In A Class of His Own
Last night, the Boston Red Sox picked up their 61st win of the season as they defeated the Seattle Mariners 3-1 in front of a sold-out home crowd. In the victory, Josh Beckett earned his ninth victory of the season, Jonathan Papelbon his 23rd save and the Red Sox increasing their division lead to three games over the Yankees. What stands out most, though, comes from an important milestone accomplished by not a player but the manager.
Thanks to last night's win, Terry Francona earned his 1,000th career managerial win (his 715th as the Boston skipper). It really is fascinating to look at the managerial career of Terry Francona and remember what attitudes were like when he was first hired by the BoSox following the 2003 season.
Red Sox fans know all too well how the 2003 season ended. They were leading the hated Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS just five outs away from the pennant, in the Bronx, no less, and then-manager Grady Little decided to keep his ace Pedro Martinez in the game just one batter longer than he should have. Long story short: the Yankees came back to win, eliminating Boston and Little got fired for his one hiccup.
Despite the great job he did with the Red Sox, that one decision to keep Pedro in the game cost Grady Little his job. I didn't understand why Little decided not to make a pitching change. After all, as great as Pedro was, anyone could see how tired he was. Nonetheless, the Red Sox made their decision, as disappointing as it was, and went in a new direction.
When Francona was hired as the next manager of the Red Sox, I didn't know what to think. His 285-363 record as manager up to that point didn't exactly instill much optimism or excitement. In his four seasons as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in the late '90s, Francona never earned more than 77 wins in a season and never finished higher than third in his division. As a matter of fact, in his first and last seasons as manager, his team finished last in the division while, in both years, losing over 90 games.
So, with a team like the Boston Red Sox who, at that point, had not won a World Series in 85 years, why did they just hire a manager who had grossly underachieved up to that point? One thing is for certain: those pessimistic thoughts I had were soon erased.
With a blue-collar team on his hands and one that had signed free agent pitchers Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, the Red Sox were on a mission to finish what they started and when Alex Rodriguez went to the Yankees instead of the Red Sox where he was rumoured to be heading, the fuel had been poured onto the fire.
In 2004, the Red Sox and Yankees battled all year long and Francona made sure his players found a dynamic that would bring them together all the while keeping them loose and relaxed. It worked. Although the Red Sox eventually lost the division title, they did settle for the Wild Card where they swept the favoured Anaheim Angels in three games. Then, came the ALCS, which Red Sox fans (and even Yankee fans) will never forget. After falling behind 0-3 in the series to the Yanks, Francona's maiden season in Boston was all but over because, let's face it, no team in baseball history had ever come back to win a series after being down 0-3. But the Red Sox did the unthinkable and won the next four en route to sweeping the best team in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals, to win their first World Series in 86 years.
To prove this wasn't some flash-in-the-pan team, the BoSox continued to contend in 2005 and despite missing the playoffs in '06, Boston won their first division title in twelve years the following year and their second World Series in four years.
Under the leadership Francona, the Boston Red Sox have shown so much resilience that they made it a personal trademark. We already know about what they did in the 2004 ALCS but then there was the 2008 ALCS when, down 7-0 to the Tampa Bay Rays on the verge of elimination, the Red Sox came back to win that game and force a sixth (and then a seventh) game, which, unfortunately, they lost. Now, fast-forward to this season where Boston began the season 0-6 and free agent acquisitions Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez were already proving to be busts. Under Francona, though, the Red Sox turned everything around winning 61 of their next 92 games with the latter player contending for the American League's MVP crown.
I mean no disrespect to any of the previous Red Sox managers such as Dick Williams or Darryl Johnston but Terry Francona certainly belongs in a class of his own. He was given the loftiest of expectations with a track record that was far from anything to write home about.
His first season in Boston needs no explanation as 2004 speaks for itself. However, to lose key free agents like Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon and even Trot Nixon to seeing rising pitchers like Justin Masterson and Kason Gabbard get traded not to mention the countless episodes of "Manny Being Manny", Terry Francona deserves a hell of a lot more credit than winning a few ball games.
In his eighth season in Beantown, Terry Francona is arguably (or un-arguably) the greatest manager this storied franchise has ever had. Here's to a thousand managerial wins and here's to many, many more.