At home at fenway

Keeping on eye on Dustin, Papi, Youk & a few good books

Archive for February, 2013

Francona & Shaughnessy explain 2011….finally

Posted by athomeatfenway on February 18, 2013

Francona

On Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011, Terry Francona stood in front of the Palace Hotel in Manhattan waiting for DeMarlo Hale. His team had lost 12 out of their last 15 games and were hanging onto a playoff spot by a thread.

Francona was approached by a stranger with a foreign accent who said, “You must win today.”

“Hey asshole, what do you think we’re trying to do?” said the stressed out manager.

Security intervened. The foreigner turned out to be a diplomat. Apologies, introductions and a friendly photo taking followed. No damage done. But the incident speaks volumes. Tito had flared in a way not inconsistent with the captain on a sinking ship — and for good reason.

The Sox had blown a 9 game lead over Tampa in a disastrous September during which the pitchers didn’t pitch, the hitters didn’t hit and the fielders didn’t field.

And unlike earlier rough spots, Francona, who is usually a master at damage control, only made things worse.

But why?

That is the question some Red Sox fans, myself included, have been asking since Sept. 28, 2011. How could a team that was capable of 100 wins be 39 games over .500 from May 1 through August 31 and play like the ’62 Mets in September?

Francona, The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy goes a long way to providing the answers. It may be fair to say that the answers have been previously spoken or written many times by others. But this book lays out the chronology and context for the narrative in a way no one has before.

The trick the authors turn is in making the reader understand the forces that were acting upon Tito and the team.  It was not just that something was wrong with the Sox, it was that most everything was wrong.

It was a perfect storm. Veteran coaches had left and with them went the established connection points to the team that Francona used to discuss bad behavior or poor play.    This was a critical change.  If you read Michael Holley’s book about Francona, Red Sox Rule, then you know that Tito used peers, coaches and team leaders to keep the team on track.

Problems emerged every where. Youkilis said there was a festering conflict between position players and the pitching staff. Three starters (Lackey, Lester & Beckett) had enormous egos, all having pitched a WS clincher by age 26, and they formed a narcissistic clique that became unconcerned with management and team. Aging players were in the final year of their contracts and grew discontented. Players placed personal rewards above team success. Rumors broke out about Theo Epstein going to the Cubs as G.M. Injuries abounded. The medical staff was cluttered and nervous. The owners were fixated on playing all 81 home dates in order to maximize revenue even as Hurricane Irene threatened. The bullpen ran out of gas. All of the above…..all at once.

The tipping point came on Saturday, August 27, the day before Irene punished the Massachusetts coast. After a long road trip the owners insisted that a day-night doubleheader be played. Not hiding their unhappiness, the players performances thereafter landed in the outhouse, never to rise again in 2011.  Or in 2012.

A lot has been said about how Francona criticizes Lucchino, Werner & Henry in the book. There are several instances in which the ex-manager reveals their shortcomings but I didn’t read anything new or surprising. I’d have been surprised if Tito had written that Larry is a paternal cuddlebunny, another Johnny Pesky.

Larry is a bit of a tough guy. Theo can be manipulative. Henry is a geek. Werner is best suited to running NESN. So what. That sounds like the expected case.

Terry comes off as a flexible and devoted boss.  He’s not going to quote Winston Churchill like Theo. He is going to drop F-bombs. He may even moon you, as he mooned Theo and the coaches in the privacy of the manager’s office one day (when PR chief Pam Ganley barged in).

He’s down to earth.   He honors the 15 men who managed him as a player, spelling out which valuable lesson he learned from each one in a lovely Acknowlegdement at the end of the book.  These men were his highschool, minor league and big league skippers.  Even the one that scared the heck out of him, Dick Williams.

I like that about Tito. He’s a true diamond lifer who will never take himself too seriously or place his value high above his brothers and sisters.

He is the greatest Boston Red Sox manager in my 47 years of fandom. He’s probably the best in the history of the Sox.

No one was better at handling the press. Or difficult personalities.

This book is a must read. Don’t miss it.

Go Sox.

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Jackie joined a winning team in ’47

Posted by athomeatfenway on February 14, 2013

  

Rickey added a winner.  Period.

