Tito’s Tell-All -April/May 2013

by: Steve Sheppard

photography by: Stan Grossfeld

Just when we think our love affair with the Red Sox has ended, along comes “Francona: The Red Sox Years” to remind us why we happily followed our team of idiots into post-midnight, extra-inning delirium nearly a decade ago, and to newly appraise how fortunate we were to exult in not just one, but two World Series championships in a four-year span.

The story of those championships – and more, much more – is all here in the most-anticipated sports book of the year: Manny being Manny; the unflappable and inscrutable J.D. Drew; the relationship between the owners, the manager and the general manager (and perhaps the more telling relationships among the owners themselves); the stat geeks; Nomar; Pedro; Schilling.

This enjoyable and highly-readable book covers eight of the most exciting – and explosive – years in Red Sox history. Framed around the managerial tenure of Terry Francona, the book unfolds, as all Red Sox books must, like a Greek tragedy, filled with optimistic promise, previously unknown joys of fulfillment, and the rapid decline that precipitates the swift, and ignoble, denouement of September 2011.

Written by Francona with nationallyrenowned sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe, this is a true collaboration, with Francona’s engaging voice coming through loud and clear.

The pair began their discussions soon after Francona and the Red Sox parted ways.

“We started meeting in late October or November of 2011,” Shaughnessy recalls. “By that time, he was comfortable (with the project). He’s a very reliable guy, he took this very seriously. It got easier as we went along. We hit a rhythm.”

It was decided that the book would be a narrative written by Shaughnessy, and not a first-person “astold-to” biography.

“Tom Verducci did ‘The Yankee Years’ with Joe Torre, and that was the model for this,” Shaughnessy says, noting that his own reportage of the team during the Francona era brought another perspective to the book. “We could get more stuff in there.”

Shaughnessy’s insightful writing reveals a Francona who is sometimes irreverent, always truthful and loyal, and, more often than not, extremely funny.

“He’s a good storyteller,” Shaughnessy says.

There was great interest in the book before a word was written. Fans couldn’t wait to read what Francona had to say about his time with the Sox, especially the last, dreadful days.

“It ended, and it didn’t end well,” Shaughnessy says. “He was more liberated to really tell the truth. The Red Sox sell, and here you had a disgruntled manager... and it enhanced that interest.”

And if fans couldn’t wait to hear about the awful end, neither could Shaughnessy. He decided early on that the only way to approach the book was to begin at the beginning.

“I was all over the map for the first two or three sessions (with Francona),” he said. “Once we had the book deal, I went back to the genesis. I thought it was important to write the book chronologically.”

This meant that he, too, had to wait for Francona’s reaction to the Sox unraveling, and his subsequent firing. “I wanted to get to the end” just like everyone else, he says, noting that his daughter Kate had this to say after the book was finished: “As things get worse, the book gets better.”

“It’s the completion of the fall, the whole arc of the story,” Shaughnessy says. “It was the only way to frame it. It’s a Red Sox book, a Red Sox story.”

Make no mistake, however. “Francona” is not a rant. It is the tale of a true love affair with baseball, and, in the end, becomes a truly great book about baseball.

“This is not a trash story about the end,” Shaughnessy says. “It’s eight great years.”

We’re reminded of just how great they were.

Just one year after a game-seven loss to the Yankees in the American League championship series, the Sox in 2004, down three games to none, won four of the most exciting games in Red Sox history to pull off what is perhaps the greatest sports upset of all time. As Shaughnessy writes, “The Red Sox are still the only team in Major League Baseball history to win a seven-game series after trailing three games to zero.”

Three years later, down again in the championship series, three games to one, this time to the Indians, the Sox once more emerged victorious.

And, not that anyone can ever forget, they swept both World Series, making Francona 8-0 in the Fall Classic. He is also the second-longest tenured manager in Red Sox history, serving eight years to Joe Cronin’s 13.

There’s more to “Francona” than World Series wins. So much of the book is compelling, and revelatory: the close relationship between Francona and general manager Theo Epstein; the inner workings of a major league clubhouse; Francona’s suggestion to Nomar Garciaparra in 2004 that it was probably best for the star shortstop to move on to another team. And then there’s this Manny moment from the World Series that year:

“With the Red Sox leading, 3-0, in the fourth inning of the fourth and final game, Manny stepped to the plate with two out and nobody aboard and got into an argument with St. Louis rookie catcher Yadier Molina ... Play was halted as Ramirez and Molina got into one another’s face. Spanish swears were flying. Home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether motioned for Francona to come out of the dugout. When the manager arrived at the scene, Meriwether explained that he didn’t speak Spanishand couldn’t understand the core of the argument.

“ ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ ” Francona first asked Meriwether. “I don’t speak Spanish either.” “Turning to his slugger, Francona asked, ‘Manny, what’s this about?’

“Ramirez pointed toward Molina and said, ‘He thinks I’m stealing their signs.’

“Francona chuckled, looked at Meriwether, and said, ‘Chuck, Manny doesn’t even know our signs!’ “The manager looked at Manny for verification.

‘You don’t know our signs, do you, Manny?’

“No,” Ramirez said, grinning sheepishly.

“Case closed. Play ball.”

This is just one reason why Francona was the best manager for the Red Sox at that time, and why it was he, above all others, who finally brought the elusive World Series title to Boston.

“Don’t forget how close they were in 2003,” Shaughnessy says. “I think he was the last piece. Enabling Manny ... coming back from 3-0, part of that was being consistent and on message, and he was able to bring these things out.”

He also supported his players wholeheartedly, a fact underscored by the number of players who gladly consented to interviews for the book.

“He’s really very true to baseball and very true to his players. He was very interested in not ratting out the players,” Shaughnessy says.
For every story Francona told, he said, “he wanted me to talk to the players.”

And so we hear from Ortiz, and Becket, and Pedroia, and Youkilis, and Damon, among others. There are some, though, who Shaughnessy wishes had come forward.

“John Henry rejected our requests (for interviews). I never got (Joe) Torre (who was not only a managerial nemesis, but a former major-league teammate of Francona’s father). Manny wasn’t available, although I’m not sure how that would have gone,” he says.

One respondent, however, was indispensable.

“Theo (Epstein) is the Greek chorus of the whole thing,” Shaughnessy says.

Epstein’s insights, and corroborations, are a welcome, and necessary, addition to the narrative.

Shaughnessy has collaborated with his “very engaged co-author” Francona to write an honest and pure book – one that makes us fall in love with baseball again as we eagerly anticipate warmer days and the promise of another new season. ///

“FRANCONA: The Red Sox Years”
By Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 360 pages

Steve Sheppard is a former editor of Nantucket magazine, and former assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror. He is a lifelong Red Sox fan who teaches music at the elementary school and plays in several bands including The Shep Cats.

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