In the 2003 American League Championship Series, Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little let Pedro Martinez talk him into letting the obviously exhausted pitcher continue rather than seek help from the bullpen. What followed may have been played over and over again with palpable joy in New York, but for new Red Sox owners John Henry and others, this was a sign that old school Grady Little had to go and be replaced by somebody who had fealty to the rising importance of statistics in baseball. John Henry made his money in Wall Street by using sophisticated analytics, and he wanted a baseball manager who would pay attention to the numbers and not manage by instinct alone.
Enter career minor leaguer and failed manager Terry Francona. What Francona did not have as manager of a rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies, he found in Boston. The team had a solid pitching staff, a core of experienced ballplayers in Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Curt Schilling, and a talented crop of youngsters. Michael Holley tracks the rise to prominence of Boston and Terry Francona by focusing more on the successful 2007 season with a perfunctory nod to the 2004 campaign that brought the elusive title to Boston after 86 years of futility.
In Holley’s account, Francona comes off as a people-oriented manager who bought into the ownership group’s belief that decision-making by number-crunching, a practice that is anathema to many baseball people even today, in spite of the success of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics (chronicled so astutely by Michael Lewis in his Moneyball), complemented old-fashioned gut-based decisions. Francona handled his stars adroitly through the long baseball season and made sure that every player knew where he stood with the manager at all times.
Holley’s book does not contain anything new that keen observers of Red Sox baseball do not know. What it contributes, though, is an inside look at what a manager goes through. Francona gave the author unfettered access, as did many others. Holley weaves vignettes of Francona’s unfulfilled journey as a player (injuries cut short what could have been a successful major league career) between narratives of Boston’s up-and-down 2007 season. One, Francona’s career as a player, informs the other, the Red Sox’s successful quest for a World Series.
While not penetrating deep into the mind of a baseball manager as Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August did so capably, Michael Holley’s book takes us into the inner confines of a pressure-packed campaign and gives us a rare glimpse of managing in action. At the end, even non-Red Sox fans (at least those outside of New York!) are likely to root for the down to earth Terry Francona.