They are the John Farrell Red Sox, with their lumberjack beards, colorful tattoos, and glittering bling, none of which has anything to do with the image their square-jawed, clean-shaven manager projects.
Parked next to his ragtag bunch, the 6-foot-4-inch, 51-year-old skipper at first glance appears to have walked onto the wrong set, straying from his leading man’s role in some PBS documentary on the thinking man’s manager into a land that time — and grooming tools — forgot.
But as Red Sox Nation learned to its delight in 2004 —
“He wants to win, that’s what’s important,’’ said third baseman Will Middlebrooks. “He doesn’t care if we dye our hair purple. If that’s what’s going to bring us together — that we are going to win ballgames — then that’s what it’s about.’’
Farrell, one of a New Jersey lobsterman’s six children, was hired just a year ago, brought back in the choppy wake of Bobby Valentine’s zany and disastrous one-year tour as Boston manager. Previously the Sox pitching coach for four years (2007-10) under manager Terry Francona, Farrell left here to become the Blue Jays skipper in 2011. Out was his only way up, as no one at the time thinking that Francona, with a pair of World Series championships on his Boston résumé, was going anywhere but directly to the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
Abruptly discharged after the club’s spectacular September failings of 2011, and now the Cleveland Indians manager, Francona had played a lead role in coaxing Farrell to take the pitching coach job here in 2007. Farrell by that time had logged a handful of years in the Cleveland front office as director of the Indians farm system, seemingly on course one day to be a general manager.
“He is such an intelligent guy, and he is so well-rounded, that whatever path he took he was probably going to be whatever he wanted,’’ Francona said. “We were just fortunate enough for him to be the pitching coach in Boston, or he probably would be a general manager right now.’’
One of Farrell’s teammates during their playing days in Cleveland, where Farrell, a righthander, went an impressive 14-10 in his second season (1988), Francona recalled driving from Fort Myers, Fla., to Winter Haven at 3 o’clock one spring morning to convince his old pal to join his staff.
“We talked for hours because that is such an important choice,’’ said Francona. “And [even] without experience, I thought he would be really good — and we were right.
“We knew we wouldn’t have him long because we knew when you get guys like that, they are going to be managers. But having them for however long is better than not having them.’’
Farrell grew up in Monmouth Beach on the Jersey Shore, and though drafted out of high school by Oakland, he opted to attend Oklahoma State. It was a smart call, the Cowboys making it to four straight College World Series during his time pitching in Stillwater. The towering righthander was drafted again in 1984, for the second time in as many years, by the Indians, and finally turned pro with the Cleveland organization, ultimately making his major league debut in 1987 after three-plus seasons in the minors.
A career 36-46 with a 4.56 ERA, Farrell battled through severe arm woes, including a pair of elbow surgeries, to keep his playing career alive, and made a comeback with the Angels in 1993 after sitting out two seasons. He went 3-12 in 17 starts upon his return, hung on for another three years, then finally called it quits in ’96 after making a pair of starts with the Tigers.
Within weeks of hanging up his glove at age 34, Farrell was back at Oklahoma State, completing a degree in business management. He also caught on as OSU’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator, remaining in that role for five years before returning to the Indians to start his new career track in the front office.
“I’ve always found myself in the position where I’ve been different from the group,’’ Farrell told the Globe soon after he left Boston to manage the Blue Jays. “I was a person in a front office that played in the big leagues and then I was a pitching coach that worked in a front office. I guess there’s a uniqueness in the whole thing.’’
Consistent within all of Farrell’s roles, said Ben Cherington, is what the Red Sox general manager depicts as his “incredible thirst for knowledge.’’ The lead voice in bringing Farrell back as manager, Cherington witnessed from afar Farrell’s drive and persistent desire to get better when they were farm directors with opposing clubs, and then up close during Farrell’s four years on Francona’s staff.
“He took a different approach to the pitching job than I think most guys do,’’ said Cherington. “He took a more comprehensive approach.
“He acted more like a coordinator would in football, like a defensive coordinator — he was managing a group and so he was involved in different aspects of the pitching program more than perhaps some others would.’’
The Sox were confident they put the right guy on the job a year ago. But whether it’s the kid who takes a summer job at Dairy Queen or the accomplished corporate suit picked as IBM’s next CEO, some things about the new hire aren’t known until he or she is on the job.
“What I think we’ve learned about him has been related to just the job being different than the one he had in the past,’’ said Cherington, “and he has shown [that] incredible thirst for knowledge in areas that maybe he hadn’t been involved in the past.
“So as the pitching coach, he’s maybe not spending as much time thinking about, oh, our offensive running game, as an example. Or lineup particulars, or what a position player might need over the course of a season to stay strong.
