OAKLAND, Calif. — It was late morning on a splendid Sunday in northern California and John Farrell was holding court in the first base dugout at O.co Coliseum.
He was asked if he might name his starting rotation for next weekend’s big series with the Yankees at Fenway Park when the Sox return from the All-Star break.
“We’ll announce that as soon as we tell the guys who are making starts for us,’’ Farrell said politely.
There you go. More boredom from the top. More keeping things in-house. More respect for the major league ballplayers.
A year ago the manager of the Red Sox might have spilled the beans, or ripped one of his pitchers, or asked “who cares?’’ or answered his cellphone before answering the question. He certainly wouldn’t have told his pitching coach who was starting against the Yankees.
That was then. This is now. Chaos and calamity have been displaced by peace and tranquility. Speaking in tongues has ceded to actual communication. Last place has become first place.
Farrell has brought leadership and dignity back to the corner office at Fenway and the Red Sox at the All-Star break have more wins than any team in baseball. Sunday’s 3-2, 11-inning loss to the A’s sets the Sox at 58-39, 2½ games in front of the Tampa Bay Rays.
John Farrell is not John McGraw. He’s not a genius like Tony La Russa or an ump-baiting quote machine like the late Earl Weaver. But he is an adult and a baseball lifer and he is exactly what the Red Sox needed after the collapse of 2011 and the trainwreck of 2012. Farrell was a Cleveland Indians teammate of Terry Francona and served as Francona’s pitching coach in Boston for four seasons. He has brought back the Tito style of putting the feelings of the players ahead of everything else. And it is working magically.
“It’s almost exactly the way it was back then [under Francona],’’ said Sox All-Star righthander Clay Buchholz. “This is the way our clubhouse used to be. Players get treated with respect, like a professional. That’s the way it should be.’’
Farrell and Francona were big league teammates with the Indians in the late 1980s. They embraced the same hardball philosophies and their wives and kids were friends. When Farrell served as Boston’s pitching coach, Sox owners and baseball ops folks quickly identified him as a future big league manager. But it didn’t look like the Sox were going to have an opening. Francona appeared to be secure indefinitely. So when the Blue Jays called Farrell after the 2010 season, he had no choice.
Everybody knows the Sox wanted to hire Farrell after the 2011 collapse, but Toronto would not let him out of his contract. The Sox wound up with Bobby Valentine and the rest is hardball hell history. But when Farrell failed for a second straight season in Toronto in 2012, the Jays were willing to talk about trading their manager.
Who’d want to manage the last place Red Sox?
“Anyone,’’ Francona said last winter. “They had a good core of players. They had [Jon] Lester and Buchholz and [Felix] Doubront. They had payroll and all those great fans. Anyone would want to manage them.’’
Including John Farrell. In Toronto in October 2012, Farrell was like Doc Rivers in Boston in the summer of 2013. He wanted out.
Does he ever wish he’d stayed with the Sox and succeeded Francona directly in 2012?
“I never thought that way,’’ said Farrell. “I’m forever grateful for the opportunity I had in Toronto. I’m appreciative of it and those two years of experience are very helpful to me today.’’
Farrell went 154-170 in two seasons with the Jays and was ripped by a couple of veterans on the way out the door.
But he was always the best choice for Boston. Managing the Red Sox in this century is a monumental task. The learning curve is steep. Only someone who’s been here can be prepared for the multiple voices of ownership, the stat geeks, the looming presence of baseball ops, the carnivorous media, the angst-ridden/knowledgeable fans and the daily fires that must be extinguished. Farrell didn’t win in Toronto, but he knew all about working in Boston. He knew all about Lester and Buchholz and John Lackey. And he restored a system that worked so well for most of eight seasons under Francona.
“John has demonstrated extraordinary leadership ever since he became our manager last winter,’’ Sox chairman Tom Werner wrote in an e-mail. “John has the team focused on winning, the clubhouse is happy, and as Dustin [Pedroia] says, the players grind out at-bats. Credit also should go to the coaches and to Ben [Cherington] and his front office, but John has been key. His skills range from his calm nature to his in-game strategy. Whether communicating with our core group of stars or the role players coming up and down from Pawtucket, he has everyone’s trust.’’
“Obviously having a past relationship makes it easier to communicate,’’ said Buchholz. “We know who he is and how he’s going to run a team. That’s a little different than having a guy come in that you don’t know about. That’s easier, to me.’’
“Communication” is the word most Sox players use when asked about Farrell.
“To be a good manager, there’s not many things you have to do right, but there are tons of ways to be a bad manager,’’ said Jonny Gomes, who has played for Lou Piniella, Joe Maddon, Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson, and Bob Melvin. “People talk about how players are allowed to police the clubhouse themselves. It’s really about accountability. Not only is he a manager, he’s a friend and a teammate. If someone is always disciplining you, playing the game becomes like yard duty. But he’s just one of us. He tells you when you’re in the lineup the next day. I think that’s one of the most valuable things you can have.’’
“That’s part of the communication,’’ added Pedroia. “Especially in our environment. Players are the first to know things, and that’s important.’’
“We want them to hear things directly,’’ said Farrell. “You deal with players straightforward and I think they respect that.’’
Ninety seven games. Zero brush fires. This is almost impossible in Boston.
It has not been easy. The Sox already have used 42 players. They have no established closer. Buchholz hasn’t pitched in six weeks. Will Middlebrooks hit his way back to the minors. Stephen Drew has been almost useless.
But the Sox have more wins than any team in baseball and at the All-Star break, John Farrell is the American League Manager of the Year.