Major League Baseball's annual winter meetings wrapped up in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Red Sox manager Terry Francona was there as part of the teamís contingent led by general manager Theo Epstein.
I spoke with Francona about the difficult position a manager finds himself in during the free agent period, how he has survived five years at the helm of the Red Sox, and what itís like to manage one of the unlikeliest Most Valuable Player award winners in recent history.
TC: When youíve got a guy on your team whoís out there in limbo as a free agent, a guy like Jason Varitek who has meant so much to you and the team, how does his status inhibit you from having those normal conversations?
Francona: Thatís tough. Thereís no getting around it. Fortunately for me, thatís the business side that Iím not responsible for. I donít want to be. Itís tough enough. Heís going to have to make a huge decision here, probably pretty soon. We talk so much about building these relationships, and thatís so important to what weíre doing, but then comes the business side and that is tough. I want no part of it, because frankly I would make mistakes. I know [Sox general manager] Theo [Epstein] believes in loyalty and things like that, but he has to make business decisions for us to keep going, and itís not easy.
TC: You grew up in a baseball family, and though there wasnít much free agency in your fatherís time, he still had to deal with the business part of it. You havenít had to learn this lesson. Youíve known it all your life.
Francona: As a player myself, I found out the hard way, getting released come spring training as a non-roster player trying to make a team after watching my dad do it for a lot of years. I understand it. Certainly the dollars are a lot bigger than they were a long time ago, but itís the business side, and everybody gets uncomfortable with it. Thatís just the way it is. Once itís over, if players can grasp all that, they handle it better. Some do it better than others. Contracts get personal. You donít want them to, but thatís part of the game.
TC: You traded Coco Crisp for reliever Ramon Ramirez. There always seems to be an emphasis on finding relief help.
Francona: Weíre trying to get a bullpen that when we have the lead, we keep the lead. When weíre down a couple, keep it close. The more good arms, the more different looks you can give teams, the better you are. The way weíre watching baseball unfold here, some of these relievers are getting a lot of money. The bullpen seasons are so drastically inconsistent. One guy goes out and throws 75 to 80 innings, has an All-Star-type year and then doesnít bounce back the next year, and youíve got him on a four-year contract. So weíd like, for the most part, our guys to come through our system ó Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson, guys like that. Then we traded Coco for the young kid from Kansas City. So we have some youth out there and we have some guys we can win with.
TC: Youíre only the fifth man to manage more than 800 games for the Red Sox. How do you handle the pressure cooker in a baseball town like this?
Francona: Iíve had my moments. Iíve handled certain times better than others. I donít have a good explanation for that. Sometimes Iíll actually try to sit down and actually think through it when the seasonís over and Iím not emotional. There have been times when Iíve handled it better than others. The quicker I can grasp why, the better Iíll be able to handle that in the future. I think the big deal about Boston is how you handle adversity. We talk to our players about that all the time. Little things arenít little here. There is so much attention given to the Red Sox, with all the media and fan interest. With all the good that comes, there has to be some baggage with it. Thatís just the way it goes. So you either handle it or you donít. And, again, when I donít handle it, I get mad at myself. Thatís what Iím here for.
TC: How different are you from the guy who showed up here after the 2003 season?
Francona: I donít know. I think the one thing is that Iím probably not as carefree as I once was. Living here, people always want to get at you. Itís okay; 95 percent of the time theyíre really nice, really helpful [laughs]. When Iím going someplace now I kind of keep my eyes open because you donít want to walk into that situation where you get stuck in a corner and somebody says something. On the field, I can let it out a little bit. Millsy [bench coach Brad Mills] is here and does a lot of the drills, so some of my personality can come out and Iím more relaxed. But Iím probably a little more guarded off the field than I used to be.
TC: You said 95 percent of the fans are really helpful. Iím guessing thatís up from when you first started.
Francona: [laughs] Yeah. In Philadelphia I got a lot of help there. It wasnít so good. It is amazing. People here go out of their way. They just want to say hello, they just want to say how the í04 team affected their family. Itís pretty special. There are times when you want to go have a bite to eat, or you get up at 6 in the morning and youíre going to work out and youíre grumpy. Havenít had your coffee yet and youíre tired. But if thatís the worst, then I think weíre OK.
TC: Dustin Pedroia is the American League MVP. What would you have said four years ago if someone pointed to him and said heíd be the best player in the league?
Francona: I donít even know how to answer that. The fact that this kid has turned himself into the MVP of the American League Ö think about that. He may win more MVPs, he may not. There are guys who jump up and have monster years. But he will be that type of player for us for a long time. He knows how to play. Some guys, you get their numbers. With Dustin, you get some great numbers and you get a guy who will do the little things. A guy who will steal a base, a guy whose defense is already Gold Glove caliber. When the gameís on the line, his defense gets better. His concentration is ratcheted up a notch with the game on the line. Thereís nothing [positive] I could say about this kid that wouldnít be true. Heís just a winner.
TC: Itís got to be a huge help having a guy like that when youíre dealing with your young players, a guy you can point to and say, ďLook what he has accomplished.Ē
Francona: Heíll help with everybody. I donít care if itís a free agent coming in that weíre paying a bundle of money. He energizes the clubhouse. He shows up every day to win a game. Itís contagious. Two years ago, he was listening to other people. Heís quickly turning into that guy that other people look to.
OT contributor Tom Caron is the studio host of Boston Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network.
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