“As a manager, you have to do all that. Every piece of information that was available to him from the first day he took the job, he was so eager to soak it all in so he could learn just as much as he could, so that he could figure out the best possible way to transfer that to his staff, to his players, in a way that made sense.
“And he did it with a ton of humility. He is a confident guy — with his stature, he’s respected. But he is also a guy with a ton of humility. And the combination is very effective as a leader.’’
Some of that, Cherington figures, comes from Farrell’s boyhood days in New Jersey, helping his father and brother Paul try to keep alive a lobster business that eventually fell into bankruptcy. Farrell to this day remains an avid fisherman, often returning to the ocean with rod and reel on a rare off-day during the season.
“We’ve talked about it a little bit,’’ said Cherington. “It comes up indirectly, because you think of someone who grew up in New Jersey, in that environment, a working-class environment. His dad was working hard as a fisherman and I suppose — who knows how life twists and turns? — but you can close your eyes and kind of imagine what growing up in that type of environment might lead to and the sort of values that you might carry with you growing up like that. I think John has some of those.
“I mean, managing a baseball team is much different than running a fishing boat. But as far as sort of the commitment, with the day-to-day commitment of a work ethic and expectations for others to do the same, the willingness to grind through the tough times, and be resilient, and still show up with the job done, those are qualities that he has and those are qualities that he’s helped make sure have spread to the rest of the team.’’
A method and a mission
Relentless. Farrell uses the word over and over when characterizing the team he has shaped. His Red Sox show up at the park each day, most of them hours ahead of schedule. They grind through at-bats, to the point where opposing starters can almost be heard uttering “uncle’’ into their gloves as they study the next pitch.
“It’s the one word that we have continually tried to drive home,’’ said Farrell. “And I think that has played out, whether it’s a given game, a given series, over the course of [the season].
“Our guys love the attention to detail. And in some ways, that [gives] them an edge inside a game to be opportunistic. But it’s that overall relentlessness that has become a trait for this group.’’
Inside the clubhouse, Farrell’s ways have engendered obvious respect and dedication among his players. It’s clear in their play that they’re having fun, and equally obvious that they like the guy who leads the show.
“I think he does a great job of walking the line between demanding professionalism, accountability, responsibility,’’ said relief pitcher Craig Breslow, the former Yale star. “But he also allows guys to be individuals.
“You know, this team has a strong identity and I think that kind of pervades what we do on the field, and John is a smart enough guy to stay out of that.’’
“He’s letting us play, brother,’’ added outfielder Shane Victorino. “That’s the one thing he said in spring training: ‘You guys just go out there and play — you know, be professional.’ That’s the one thing he’s done all year long, let us go out there and be the team that we can be.’’
The makeup and mantra of the 2013 John Farrell Red Sox mirror, in some ways, those of Francona’s team in 2004, the endearing “Idiots,’’ so dubbed by outfielder Johnny Damon. Overall, the 2004 team wasn’t as scruffy as the current haggard bunch, but both clubs bonded under a similar theme.
“In ’04, I desperately wanted our team to get a personality — you know, one personality,’’ recalled Francona. “And that’s kind of what happened. And that looks like what’s happened [under Farrell], too, from the outside. Everyone is going in one direction, and that’s kind of what you strive for with a team — get everyone going in one direction.’’
Three sons in the game
To the eye of latecomer Jake Peavy, the righthander acquired in trade in late July, Farrell has “a lot of cowboy’’ in him.’’
“He has a lot of what these players in here have on and off the field,’’ said Peavy, who helped close out the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 4 of the Division Series. “He’s just steady.
“The word, when I look at John, the word ‘professional’ just keeps coming to mind —
John and Sue Farrell met at Oklahoma State. Sue was born in Portugal, the daughter of a US Air Force general, and they have three sons, Jeremy, Shane, and Luke, all of whom have finished college and were drafted by major league clubs.
Jeremy, the eldest, went to the University of Virginia and is now a third baseman in the White Sox organization. Luke, the youngest, went to Northwestern and just wrapped up his first year of minor league ball in the Royals system. Middle child Shane went to Marshall and was drafted by the Blue Jays. Unable to pursue his playing career because of thoracic outlet syndrome, Shane joined the Cubs amateur scouting staff a year ago.
Shane, reached by phone late in the week, laughed over how his dad might react if one of his three sons came home with a thick beard reminiscent of any number of current Red Sox players
“Uh, lucky for me, I guess, because I can’t grow a beard,’’ said the 24-year-old. “But I am sure he would hand us a razor as soon as we walked through the door.’’
What? Could that be the same John Farrell, the stoic, quiet leader of men standing there tolerantly each night, sharing the dugout with his happy band of primitives?
“I know, I know,” said his son Shane . “I just think he really enjoys people being able to express themselves individually but also keeping in mind the team concept. I think that’s important, and something he’s been able to do pretty well.’’