PHOENIX — John Farrell announced on Aug. 14, 2015, that he was being treated for cancer and stepped down as manager of the Red Sox for the remainder of the season.
Four days later, the team named Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations during the middle of a night game at Fenway Park which led to general manager Ben Cherington immediately resigning.
The Sox were an organization in chaos. But it was then, when it was most needed, that Torey Lovullo stood tallest.
Now the manager of the resurgent Arizona Diamondbacks, Lovullo was bench coach of the Sox at the time and took over for Farrell as manager.
He guided a last-place team to a 28-20 record over the remainder of the season, deftly using a roster with veterans David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia along with 22-year-old Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and other young players.
As Farrell received treatments only a few miles away at Mass General, Lovullo made it clear he was still the bench coach. He did not use Farrell’s office at Fenway or on the road, a graceful gesture to his friend.
Farrell returned in 2016 and the Sox won 93 games with Lovullo as bench coach. Arizona hired Mike Hazen away from the Red Sox as general manager and Hazen soon after hired Lovullo as his manager.
“That experience checked a couple of unchecked boxes on my resume,” Lovullo said Friday before the Red Sox beat the Diamondbacks, 7-2.
“I was ready in a lot of different ways but I didn’t have that major league dugout experience. I felt like it readied me. I had a great teacher in John. I watched him every single day and I felt like I was ready to manage and hoped somebody would give me an opportunity.”
Dombrowski fired Farrell after the 2017 season. Alex Cora led the Red Sox to the 2018 World Series title and he remains manager today, albeit having missed the 2020 season while suspended.
But it very easily could have gone another way. Had Farrell moved into a front-office position with the Sox or another team after the ‘15 or ‘16 seasons, Lovullo would have been a perfect fit as manager.
The relationships he built with players such as Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi were such that maybe the group would have stayed together. To this day, those players speak of their respect for Lovullo.
Managing a team like the Red Sox is one of the most demanding and complicated jobs in sports. There are high expectations, capricious owners to placate, twice-daily media obligations, community responsibilities and a clubhouse of highly paid players looking to you for leadership.
It’s a job that wore Terry Francona out and drove Farrell out of baseball.
“It’s one of those places that you may think you know what it’s like but you really don’t unless you’re there,” Lovullo said.
In his 48 games, Lovullo looked like a keeper. Instead, this is his seventh season with Arizona.
“I learned a lot about chemistry with the team we had in ‘13,” Lovullo said. “I learned a lot with the tough times we went through and bottomed out. You have to challenge yourself during those times.
“We went to great highs to great lows.”
Lovullo said he doesn’t think about what might have been in Boston.
“I was grateful for the opportunity,” he said. “I was there for John. I promised him the team would be waiting for him when he returned. It was time for me to move to another place.”
Arizona has had its own peaks and valleys, but they’re in second place in the National League West with some interesting young players in the lineup and a rotation headlined by Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly.
Lovullo survived a 110-loss season in 2021 and the payoff has come this year.
“I love it here,” he said. “I love this team and working with Mike. It worked out the right way for me.”
Cora and Lovullo don’t know each other well, but they share a lot of the same people skills in their ability to relate to players and communicate well.
The Sox have a good manager, and so do the Diamondbacks. It all worked out. But it could have gone another way.