Seeking the vacant Red Sox manager's job in November, Terry Francona had just wrapped up a seven-hour interview with general manager Theo Epstein and assistant G.M. Josh Byrnes. After Francona left the room, the first words out of Epstein's mouth were, "Is he too nice?"
Everything comes back to last Oct. 16 for the Red Sox. Maybe it always will. Three-ran lead in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Five outs to go. Pedro Martinez tiring. Three bullpen stalwarts ready to go. And manager Grady Little turned into Chicken Little, leaving the wilted Martinez in long enough to let the Yankees tie a game they would win in 11 innings and leaving Red Sox fans with another bad dream that will probably never go away. When the Sox went looking for a manager after declining to pick up the option on Little's contract, the one thing the brass had to know was whether Francona would have the guts on the biggest stage in Boston sports—postseason baseball—to make the right decision, no matter how any of his $15 million ballplayers would react.
Epstein and Byrnes studied Francona's past, which included one pretty unimpressive major league managerial job in Philadelphia. Four seasons, all losing ones, and a reputation for letting players get away with too much. Nevertheless, says Epstein, "We were satisfied by what we found out. Numerous times, he was, well, very assertive."
"I can guarantee you he'll be tough enough," says righthander Curt Schilling, the lone Red Sox player who was with Francona in Philadelphia. "I'll tell you his problem in Philly: The front office didn't back him, and guys took advantage of him. We had a player [outfielder Bobby Abreu] who was late a couple times, and Terry warned him, and it happened again in September, and Terry told him to pack his bags. He wanted to suspend him for the rest of the year. But the front office stepped in and didn't allow it. That won't happen here, because he's got complete support from the front office and ownership."
What about the stories of Schilling, not Francona, dictating when he got pulled from games? "Another Philly myth," says Schilling. "I was a veteran, so he gave me a little more leeway in games. But I never told him how to handle me. I need a manager. I want a manager."
This is a diverse team. There's all-business Nomar Garciaparra, crank-yanker Kevin Millar, space cadet Manny Ramirez, fireball Trot Nixon, loosey-goosey David Ortiz. On one spring training afternoon in the Red Sox' clubhouse in Fort Myers, Fla., salsa music boomed from two speakers. Ramirez bobbed through the room. Millar danced a funky dance. Garciaparra had his head in his locker, reading. Derek Lowe talked with a visitor about his beloved Detroit Lions. This is not the "25-players, 25-cabs" Boston team of a generation ago, but this is a veteran club that got used to Little's hands-off style. In his first team meeting of the spring, Francona told his players what they wanted to hear. "You're a veteran team," he said, "and I'd love you to police yourselves. But if I have to step in, I will."
"I am nice, and I won't apologize for it," says Francona, the son of former major leaguer Tito Francona. "That's how I was raised—to be respectful. I'm not confrontational, but there will be days when these guys aren't happy with me. I will handle what needs to be handled."
Francona, the bench coach last year in Oakland, won't second-guess Little for his decision to leave Martinez in against the Yankees. "But if I'm going to pull a guy, almost every time I'll [decide to] pull him before I leave the dugout. I'll know," Francona says. "Part of my responsibility is to keep [Schilling and Martinez] healthy in August and September. If that takes aggravating them a few times early in the year, I can live with that." He's thinking of breaking up his two big guns in the rotation by slotting knuckleballer Tim Wakefield between them. Imagine that: Martinez's 93-mph fastball and knee-buckling change one day, Wakefield's 64-mph knuckler the next, Schilling's 95-mph heater the third, followed by Lowe, the pitcher with the best ground-ball-inducing sinker in baseball.
"When you can sit here at this time of year," says Lowe, "and you can't see any weaknesses, that's pretty special."
There didn't seem to be any last October either. That's why Terry Francona got this job.