McGRATH: Francona memoir explains why Epstein won’t take shortcuts with Cubs
BY DAN McGRATH June 28, 2013 11:52PM
Manager Terry Francona (left) saw how the pressure of World Series victories affected Theo Epstein’s spending decisions in Boston. | Elise Amendola~AP
Updated: August 2, 2013 6:33AM
The Cubs are on pace for 69 wins this season, an eight-game improvement in Year 2 of the Theo Epstein regime.
A modest upgrade is not likely to ease the frustrations of a cranky fan base that believes 68 years is long enough to wait for a World Series at Wrigley Field, never mind 105 years for the Cubs to win one.
But as a quarrelsome debate over ballpark renovations drags on and deflects attention from on-field events, no amount of fan angst will deter Epstein from his oft-stated goal of building a model organization capable of sustained success with home-bred talent. The baseball exec with an affinity for rock music won’t be fooled again.
That’s one of the takeaways from Francona: The Red Sox Years, Terry Francona’s candid and compelling memoir of eight eventful seasons in the manager’s office at Fenway Park, home to one of baseball’s hottest seats.
Epstein, as Boston Red Sox general manager, hired Francona and was his boss through two World Series victories and three other playoff appearances before a monumental collapse in the final month of the 2011 season sent both men off to new jobs. Accordingly, Epstein’s insights are a prominent feature of the book, which Francona wrote with quality Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.
‘‘Sawks’’ baseball is New England’s passion, even in quiet times, with no second team to divide loyalties, as there is in Chicago. The 2004 World Series title ended an 86-year championship famine and followed an epic comeback from an 0-3 deficit to the reviled New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
When the Red Sox won again in ’07, passion grew into fanaticism. Ownership became obsessed with converting it into large piles of money. The wisdom of Epstein’s build-from-within approach was apparent in the contributions of Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and other homegrown, cornerstone players, and additional young talent was in the pipeline. But management was too impatient to wait on it. Alarmed by a decline in TV ratings, the suits in the ownership suite suggested a retooling with ‘‘sexy’’ players. An obscenely lavish spending spree brought Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Adrian Gonzalez and Bobby Jenks to Boston. Clubhouse chemistry evaporated, and with it went the Red Sox’ playoff chances in 2011 — they blew a nine-game lead in September.
‘‘There was always a tension between the scouting and development approach and what I call ‘The Monster,’ ’’ Epstein says in the book. ‘‘ ‘The Monster,’ especially after we won the first time, was that we had to be bigger, better. There had to be more, more. We had to push revenues. It became a distasteful, self-congratulatory tone to some of the things we were doing.
‘‘There came a point where we were almost too big and I lost my willingness to cling to that patience and the approach I thought made us good. We gave in and tried to take the shortcut, and I don’t think there are any shortcuts in baseball. We tried to take a shortcut by throwing money at some problems, and the irony is that led to more problems.’’
Too big? Not a problem on either side of this town.
Ownership made it clear Francona was no longer wanted after 2011, emphasizing its displeasure with anonymous quotes in the Boston Globe suggesting he’d been distracted by health problems, marital problems and pain medication that season.
‘‘Somebody went out of their way to hurt me,’’ Francona writes.
Epstein left to join the Cubs a month later. He considered asking Francona to come along but ultimately decided some time away from the dugout would be better for him. After a year as an ESPN analyst, Francona took over the Cleveland Indians this season and has them in second place in the AL Central.
He’s known throughout baseball as a likeable, thoroughly decent guy, and the book explains why. His wallet and his car keys were available to anyone in the clubhouse who needed a few bucks or a ride. When he learned advance scout David Jauss had been left out of the ’04 World Series bonus pool, he sent him a personal check for $20,000 in appreciation of the reports Jauss submitted on the St. Louis Cardinals.
The book reached No. 2 on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list within a month of publication, but Francona said he has been too busy to pay attention. He smiled when reminded that Charles Barkley once declared he had been misquoted in his own autobiography.
‘‘I’m aware of that,’’ Francona said. ‘‘Dan and I spent a lot of time making sure we got it right.’’