FORT MYERS, Fla. — Three years, three managers.
The Red Sox went from Terry Francona, who authored the Great September Collapse of 2011 after admittedly losing control of the team, to Bobby Valentine, who they believed would not allow the inmates to run the asylum in 2012.
Problem is, the inmates rebelled, and once they did, the Red Sox again decided, oops, this isn’t the way to go. So the inmates eventually got rid of the second manager.
And now we have No. 3: Step right up, John Farrell — a well-spoken, intelligent, imposing figure.
So far, the inmates seem content.
They certainly speak well of him, especially the pitchers who are gathered here ahead of schedule to conduct their short workouts before next Monday’s official reporting date for pitchers and catchers.
“This is going to be good for everyone,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “The players respect him. We’re familiar with him because he’s been here and understands this team.”
Is Farrell the compromise candidate? Is he in between the player-friendly Francona and the players-be-damned Valentine?
“He’s a straight shooter,” John Lackey told the Globe’s Peter Abraham.
Farrell really enters a good situation, just as John Gibbons does in Toronto in replacing Farrell, who won 73 games last season. Farrell can only look good compared with Valentine, just as Gibbons can only look good compared with Farrell, just as Francona could only look good compared with Grady Little.
If Farrell turns the fortunes of the team in a positive direction — with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Lackey performing at a top-notch level, and the revamped lineup hitting home runs, at least at a modest pace — he will be a success.
New managers almost always inherit different situations, and how they react in that first season is often a good indication of what their tenure is going to be like.
Francona inherited a team that had gone to Game 7 of the AL Championship Series in 2003, with superstars like Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz in their prime, Bill Mueller coming off a batting title, and then added Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke. Francona took the Sox to their first World Series victory in 86 years.
Valentine inherited a collapsed and disgraced team, then was beset with a record number of injuries, chaos in the clubhouse, no support from his inherited coaches, a lack of backing by management, and some ill-advised though honest comments about his players.
Farrell probably won’t find himself having to backtrack on something he said, since he chooses his words very carefully. He knows players don’t like to be criticized in public, and that alone will make him popular with his team.
He’ll be more like Francona, who never said a bad word about anyone until he wrote a book.
Farrell’s task is to get players to perform back to their levels, incorporate the new players seamlessly into the mix, while also turning an eye toward developing younger players as they come up through the system.
The advantage Farrell will have is that he witnessed the Francona era firsthand as the team’s pitching coach and was part of the 2007 championship. He knows the organization and the people. He knows the organizational philosophy of how things should be taught and run.
Valentine had none of that, nor did he agree with a lot of the training and instructional methods.
Unlike Valentine, Farrell has a general manager in Ben Cherington who really, really wanted him. Right off the bat, that’s another huge advantage for Farrell, who will likely mix elements of his Toronto camps and his old Red Sox camps under Francona to create his own spring training program.
Valentine drew resistance from the outset with the way he ran his camp. He emphasized fundamentals to the point where one veteran infielder said, “Are we back in Double A?”
Turns out, the team played as though it were.
“We spent a lot of time on trick plays and situational-type things that we never wound up using in games,” Saltalamacchia said. “In Texas, I was used to gradually getting into spring training, and the focus was making sure everyone started the season healthy.
“It seemed like they were trying to pack a lot of things in every day. I think the players bought into all the fundamental work because we had been so bad defensively during that collapse that players wanted to get better. I think with John we’ll go back to a more traditional spring training.”
Last year, there was resistance to infielders taking live ground balls hit by other infielders to produce the feel and spin of the ball in a real game. That didn’t go over well. There was the infamous popup drill down the left-field line in which Valentine asked the outfielder to make the call since he was coming in on the ball. After a few balls were either not called for or called for by Mike Aviles, Valentine made some comments. Can’t do that.
So Farrell should look good here.
He’ll return to routines the players accept more.
There will be a calmness, a settling down for the team.
But as we’ve come to learn over the years, spring training means nothing. What’s important for Farrell is the success of his starting pitching. If he can get through to Lester, Buchholz, and Lackey, he’s worth the hire. He already has had the conversation with Lester about complaining to umpires on every close call.
He’ll make sure the pitcher prep work that seemed to lapse last season because Jason Varitek and Farrell were absent will be there again. As Saltalamacchia said, “Going over the advance reports builds confidence in the pitcher. We didn’t have that last year. A pitcher needs to have that confidence heading into a game.”
It’ll be a kinder, gentler surrounding.
The inmates will be comfortable again, but Farrell won’t be afraid to shake them up if they get too comfortable.
But always remember, John: The inmates are in charge.
The last two years are proof of that.