Rickey added a winner. Period.

I have been catching the offerings on MLB Network, ESPN Classic and other sports verticals. Three days ago I read with great relish the back-to-back scheduling of Henry Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Buck O’Neil and Bob Gibson on separate interview shows hosted by the late & great Dick Schaap and highly skilled Roy Firestone.

On that meandering day I heard Buck O’Neil explain that poor attendance drove the Dodgers to sign Jackie Robinson, and that good attendance was the reason that the Red Sox and Yankees were not motivated to integrate.

It’s interesting to examine Brooklyn’s intentions for hiring Jackie because the Dodgers not only were the first….they were the best. Rickey’s team signed a series of major black stars including Robinson, Campanella, Black, and Newcombe. With a heroic black and white nucleus, they played in the World Series 6 time in 10 years.

It is interesting to examine Brooklyn’s intentions because they have often been attributed to motivations of social justice and morality.

But was poor attendance in Brooklyn the catalyst for change? That seems to be possibly true at first blush….but…..not exactly true. I checked it out.

1947, Jackie’s first year in Dodger flannels, was a banner one for Brooklyn. There were 1,807,526 paid admissions to Ebbets Field. That set a new franchise record that would not be broken until 1959, when the Alston men played in the 78,000 seat L.A. Coliseum.

1.8 million is a staggering count for 1947, especially compared to the earlier war years. 1.8 million is THREE TIMES the paid attendance of 1944 (605,905).

Furthermore, Brooklyn ranked #1 in total attendance in the National League for 1947.

There is no question that Jackie created a passionate interest in what occurred in the little 35,000 seat ballpark built by Charles Hercules Ebbets. But was Robinson the driving force? Was the boom in Brooklyn really a spike in a trend ?

A little digging reveals that the 1.8 million of ’47 was actually just a smidge above ’46. The Jackie-less Dodgers of 1946 pulled 1,796,824 while Robinson batted .349 for the Montreal Royals. (That year, Montreal also rostered Al Campanis, of all people).

So Jackie’s MLB advent resulted in an immediate home attendance increase of only one half of 1%.

Further digging shows that the Dodgers were a team on the rise for the 8 years prior to Robinson. In 5 of the 7 years immediately prior to his arrival, the Dodgers ranked 1st in the league in attendance. Plus 1 year ranked 2nd, and the other 3rd.

1939 was the year that the Dodgers leaped to the top in ticket sales. A position that would last through the Ebbets Field years and well into the Dodger Stadium era.

So what happened in 1939 ? Leo Durocher replaced Burleigh Grimes as Skipper. The Dodgers improved from 69 wins to 84 wins. From .448 to .545.

Durocher brought his feisty brand of “I come to kill You” baseball in 1939. Plus, in the 3 years that followed Leo’s coming, the Dodgers added Pee Wee Reese, Joe Medwick, Pete Reiser, Mickey Owen, Kirby Higbe and Whit Wyatt, thus bringing depth of white talent to the roster. A team that was a loser from 1932 to 1938, the nadir of the Great Depression, became a winner.

The Dodgers didn’t need Jackie Robinson to drive attendance. They were already a good team that was highly ranked in ticket sales and on the diamond.

But Jackie did bring something that cannot be overvalued in our game. Jackie led a new decade of winning. He was the best player in the league. An inspiration to teammates and fans.

In Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy’s new book, Francona, the Red Sox Years, Theo Epstein is quoted as saying, “The only way to successfully market a baseball team is by winning.”

Jackie was the cardinal rule. He was insurance for continuing success. Pennants, baby.

And the time was ripe for change.

In the late 1930’s, MLB players were asked if they were ready for black players to join them in the big leagues. 80% of them said yes, according to Ken Burns’ landmark 1996 documentary, Baseball.

The time for change and acceptance had arrived in the minds of the majority.

No, it wasn’t an attendance problem that compelled Rickey to sign Jackie. There was no attendance problem.

And it was not good attendance that prevented Tom Yawkey, Dan Topping and Del Webb from signing Robinson, Satchel Paige, or Willie Mays. It was something else. The same belief system that festered in the DNA of K.M. Landis and J.G. Taylor Spink, two of many baseball bigots.

Go Sox.

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