Show me a revered Red Sox manager, and I’ll show you a former Red Sox manager.
There are exceptions. Dick Williams and the Impossible Dreamers of 1967 and the magic touch of Joe Morgan in 1988 come to mind. But rarely are Red Sox managers given their due while they’re inhabiting the first base dugout at Fenway Park.
They’re like a car. You curse them the instant they fail and express gross indifference when they’re performing admirably day after day.
Now that we’ve paid overdue paeans to a past Red Sox manager, Terry Francona, it’s time to salute the job being done by the current skipper, John Farrell.
The Red Sox got it right with Farrell, the prodigal pitching coach returned from Toronto. No one is anointing Farrell as Connie Mack or Casey Stengel, but he has restored the luster of starters Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester and the dignity to Boston baseball in expedited fashion.
The Red Sox started Memorial Day tied for first place in the American League East at 31-20. They beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 9-3, in Game No. 52.
Fifty-one games into his tenure as the 46th manager in Red Sox history, Farrell had the same record that Francona had in his first 51 games. In another coincidence, both men were tied for first place with the Yankees at that point.
Sox fans would like to see the symmetry continue. If Farrell, who was Francona’s pitching coach from 2007 to 2010, can match his old boss’s ending to the 2004 season — a World Series championship — then we’ll really have something to talk about.
“We’re fortunate we got a good group of players, and we’ve gotten off to a decent start,” said Farrell. “That has I’m sure answered a lot of the what-ifs coming into this season.”
It hasn’t been perfect. Farrell did leave Ryan Dempster in too long in Minnesota May 18, trying to get Dempster the win. There have been a couple of passive-aggressive rebellions by Alfredo Aceves, Monday’s substitute starter, whose Sox uniform must be coated with Teflon. The Sox had a span in which they dropped nine of 11 games after a 20-8 start.
But Farrell never panicked or lashed out at his team, a la Don Mattingly in Los Angeles. The Sox skipper displayed equanimity and confidence.
“I’m not surprised at what John’s done,” said Phillies closer and former Red Sox Jonathan Papelbon. “John, he’s one of the most organized, complete managers I think you’ll come across. Nothing catches him off guard. He’s always prepared. He always has a good game plan, and when I was with him as a pitching coach that’s just the way he was. I think he’ll be a good manager for a long time.”
Farrell’s approach is the antithesis of his predecessor, Bobby Valentine, an ill-fated, ill-conceived, ill-suited hire.
Farrell’s mien is that of a steady hand with a cerebral, no-nonsense approach to the game. He cuts an imposing figure and his voice possesses a timbre that calls to mind John Wayne.
He gets your attention, and so do the Sox.
There is a school of thought that pitching coaches don’t make good big league managers. But it is Farrell’s pitching expertise that made him a coveted hire here.
He has lived up to his billing as the pitching whisperer. Buchholz (7-0, 1.73 ERA) and Lester (6-1, 3.34 ERA) have combined for 13 wins. They didn’t reach 13 wins last year until June 27.
The trade Ben Cherington made with Toronto to obtain Farrell has to go down as one of the best of the GM’s tenure for the renaissance of his starters alone. The Sox sent Mike Aviles, who later was dished to Cleveland, to bring Farrell back to Boston.
Hiring Farrell was no sure thing. In two seasons in Toronto, he was 154-170. The Blue Jays were 26th in staff ERA last year, one spot ahead of the Sox.
He endured criticism from veteran Omar Vizquel, who accused the Blue Jays staff of failing to address mistakes. He had his shortstop, Yunel Escobar, touch off a firestorm by writing a homophobic slur in Spanish on his eye black.
First impressions are not always defining ones for coaches and managers.
It’s easy to forget now that he’s been granted regional sainthood, but Bill Belichick wasn’t a genius in Cleveland. He was a football coach who made the playoffs once in five seasons.
Toronto was Farrell’s managerial rough draft.
However, nothing, not even four seasons as Francona’s pitching coach, could fully prepare Farrell for the maelstrom of managing in Boston.
“Maybe, I didn’t fully know what it was like watching Tito. I don’t know how I could,” said Farrell. “I certainly was with him in a lot of conversations about challenges that came up.
“I think having the benefit of some known commodity on both sides, having worked here before, and Ben and others knowing something about me, I think it’s allowed us to address some things quicker and confront things sooner or more head on. But still . . . we want the game to be the focal point every single night.”
Farrell said his work day isn’t that much different than in Toronto, where he is now reviled.
“No, I didn’t sit in front of 25 or 30 [media] people every day,” said Farrell. “But we all recognize that visibility and the attention that guys in our uniform and how we play gets. That’s the real difference.”
The difference between Farrell and Valentine steering the ship is the difference between sailing on the Exxon Valdez or the QE2 cruise ship.
Managing the Red Sox is never smooth sailing for anyone. Farrell will be no exception. But he’s turned the Sox in the right direction faster than expected.