Pitching change works out well

Farrell’s transition very manageable

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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For days, Torey Lovullo felt like an errand boy. While the Blue Jays were in spring training in Dunedin, Fla., his fellow coaches kept on him, asking him to talk to new manager John Farrell about this or that, asking him to check on Farrell’s whereabouts or readiness for meetings. Lovullo was confused. As he recalled recently, his response was, “What am I, the runner? You guys go in.’’

Fortunately for Lovullo, formerly the Pawtucket manager and now the Blue Jays first base coach, Farrell took it upon himself to correct the problem, to prevent his staff from being cowed by him. Perhaps having an idea of the issue, having been through it before, Farrell talked to his staff, saying in his own way, “I might have this presence, I might be intimidating, but really, deep down, I’m a pretty easygoing guy,’’ as Lovullo put it.

He looks easygoing these days, an assurance surrounding him in his new uniform. He has made the transition with confidence, moving from pitching coach of the Red Sox to manager of the Blue Jays, finally taking over the spot that seemed his birthright from early in his Boston career, from long before that even. Of course, as obvious as the move seemed, it wasn’t exactly a traditional path.

“I’m not afraid to admit that, no, I wasn’t fully prepared,’’ Farrell said. “How could I be? I’ve not managed a minor league game, let alone a major league game. And everyone knows that.

“No one’s kidding themselves to say that, well, he’s got all this past experience. But I think when I look back on the trail that has been traveled, there’s been a lot of untraditional moves, coming from college to a front office, from a front office to a dugout in a demanding environment, to now a non-managerial path to a manager’s spot.’’

That’s where he stands today, as he returns to Fenway Park for a four-game series with the Red Sox that begins tonight. He will inhabit the minuscule visiting manager’s office, little more than an industrial desk in a too-small box. There will be barbs from Terry Francona, bear hugs from players, and likely a warm reception from the crowd, given that — after coming in with no professional coaching experience — Farrell helped pitchers Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard blossom.

His influence, however, went beyond his 12-man staff.

“He helped with the personality of the whole team, not just the pitching staff,’’ said Josh Beckett. “For me, he was huge. He was somebody to go to when things were good and when things were bad. He could put perspective on things when you needed things put in perspective.

“He wasn’t just a pitching coach. You get to an organization like this, he’s the kind of guy that you need.’’

Opportunity arises The thought had entered his mind, which is not to say that Farrell had planned for the possibility. Still, it was hard to avoid. He, like everyone in baseball, knew that Toronto manager Cito Gaston would be retiring at the end of the 2010 season.

It was intriguing. It was time, too. Farrell had turned down chances to manage before, taking himself out of the running in Cleveland and Seattle and Pittsburgh. He had an agreement with the Sox to remain in Boston through 2010, part of a deal that was renegotiated after 2008.

But he knew that he could say no for only so long.

“If you continually remove yourself from any possibilities, sooner or later people might think you don’t want to do this,’’ Farrell said. “I didn’t go into the pitching coach spot thinking someday I’m going to be a manager, I never thought that. As opportunities arose, it became more clear that this would be a really welcome challenge.

“Long before even having a conversation with Alex [Anthopoulos, the Toronto general manager], seeing what was taking place on the field, you could feel the momentum and confidence growing, and the individual improvements that pitchers and players were making.’’

He could see himself in Toronto. He knew the team, having prepared for it 18 times a season. He liked the American League East. And then he talked to Anthopoulos, interviewed for the vacancy, and it appealed to him even more.

It appealed to Anthopoulos, too — Farrell’s leadership, his character, his knowledge, his integrity, his background.

Anthopoulos recalled Toronto professional scouting director Perry Minasian saying, “We tried to dig everywhere on this guy, and we got nothing. We dug, trainers, coaches, players, I mean everywhere. I thought we were as thorough as we could have been and we couldn’t find any dirt on John. And that’s pretty telling.’’

Unusual perspective Telling, too, is the word Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon uses when asked to describe how Farrell will handle managing for the first time: “Democratically.’’

He will lean on those who have been there, on the staff picked for its experience and opinions, both of which Farrell is humble enough to consider and utilize. He will rely on the knowledge he picked up at Francona’s side. He will rely on his understanding of people, cultivated during a career spent in myriad baseball positions, from coach at Oklahoma State to director of player development for the Indians to pitching coach for the Red Sox to manager.

“As you look back, I’ve always found myself in the position where I’ve been different from the group,’’ Farrell said. “I was a person in a front office that played in the big leagues, and then I was a pitching coach that worked in a front office.

“I guess there’s a uniqueness to the whole thing. I don’t try to overanalyze it by any means because I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring.’’

There is likely more in his future, if he chooses. There are higher positions, ones with more responsibility, ones where his background could matter. For most general managers, there’s a distance from the field, from the camaraderie and infighting, from the inning-to-inning needs, from the understanding of what it’s like to actually play major league baseball.

Vision comes from that, from being — literally — two doors down from general manager Mark Shapiro in Cleveland, from seeing the pressures and difficulties of the front office, coupled with the experiences and perspectives of a player, a coach, a manager, and the ability to communicate with everyone.

And that is partly what attracted the Blue Jays and Anthopoulos. The general manager was looking for a partner, someone with the exposure, the knowledge, the understanding.

“He’s overqualified for the job he has right now, and it’s a pretty high job that he’s got,’’ Beckett said. “He can do anything. He’s everything from a skills guy to a paperwork guy, and that’s what makes him really special.’’

Just three of the current general managers in baseball played in the major leagues — Oakland’s Billy Beane, Chicago’s Kenny Williams, and Philadelphia’s Ruben Amaro Jr. — and none of them managed. That makes Farrell an intriguing candidate, should he eventually want to move back into a front office.

“I think John’s one of those few guys that I think could rise to the top of the game, to the top leadership positions in the game of baseball in any role,’’ said Shapiro, who, like many, compared Farrell to Padres manager Bud Black, also a former pitcher. “I think he can be an impact GM. I think he can be an impact manager.

“I just don’t think there are very many limitations for John.’’

It’s a common refrain, the respect obvious in any discussion of Farrell’s present or future. That future, they say, could lead anywhere. He could be content to manage. He could move upstairs. He could end up, as he said coyly, “out on a boat in Cape Cod in the summers.’’

Perhaps. There is plenty of time to think about it. For now, Farrell is consumed with the present, with the Blue Jays, with determining when to call a hit-and-run as opposed to a run-and-hit. He’s learning his players, his team, his new vocation, all the details and the moments and the decisions that go into managing.

“I feel comfortable, I do feel comfortable,’’ Farrell said. “I’m sure the game will speed up on me from time to time. I’m fully expecting that. My approach will be to prepare enough to keep those times at a minimum. But this feels right.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.

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