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Authors: Michael Holley

Red Sox Rule

BOOK: Red Sox Rule
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Red Sox Rule

Terry Francona and Boston’s Rise to Dominance

Michael Holley

For Oni,

The best manager of all:
you managed my life
when I was too busy to do it myself




The Hub


hen you live in Boston, you learn over time to accept the city’s quirks. You become so well adjusted that after a while, you don’t refer to them as quirks at all. What seems odd about the city to an outsider is simply cliché—
That’s just the way it is
—to a Bostonian. So you get used to streets that are confusing enough to put your GPS on the fritz: there are multiple streets with the same names and streets that change names without warning, and that’s assuming you caught the name in the first place. You get used to the contradiction of being in a city of 600,000 residents that still feels like a small town when people get to talking; in Boston, everyone either has a “guy” with political and social connections or they know a guy who knows a guy.

There are the five dozen traffic circles that you learn to navigate. There’s the democracy—Grandma knows some obscene gestures, too—that you come to expect while driving. There’s the irony of such a small piece of land having so many territorial lines drawn into it. You can drive for just 3 miles and 12 minutes and travel through a republic (Cambridge), a town (Brookline), and a
city (Boston). There’s the distinct accent, made famous by Kennedys and townies alike, where
have nothing to do with tequila. Rather,
are what you wear when it’s just too hot for pants. And in an area where a walk down Massachusetts Avenue will take you past the Berklee College of Music, MIT, and Harvard, there’s the future you get used to seeing when you stare into the faces of 19-year-old kids: they could easily be the next Quincy Jones, the next NASA recruits, or the next well-known politicians who inspire you, for better or worse, to protest with a bumper sticker.

Like many cities, Boston has a major league baseball team. But that’s where the comparisons to other cities begin and end. New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have two teams apiece, so they have built-in checks and balances that prevent them from being as locked in on one team as Boston is on the Red Sox. Besides, those cities, with massive populations and large amounts of land, have enough room to literally and figuratively get lost in. The dazzle and intrigue of Hollywood can easily compete with and trump the accomplishments of the Dodgers and Angels. The sheer bigness, coolness, and “nowness” of New York City guarantee that whenever the Yankees and Mets have the city’s spotlight, that spotlight is seasonal. And Chicago is so big that it could hold two or three Bostons on its shoulders without flinching from the extra weight.

Then there is Boston, the smallest big city in the United States. There are no hiding places here in the city that writer Oliver Wendell Holmes once nicknamed “the Hub of the solar system.” Fenway Park and the city have so much in common—compact, old, unique—that it often seems that one blends into the other. Neither park nor city has much sympathy for the claustrophobic. Fenway, baseball’s smallest and oldest park, has the sport’s longest streak of consecutive sellouts: the park hasn’t had a single vacancy in 388 home games, or nearly 5 seasons. People will pay $20 just to stand
behind those who actually have seats on game days. Some will pay twice that amount for the right to sit directly behind a giant green pole (the seat is so bad that it makes the already euphemistic phrase “obstructed view” seem misleading).

In tiny Fenway, the Red Sox, Boston’s Hollywood summer stars, are always being watched and judged by someone. The team’s press corps is enormous, which means that players and management truly have to be close to the media, whether they like it or not. At least 50 media members cover the team away from home, with that number sometimes swelling to 75. Give or take a reporter and it means that the size of the Red Sox’s
press contingent is similar to that of the group of White House correspondents who cover the President daily. The media numbers get sillier when the Red Sox are at home, when at least 135 to 150 media members show up, even when the Red Sox are playing the worst teams in the league. Last spring, the team issued 300 credentials to those who planned to cover parts of spring training in Fort Myers, Florida.

The coverage is a constant reminder of the obvious in New England, and that is that everyone always has something to say about the team. Always. Despite the crowds in the stands as well as in the press box, it’s not clear whether the baseball conversation
at Fenway or simply is

“Somewhere along the line it got to the point where the Red Sox weren’t an option,” says Theo Epstein, the Boston-raised general manager of the Red Sox. “It’s not an elective; it’s a staple. It’s a tradition that’s more common than a family dinner.”

There is no such thing as a no-baseball zone in Boston. The game is dissected in places that you would expect, such as sports bars, by people you would expect, such as males between the ages of 25 and 54, also known as the dream men for advertisers. But the dissection is so widespread that the demographics can’t quite
capture it. The manager of the Red Sox, Terry Francona, arrived at work one day last summer and found a message from a ranting e-mailer in his in-box. The writer profanely explained why Francona was a “moron” and most responsible for a regular-season loss. The criticism didn’t surprise him as much as the institution from which it was sent: Harvard.

The gift and curse of the Red Sox is that they belong to everybody. They are claimed by Ivy League professors and intellectuals, by Oscar-winning actors and bestselling authors, by working women and stay-at-home moms, by those who practice the law and those who wind up on the wrong side of it. The gift is that instead of being pulled in one direction to represent a certain community or agenda, the Red Sox are surrounded by all those interests, which forms a circle. Which is also the curse: there is nothing carefree and loose about this group hug. It’s expressive and intense, a passionate embrace that won’t let go.

