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Sox start to zero in

Francona returns; Dierker an option

Even as the Red Sox zeroed in on Terry Francona as a top contender in their hunt for a new manager, they indicated last night they are weighing additional options, with former Astros manager Larry Dierker notable among them.

Francona, who managed the Phillies from 1997 to 2000, strengthened his front-runner status as he became the first candidate to visit Fenway Park for a second interview. Amid a whirlwind sprint, Francona spent more than five hours meeting with general manager Theo Epstein and additional members of the baseball operation, including projected pitching coach Dave Wallace and advance scout Dave Jauss. Francona arrived in Boston after a lengthy meeting the night before with principal owner John W. Henry in Boca Raton, Fla.

"It's been terrific," Francona said afterward as he waited for a plane at Logan to return home to Pennsylvania. "It's been a very enlightening and thorough process on their part. I've enjoyed getting to know everyone a little better." The feeling seemed mutual.

"I think it's meaningful he's back for a second round," team president Larry Lucchino said the day after Henry described Francona as "a serious candidate." Henry said he was "impressed with [Francona's] forthrightness and knowledge of the game."

Francona clearly has surged ahead of Dodgers third base coach Glenn Hoffman, the first candidate Epstein interviewed for the opening. Francona also appears to have an edge over Anaheim bench coach Joe Maddon, who has yet to be scheduled for a second interview though the Sox said they plan to follow up with each candidate in some fashion.

"The process is ongoing," Epstein said through spokesman Kevin Shea. "We are in the midst of contacting additional candidates."

While the Sox remain committed to interviewing minority candidates, with Texas first base coach DeMarlo Hale a possibility, they also have eyed established veterans such as Dierker, who guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in his five seasons as manager from 1997 to 2001.

"He is under consideration," Lucchino said, declining to elaborate other than to say Dierker could be invited for an interview.

The National League's manager of the year in 1998, Dierker, 57, posted a 448-362 record with Houston before he was succeeded by Jimy Williams after the 2001 season when the Astros failed for the fourth time in his tenure to advance past the first round of the playoffs. He recently published a memoir, "This Ain't Brain Surgery: How to Win the Pennant Without Losing Your Mind," in which he detailed his managerial approach as a blend of meshing human sensibilities with a wealth of statistical analysis.

"Nothing is more important than team chemistry," asserted Dierker, who also summed up his tactical view of managing by presenting a chart of run-scoring probabilities he often studied. The chart, based on statistics from the 1999 season, stated the chances of scoring in every possible situation, from no outs and the bases loaded (88 percent) to two outs and the bases empty (7 percent).

Dierker is intimately familiar with the kind of quantitative analysis the Sox brass expect the next manager to use in preparing for games and strategizing during them. When Bill James, the noted statistical wizard who is Boston's senior baseball adviser, was asked recently to cite an example of someone who has best blended the old-school and new-school approaches to managing, he made clear he wanted no part of influencing the team's search in any way. Yet he offered a name.

"Larry Dierker is perhaps the most obvious example of somebody who has successfully blended the two," James said. "But this in no way should be taken to imply that I'm pushing Larry for the job or anything [else]. I am certainly not."

Dierker pitched 14 years for the Astros and Cardinals after making his big league debut with Houston on his 18th birthday and striking out Willie Mays in his first inning of work.

Dierker's book title alludes to his collapse in 1999 with a grand mal seizure during a game against the Padres. He underwent brain surgery two days later, then returned to lead the Astros to their third straight NL Central title. He spent last season serving in a part-time promotional role for the Astros and was quoted by the Associated Press in February as saying he was interested in getting more involved again in the game.

Francona, meanwhile, has remained involved in baseball since childhood thanks to his father, former major leaguer Tito Francona. A first-round draft choice of the Expos in 1980, Francona played 10 years in the majors before launching his managerial career in the White Sox farm system. After his run as Philadelphia's manager ended in 2000, he spent the 2001 season scouting for the Indians, served as bench coach for Jerry Narron with the Rangers in 2002, then worked as bench coach for Ken Macha with the A's last season, absorbing much of Oakland's statistics-based approach to the game.

Francona said he is waiting to hear again from the Sox.

"The best way I can describe it is that it's part of an ongoing process as to who is the best person to be the next manager of the Red Sox," he said. "It's a big decision. I understand that."

Francona said nothing has dampened his interest in the job since he was first contacted for an interview.

"I'm probably a little bit more excited," he said. "Having yourself aligned with a team like the Red Sox is one thing, but everyone I have met also has been very impressive." . . .

As much as some Sox fans may welcome the chance to add MVP shortstop Alex Rodriguez to the roster, the chances appear slim. "It's very, very unlikely to happen," said an industry source familiar with an effort by the Rangers to shop the seven-year, $189 balance of Rodriguez's contract. The Sox have spoken to the Rangers but they have yet to find anything close to a fit . . . Trying to fulfill one of the top offseason priorities, the Sox maintain interest in a number of free agent starters, including Yankee lefty Andy Pettitte and Toronto righty Kelvim Escobar. The chances of signing Pettitte are remote, but Escobar remains a possibility.

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