Torey Lovullo had the best playground when he was a kid.
He would sit in Archie Bunker’s chair for a while, then run through the beaded curtains picked out by Sonny and Cher before going to check out the fabulous prizes behind the curtain at “The Price Is Right.”
The son of a Hollywood producer, Lovullo had the run of the sound stages at CBS in the early 1970s.
“I was very privileged at the time, although I didn’t know it. I was protected from that. My parents made me feel like I was a normal kid,” Lovullo said.
Remember “Hee Haw?” That was Sam Lovullo’s project and the show ran on CBS two years before going into national syndication for another 21. Country music and corny jokes were the family business and business was good.
“My fourth-grade teacher asked me what I did over the summer. I said I played baseball and visited my father in Tennessee and saw Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl,” Lovullo said. “She explained to me that not every kid did that. That was when I realized my dad wasn’t like most dads.”
Sam Lovullo is 86 now, happily retired in southern California. At 50, Torey Lovullo is on the cusp of his own turn in the spotlight.
As the interim manager of the Red Sox, Lovullo has stood tall in uncertain times, guiding a flawed team to an 8-5 record with a mixture of grace and intensity.
“We’ve had a lot of stuff going on around us but Torey has been keeping us in the direction we want to go,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “He’s a voice that never changes. He makes it easy for us.”
In the last two weeks, the Red Sox learned that manager John Farrell was afflicted with Stage 1 lymphoma and would miss the remainder of the season. Then general manager Ben Cherington was forced out, ownership deciding to hire Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations.
Even popular NESN announcer Don Orsillo lost his job this week, the news leaking out that he would be replaced.
Nerves are frayed at Fenway Park as players, coaches, and staff members wonder who will be back next season. Yet somehow the Sox are playing their best ball of the season.
The Sox have averaged 7.2 runs under Lovullo and outscored the opposition by 34 runs. After a season marked by inconsistent play, the last-place Sox have a renewed sense of purpose.
“Torey is lively, that’s how I see him,” righthander Clay Buchholz said. “His attitude has helped everybody out.”
Lovullo has communicated with Farrell every day, keeping him involved in decisions and encouraging him to visit the team when possible. To honor his friend, Lovullo has refused to use the manager’s office at Fenway or on the road. He uses a corner of the dugout or a table in the middle of the clubhouse to talk to a player or review scouting reports on his laptop.
“I’m not the manager, John is,” Lovullo said. “I wouldn’t feel right being in his office. I can find room where I need it.”
Lovullo is showing he has the stuff to be a manager. That was his plan all along, although certainly not this way.
Lovullo joined the Red Sox for the first time in 2010, becoming the manager at Triple A Pawtucket because he wanted to learn under manager Terry Francona and Farrell, then the pitching coach.
He had managed nearly 1,100 minor league games for the Cleveland Indians and was ready for a promotion to the major league staff. Lovullo interviewed to become manager in 2009 when Eric Wedge was fired. But Cleveland hired Manny Acta and he didn’t want Lovullo as a coach.
“I thought the writing was on the wall and it was time for me to start a new chapter,” Lovullo said. “Boston seemed like a good fit.”
Lovullo had worked with Farrell, a former teammate, and Red Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen while in Cleveland. He also had played for Francona in Philadelphia in 1999.
Lovullo worked under Francona during spring training in 2010 and they talked daily during the season about player moves.
“He was so good to me and was so fun to be around. He brought me along in every way that he could and every area that he could because he knew I was going to pay attention and watch some of the things that he was doing in running his ball club,” Lovullo said.
“I had a general appreciation for the way he communicated with everybody, the way he got to know his guys. The more information he got to know about his guys, he felt it was going to help put them in the right position to succeed.”
When Farrell was named manager in Toronto, Lovullo followed him as the first base coach. Farrell and Lovullo returned to Boston for the 2013 season, Lovullo as the bench coach.
As interim manager, Lovullo draws heavily on his experience as player. He was in the majors for parts of eight seasons from 1988-99, playing for seven teams and starting games at seven positions.
A fifth-round draft pick out of UCLA by the Tigers in 1987, Lovullo made it to the majors in 15 months and was marked for stardom by manager Sparky Anderson.
“He’s the finest young player I’ve seen since Johnny Bench,” Anderson said in 1989 when Lovullo made the team out of spring training as the first baseman.
Lovullo hit .115 in 29 games, was demoted in May, and never played for the Tigers again. He finished his career a .224 hitter with 15 home runs.
“I wish I had been a better player. But looking back, I treasure what I learned,” Lovullo said. “I got to the big leagues in a hurry and thought I had everything figured out. But I discovered quickly this was a very hard level.
“I was stubborn making adjustments and when I did, I was already labeled a utility player. Now, when I talk to players, I see it through their eyes because of my experience. I know what it’s like to have to grind.”
Lovullo has invited players like Jackie Bradley Jr. to look up his résumé. He wants them to know he understands their struggle.
“Torey has been great with us,” Bradley said. “We all know he has our backs.”
The Red Sox took two of three games from Francona’s Indians last week. Lovullo, he said, is making Farrell proud.
“This is good for him. It’ll be eye-opening for sure,” Francona said. “It’s easier when you’re in the other seat. But he’s going to be fine.”
The Red Sox aren’t saying whether Farrell will return as manager. The focus for now is solely on his health. Lovullo’s attention is only on the 35 games remaining.
“He would be a great manager for anybody. Absolutely,” Pedroia said. “He understands the game, he understands the people. He’s ready.
One perk of being Sam Lovullo’s son was attending a basketball camp run by John Wooden, the legendary UCLA coach. The experience has stayed with Lovullo, who was only 8 at the time.
Lovullo still has a plaque with Wooden’s famed “Pyramid of Success” principles printed on it, carrying it with him at every stop as a player, coach, and manager. It will be with him when he returns to California in the offseason with his wife and three children.
Wooden preached being competitive, taking initiative, and being able to adapt to any situation. The life lessons have been especially valuable the last two weeks.