For Better or For Worse: Terry Francona

David Ortiz and Terry Francona Press Conference at Yankee Stadium in New York

Wrapped in the title “player’s manager” is both a complement and an insult.

Personable and charismatic as to relate to players, these managers are too cowardly to make tough personnel decisions, too soft to win championships.

Yet, what is often overlooked, is that many of the greatest skippers in baseball history have managed in this style. Arguably the two best managers of the last decade have been of this “undesirable” type: Terry Francona, winner of two World Series titles since installed as Red Sox skipper in 2004, and the legendary Joe Torre, manager of the Mets, Braves, Cardinals, Yankees, and Dodgers during his storied career.

Torre was made a household name during his years with the Yankees in the late 90s and early 2000s. Often credited as the quintessential “player’s manager”, he was always the first to take responsibility for the team’s misgivings, yet last to take credit for its successes. For this, he won numerous titles – and lost his job.

Terry Francona, in many ways, can be considered a latter-day Joe Torre. Francona, in particular, faces many of the unique challenges that Torre did, while also being among the best at managing personalities and egos in his clubhouse.

Throughout his career, Francona has been simultaneously applauded and criticized for his managerial style. He is often portrayed in the media as a being too close to his players, unable to make decisions unpopular with his club.

Case in point: Jason Varitek continued to receive the majority of playing time at catcher following the Victor Martinez trade, even though he may have been the third best backstop on the team.

Case in point: Francona continued to play Julio Lugo during the 2007 season, though he batted .237 on the year – and again in 2008 when Jed Lowrie established himself as the superior option.

But it is far too easy to pick apart the flaws of his style. There is much to his leadership that is particularly valuable, but goes overlooked.

While professional athletes are paid millions for their superhuman abilities, there is really nothing superhuman about them.

They are susceptible to the same pressures and anxieties as everyone else, probably more so, due to their presence in the public eye. These pressures, as any athlete, employee, parent, student, etc. can attest, are more than enough to negatively affect performance.

Even when paid millions, athletes, too, need a shield from the spotlight, especially when it becomes all too blinding, as it often does.

Other than maybe Joe Torre, there is no manager in the league better at protecting his players from media criticism. After a season full of outbursts, after a year of lights, camera, action, it is still difficult for many to appreciate what Terry Francona brings to this team…

…because the most difficult things to notice tend to be those things that are not there.

When Kevin Youkilis spikes his helmet following a strikeout, people notice: because it is there. They don’t notice when Mike Lowell puts his away, quietly, but in the same agony. No helmet spike, no media blitz.

When Manny Ramirez collapses on the ball in the outfield while a run scores, fans notice. They don’t notice when J.D. Drew makes a running play, tips his cap, and casually tosses the ball back to the infield.

For this Sox fan, there was one particular point in the season when it became obvious that Terry Francona was an indispensable commodity to this team. And, the funny thing was, it had nothing to do with Tito himself.

It was sometime in July, maybe August. An ESPN newsbreak flashed across the TV screen featuring yet another Ozzie Guillen meltdown.

For those not in the know, Guillen is the flamboyant, abrasive manager of the Chicago White Sox. Whether you watch Sportscenter casually or habitually, with your friends, or when your boyfriend controls the remote, you’ve undoubtedly seen one of his blowups.

Back to the anecdote: it was after a loss, a bad one; a moment where he was surprisingly calm and in control. Yes, it is strange to see Guillen behave in such a manner. Yet, this was not what was so surprising about the interview.

“I take full responsibility for this loss.”

Yes, Guillen actually said this. But it was a loaded statement – one he used in an attempt to weasel out of receiving blame for his team’s loss.

The statement was preceded by “We were embarrassing out there today” and – though I can’t recall precisely from memory, included phrases along the lines of – “We didn’t execute,” “We didn’t swing the bat”, and “We didn’t throw, run, or catch.”

In essence, this included everything that happened in the game that Guillen was not responsible for. If you are taking responsibility for a loss, you can’t list every conceivable action by the players that caused your team to lose. That’s not taking responsibility, that’s blaming someone else.

From the perspective of a former athlete – one who has had a few conflicts with coaches in the past – what was so infuriating about his comments and so condemning of his skills as a manager was how he misrepresented himself, said he was taking blame, then threw his players under the bus.

There is no getting around it. HE BLAMED THE LOSS ON HIS PLAYERS. He saved himself, then he outed his team. That is not how a winner coaches.

If you tune in to ESPN this week, you may still be able to catch a similar event. In response to a tough loss, Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora was able to blame the entirety of his team’s defeat on kicker Olindo Mare, who missed two kicks in a 25-19 loss on Sunday.

Sure, Mare should have made the kicks and, sure, he contributed to his team’s loss. But, a football team is composed of 55 players and dozens of coaches, all of whom contribute to a team’s victory, who succeeded and failed in executing plays, and who all receive the blame equally in defeat.

However, in under 15 seconds, Mora was able to blame the entire loss on Mare, without recognizing the fact that his offense should have scored more than 19 points… or could have avoided any other miscues during the game… or that he and his staff called any number of poorly advised plays during the match.

There is no room in coaching or in sports for this brand of selfishness and disregard.

Deflection. This is what poor coaches do. This is what desperate leaders do: they abandon those whom they are responsible for leading, opting to save their own behinds, their own jobs, and their own wallets.

It’s a disgrace, but that’s the world we live in.

Terry Francona is a player’s manager. He never sells his players out because of a bad season, a poor start, or a blown lead. That is leadership. That is dignity. That is loyalty. No one man in the MLB has more of these qualities than Francona, yet he is not applauded enough for it.

There is a reason why the Red Sox can claw back when down seven runs with seven outs left in a game. After all, they did win Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS that way. Oh, yeah, it was an elimination game.

There is a reason why Jon Lester has emerged to become among the AL’s best starters.

There is a reason why the players on this Boston team can play fearless baseball, knowing that their manager will not bench them on a whim for some misjudged grounder, or bad baserunning play… that they will not be abandoned during a slump, the most trying time for manager and player alike.

So chastise the player’s manager next time an aging catcher crouches behind the plate. Reprimand him when a struggling reliever takes the hill in a close game. Do so, though acknowledge the silent contributions put forth by a skilled manager: one who manages personalities, egos, and confidence, not athletic pieces of meat.

This is a unique individual and coach. This is a very high standard. Ladies and gentlemen, for better or for worse: this is Terry Francona.