It’s not often that baseball aficionados and gossip gluttons can plunk down on a shared portion of outfield grass with the same book for an afternoon of readerly delight, but “Francona’’ can bridge those kinds of differences, if not exactly a lot of others.
This long-awaited memoir, penned by Terry Francona with veteran Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, focuses on the eight years Francona spent at the helm of the Boston Red Sox, a period in which he guided the team to two World Series victories, including the 2004 championship that ended the team’s 86-year drought and established him as one of the most important managers in the storied franchise’s history.
The book begins in 2004 and advances chronologically, season by season and off-season by off-season, with a quick look back at Francona’s early years. We remember the historic first season, with its epic American League Championship Series comeback against the Yankees. After that there would come another title and assorted playoff berths before the final year, capped by the disaster that was September 2011, a month of absurdist baseball that might have moved Samuel Beckett to try his hand at sports theater.
FRANCONA: The Red Sox Years
Of course, a large part of the initial interest in a book like this is seeing to whom the acetylene torch is applied. Will it be to Manny Ramirez, the slugger-cum-clown, long due his comeuppance? Pedro Martinez, perhaps? Was he more of a clubhouse lawyer than anyone thought? Or maybe a dark horse — perhaps Kevin Millar wasn’t the leader we were all supposed to believe he was, instead serving as a mere mouthpiece for the ingenious machinations of Johnny Damon.
As it turns out, you won’t learn much about Ramirez that you did not already suspect — or any of the other players for that matter, other than the fact that Pedro could put himself before the team with the best of them.
Which isn’t to say that Francona doesn’t have insider stuff to share. It’s fun reading about incidents like the 2004 face-off between pitcher Curt Schilling’s wife, Shonda, and Damon’s fiancée, Michelle Mangum (now his wife), over the crucial subject of lucky scarves after the game 3 debacle in the ALCS. But Francona’s intended target is clearly the Red Sox ownership group, which he portrays as a group of avaricious, delusional buffoons, a gaggle of Marx Brothers without a sense of humor, or, after a point, even a clue.
One scene finds us at a November 2010 meeting to review a marketing research report looking at the decline in fan and TV viewer interest in the Sox. Besides the manager, the group included general manager Theo Epstein, owner John Henry, team president Larry Lucchino, with Tom Werner, another member of the ownership team, on speakerphone.
According to one part of the team-sponsored survey, “women are definitely more drawn to the ‘soap opera’ and ‘reality-TV’ aspects of the game. . . . They are interested in good-looking stars and sex symbols (Pedroia).” That would be Dustin, No. 15 on your scorecard, ladies. In response to this perceived dearth of player sexiness — and Werner’s assertion that the team needed to win in more exciting ways — came the influx of megapriced players for the 2011 season. We may not exactly be in bluesman Robert Johnson-sell-your-soul-at-the-crossroads territory, but as far as 21st-century sports goes, we’re not far off.
While the book is tough on team management, it manages to avoid reading like ax-grinding, and that’s largely owing to Shaughnessy’s writing, which features a much more measured tone than one equates with his provocative columns, as the Houston Texans and Arian Foster would probably agree.
Francona offers readers much about the team and the organization but he also shows us plenty about himself. He is, it turns out, one salty guy who delighted in conducting meetings while perched on the throne in his office, the bottoms of his legs visible under the toilet door.
It’s hard not to get caught up in his earthy world of lewd jokes and chops-busting, a blend that fosters an organic sense of community. When Francona’s tight, in-house system worked at its best — he intriguingly cites the 2008 team as his top squad — men who did not exactly suffer for a lack of machismo were able to care and be there for each other in ways that, you get the feeling, they would not have been able to, were, I don’t know, Ralph Houk at the helm.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, the Epstein-Francona union was strong right up until the end, and Epstein’s voice is crucial to this narrative, especially as we come to see that here were two men on the side of a team, and a region, having to figure things out in spite of their bosses. The bosses will not like that revelation. But that is why there is spin. And promotional bricks. And jolly sayings touting the forthcoming season. And challenges for any manager that simply did not exist in the past.