  The result is a wonderfully crafted story about a man’s love affair with baseball.

Francona grew up as the son of a major leaguer.  The book fondly recounts how Francona would tag along with his father on road trips and this fostered in young Terry a strong sense of baseball protocol and clubhouse dynamics—lessons that he would carry through with him for life as a player, coach and manager.  Francona appreciates the power of baseball statistics on some level (although perhaps not as much as fans were led to believe after Grady Little was fired and Francona was hired) but he also was acutely aware of player psyches.  To Theo Epstein, it may have been the case of recommending that Francona sit a player one day because another had better stats against the scheduled starter.  Francona saw such things as part of a larger tapestry—Francona was the one who had to deal with the personalities…there were times that the “right” statistical play would have caused more headaches than they would have helped.   Many anecdotes about Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez, amongst others, illustrate the challenge that Francona had grappling with personalities.

There is a Lincoln-ian quality about Francona’s leadership style.  This is best illustrated by how Francona would pick and choose his battles to provide feedback to players.  Francona’s venue was frequently the late night airplane card games – where Francona would tactfully suggest critiques—players were more receptive as they were less-guarded than they would otherwise be in the immediate emotional aftermath of a tough game.  (His approach would seem in stark contrast to that followed by his successor Bobby Valentine—it’s not that Valentine’s approach is inherently wrong but it may explain why players had such a hard time in adapting to Valentine as their approaches were so different.) 

I also enjoyed the smaller details – the fact that Francona would bristle when called “Coach”.  He was the manager and baseball protocol dictates that he be referred to as the manager and not a coach.  There are a host of similar examples of the “inside baseball” nature of the clubhouse.  While baseball statistics have become increasingly entrenched as the guiding principle of how teams are constructed and managed, there is clearly a place (a prominent one at that) for taking personalities into account and teams are wise not to ignore this important facet.  Francona is very tuned into this dimension.

Two criticisms…Francona so clearly and strongly subscribes to the power and sanctity of the clubhouse and so it would seem at odds that he would be okay with publishing some of these stories.  In his interview on a recent Bill Simmons podcast, Francona said that in the writing of this story, Shaughnessy would assume the role of intermediary and clear the stories with the principal players to make sure they had no objections.  Well, that is great but I have a hard time believing anyone clearing anything with Manny Ramirez and Manny is a frequent target in the book of Francona’s ire and frustration. 

Also, we now hear statements from Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington about how the team got away from the core way that it had built the 2004 and 2007 World Series winners.  Ostensibly, they must be referring to the trade for Adrian Gonzalez and the free agent signing of Carl Crawford.  I think they are guilty of ex post criticism here…because Adrian Gonzalez had been someone they had targeted for years and (according to this book itself) Crawford is someone that both Epstein and Francona seemed to be giddy about signing.  I think that trade and signing were things that simply did not work out and it is grossly unfair for them to be (implicitly) portrayed as a meddlesome mandate from baseball ownership to baseball management.

As for the cases of Lucchino, Henry, and Werner…this book was definitely not the first time that I had heard Lucchino could be extremely difficult; that Henry is an oddball wacko; and that Werner seems to be driven by a Hollywood mindset.  What the book does do is provide a deeper context (through anecdotes) that would cement these descriptions in the reader’s mind.  By the way, Francona is somewhat careful not to blast them for their desire to make money from every facet of the Red Sox operations; but Francona clearly does lament that the product of baseball had become but one variable amongst many in the packaging of an entertainment option to consumers.  Francona, the passionate baseball-lifer, understandably finds this shameful.  I do think Theo Epstein is portrayed in a positive light – Theo effectively played the role of go-between between Francona and ownership and he apparently did it well.  Francona placed tremendous value in his relationship with Epstein and he gives Epstein due credit for the organizational success.

Werner is the only one of the three principal owners to have acknowledged reading the book and he has denounced it as fiction.  I find his conclusion problematic because I do not think Francona and Shaughnessy are espousing lies.  I do think this is a case of a story being told through the subjective lens of Francona (and to a lesser extent Shaughnessy) and I think the story honestly captures how they saw things.  It is entirely possible that Werner witnessed similar things but simply had a different interpretation.  To call the book fiction as Werner does or to give Shaughnessy the cold shoulder as does Lucchino (who has not read the book) borders on pettiness.  I am inclined to give the benefit of doubt to Francona who seems to be widely respected, if not beloved, throughout baseball.  Wouldn’t it be funny if Shaughnessy now teamed up with the ownership trio to tell their side? 

As for Shaughnessy, he does have talent.  The stories in this book flow so well and there is a refreshing absence of the typical hallmarks from Shaughnessy’s columns.  I do think Shaughnessy has become so complacent in his column writing and his entrenchment at the Globe that he feels comfortable in pawning off whatever he lazily can to the readers of the Globe sports pages.  But, when we writes a book such as this, he actually has to make an effort because he does not have the automatic captive audience—he has to sell books.  But, for today, I did not come here to bury Shaughnessy.  I am willing to give him credit.  He and Francona have done a fine job.


Karl Cicitto said...

Great review. I found a lot of value in the book too. The largest reward for me was to get to the essence of the Sept. 2011 collapse, which Dan and Tito in this book explain as well as anyone ever may. Such a unique and complicated crash. You're a good man to give Shaughnessy his due.

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