Here, asking someone about the Red Sox is like asking them if they have the time. The assumption is that they at least know what happened in last night’s game, who’s pitching tonight, and precisely where the Yankees are in the standings. And really, those are just the superficial talking points for short elevator rides. The real conversation, the one with substance, feels more like an heirloom. It’s an in-progress discussion, a thread that began in the early 1900s that each Red Sox generation tweaks and maintains.

What it means for contemporary Red Sox management and players is this: the team’s average fan is an oral historian. The city is full of fans who can seemingly walk and Google at the same time, people who can instantly connect a Red Sox slump in 2007 to the team’s historic one in 1978. This is a place where names are loaded. Harry Frazee. Tom Yawkey. Bucky Dent. Bill Buckner. Grady Little. This is a place where
are loaded. 1918, when the
Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. 1978. 1986. 2003. Of course, it’s a given that it’s a place whose unforgivable baseball sins usually have something to do with New York—either losing a divisional lead to the Yankees, losing any series to the Yankees, leaving to play for the Yankees, or wearing a Yankees hat.

The city’s natural voice is animated and coarse. You don’t have to wait for poll results to know if you’re loved or hated. If you’re a member of the Red Sox, you can be loved and despised in the same week. Or game. Outside of Fenway, the city pushes you to be faster. Drive faster. Talk faster. Think faster. Move faster. At Fenway, the microcosm of the city pushes you to be better. Hit better. Run better. Draft better. Manage better.

When the Red Sox are successful, that pushing is called passion and Fenway is paradise. In seasons that end without an appearance in the playoffs, those players and managers who might seek an escape from baseball in the city find that such an escape doesn’t exist.

Jerry Remy, who played for the Angels and Red Sox in his 10-year career, has seen the city’s baseball obsession from all angles. He grew up in Somerset, 50 miles from Fenway. He spent the final seven seasons of his career as a Red Sox second baseman. He briefly thought of coaching and managing the Red Sox’s Triple-A team in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. And for the last 20 years, he has watched nearly every game in his role as analyst on the team’s television network.

“There’s something about this city that some players can handle and some can’t,” Remy says. “It’s the idea of ‘comfort.’ Here, you had better not get too comfortable. This city will make you uncomfortable.”

Remy mentioned Fred Lynn, a former teammate who finished his first Red Sox season in 1975 as American League Rookie of
the Year and Most Valuable Player. “This city pushed him to another level. I always tell people that if he had played his entire career here, he’d be in the Hall of Fame. Some players can’t handle that push, but I’m convinced it made him a better player.” Lynn had a fine career spread over 17 seasons, but the numbers support Remy’s claim: Lynn’s best baseball came during his 6 full seasons in Boston.

But the city’s attention to baseball can be inspirational—and intimidating. Some players and managers don’t like the fact that each of the Red Sox’s 162 games are held up and studied as if they are stones analyzed by a gemologist. The slightest cracks or imperfections can be debated for hours and, sometimes, years.

Two World Series titles and 22 years later, Boston still has an unsolved question from Game 6 of the 1986 Mets–Red Sox World Series: Did former manager John McNamara decide on his own to take his ace, Roger Clemens, out of the game with the season hanging in the balance? Or did Clemens, bothered by a blister, ask out after the seventh inning with his team ahead by one run? After Boston lost the memorable series in seven games and extended its championship famine to 68 years, McNamara sat in his office and stared at radio play-by-play man Joe Castiglione.

“Why me?” the manager finally said. “Why did this have to happen to me? I go to church every day. Why me?”

At least McNamara had a job to return to the next season. Little, who led Boston to Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, wasn’t so fortunate.

With his refusal to make one eighth-inning call to the bullpen, Little unwittingly helped change modern baseball in Boston. The consequence of his decision to stay with a tiring Pedro Martinez was predictable: frothing fans in Boston wanted him gone and so did his bosses (some of whom were frothing, too).
There was an Old West feeling to New England in October 2003. Angry and frustrated Red Sox fans, with their title drought stretched to 85 years, played the mob. Little played the villain who needed to be out of town by sundown. The option year on his contract was not renewed, thus creating an opening in the office that, during baseball season, is more scrutinized than the governor’s.

If anyone was taking bets back in November 2003, the smart money was that the new guy, Terry Francona, wouldn’t make it in Boston. He didn’t have a winning record as a big-league manager, he carried a handle,
players’ manager
, that’s an obscenity to the steak-and-potatoes sports fan, and he appeared to be too nice; one of the first things he did at his initial press conference was shout out his cell phone number to a large group of reporters.

Before Francona took the job, 32 different men had tried, unsuccessfully, to bring Boston just one championship in 85 years. Francona has done it twice in 4 years, using a formula that even a city as old as Boston has never seen.

BOOK: Red Sox Rule
12.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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