Michael Holley is a sports radio talk show host for 850 WEEI-AM in Boston, MA and author of three Boston-related sports books, most notably the New York Times nonfiction best seller Patriot Reign and Never Give Up, an autobiography co-written with its main subject, New England Patriots linebacker and stroke survivor Tedy Bruschi.
For his latest and third project, Red Sox Rule: Terry Francona And Boston’s Rise To Dominance, Holley spent just over a year – December 2006 to January 2008 to be exact – meeting with and getting to personally know Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona. His stated aim was to learn about the man who led this storied franchise to its first World Series championship in 86 years (in 2004). By the time Mr. Holley finished writing this book, the Sox had won it all again (in October of 2007).
The first thing you need to keep in mind about Red Sox Rule is that it is a “semi-biography” of Terry Francona’s life, not a comprehensive guide to how the Red Sox became a so-called dominant franchise. Second, the book’s title was the product of the publisher, not the author because, as Holley tells me via an email, he’s bad at naming his books, so he now leaves it to others to title his writing. Thus, the misleading, nonsensical title of this book.
If there’s one common thread in all three of his books, it’s that Holley does a masterful job of revealing the personal side of his main subjects (Pats head coach Bill Belichick, Bruschi, Francona). However, it’s often the revelations of how winning teams are put together and in-game strategies — the thinking behind that key 8th inning pitching change or play-calling sequence in a game-winning 4th quarter drive — that draws many fans to books about winning sports franchises. Patriot Reign was popular for this very reason.
But the personal journey of an athlete or coach’s success can be equally as powerful and engaging a read. With this Francona-centered book, you get a healthy mix of the personal and the professional, including the manager’s personal stories of life as a healthy and recurring injury-plagued ballplayer, the friends and close family –- including his former big leaguer father Tito — that helped him along the way, as well as recollections and facts regarding his managerial stints in the major and minor leagues.
Through the course of reading, you learn that 1982 was a life-changing year for Terry Francona. In January, he got married to Jacque Lang, three months shy of his 23rd birthday. That was the high point. His grandfather Carmen, known as the “voice” of the family’s hometown New Brighton, Pennsylvania died in September, three months after Terry, as a Montreal Expos player suffered a season-ending knee injury—“a torn anterior cruciate ligament” — in the outfield of a wet Busch Stadium in St. Louis on June 16, 1982.
The recurring lower leg injuries he suffered ruined this career .274 hitter’s chances of being a full-time star in the big leagues. But the recovery periods and repeated surgeries Terry Francona underwent to repair his damaged knees were so dramatic and no doubt painful that what he and his wife and family went through can’t help but make you feel sympathy for the man and appreciate his toughness and resiliency, whether you’re a fan of his or not.
As far as the managerial mindset of Francona, much of what Holley writes about centers around the Red Sox’s 2007 championship season, yet also touches on his past. The chapter “The Test” recounts the “bald man in glasses’” intense, long and head-sweating interview with Sox GM Theo Epstein that eventually got him the coveted manager’s job. The “Yankee Chess” chapter discloses how Francona prepares for games: making “loaded” scouting reports out of advance scouting reports to take with him in the dugout, with green-colored writing indicating matchups in his team’s favor, red for risky ones, and black for basic info. More detail appears at chapter’s end.
Also, the chapter “Breakthrough” provides insightful revelations of the strategic thinking behind how he had his pitchers approach Yankees hitters in 2007, especially late in a given game. You also learn why he doesn’t go by-the-book in having his corner outfielders guard the lines late in games: he would rather give up a double to lose a lead or a game than lose it by giving up a single that shouldn’t be a single.
Another fact that may be new to and surprise some Sox-Yankees fans is the deep off-the-field respect and friendship Joe Torre and Terry Francona have for each other. Torre played in the majors with Terry’s dad Tito decades ago, and though the two always wanted to beat the snot out of each other between the lines, they genuinely cared and asked about each other’s families often (well out of fan view), according to Holley. Another ironic fact is that Francona was former Sox manager Grady Little's third base coach for a team in the Arizona Fall League in 1992 and won the Minor League Manager of the Year award the year after Grady did! Of course, Francona was Michael Jordan’s minor league manager, and the chapter “Managing Jordan” delves deeper into that experience.
Francona is very accessible and open to criticism of his moves, and even does weekly interviews with Holley and co-host Dale Arnold during the season on WEEI. And with the computer brain that he has, the manager always seems to have the numbers on his side to combat criticism of his moves. Francona was a bit rebellious in his managing days in Philadelphia in the late ‘90s however, as Holley reveals that the original reason he started wearing his red fleece jacket to every game was because he knew it would piss the local critics off. The more he wore it, the more it irked them. He now wears it to stay warm (so he says).
Holley also does a fantastic job of comparing and recalling how old-time managers handled their duties as compared to current ones, and draws on recollections from the likes of Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams and also Don Zimmer, who allegedly let criticism of his loyalty to unhealthy Sox 3B Butch Hobson affect his managing in that fateful year of 1978 – the more fans, including a young influential radio host named Glen Ordway wanted him benched, the more he played and hurt the team. So much for having thick skin.
Elsewhere in the book, you find that Francona has created a tight and trustworthy clubhouse atmosphere where leaders like David Ortiz can tell the manager that he can handle any given clubhouse issue (including Manny Ramirez) for him. You rarely, if ever hear Francona chastise players in public, so Holley’s recounting of Francona saying to Ortiz of Ramirez one time in 2007, “I’m going to kill him” is a surprising revelation. Holley unfortunately doesn’t elaborate on what the issue was but writes that Ortiz took care of it.
Francona is sometimes accused of being too loyal to players. But his overall style, though it may not win him managerial awards, has helped create a consistently winning atmosphere at Fenway Park, something you could say of very few Sox managers in recent memory. Still, it’s shocking that he has yet to receive ONE first place vote in the annual Manager of the Year award in the majors. Amazingly, this doesn’t bother the humble manager, because according to Holley, “his managing style is to actually put his hands on the wheel less. He prefers humor over humiliation, stage left over the spotlight.”
This book, as much as I enjoyed it, isn’t perfect (its title aside). For example, Holley wrote that Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain was promoted to the big league squad in 2007 from AA-Portland (a Red Sox minor league team) when in fact he came up through AA-Trenton. Also, I was a little disappointed that there is no index of the many names in this book and that there wasn’t a bit more inside info included about Francona’s pre-2007 seasons as Sox manager, especially his first and historic championship season of 2004 (aside from his job interview). After all, that championship is the main reason he wanted to write this book. I guess these omissions are why he calls the book a “semi-biography.”
In sum, regardless of what you thought about the manager beforehand, after reading Michael Holley’s Red Sox Rule, you will either have newfound respect for Terry Francona or appreciate him even more than you already do. There may never be enough inside baseball strategy revelations for some people, but there is plenty of it in this book. I learned much more about Francona and his life than expected. For that, the book is top grade. It could have been more wide-ranging and longer, as I’ve stated before, but that is its only big flaw.
Still, Red Sox Rule is essentially a highly engaging, page-turner of a story of Terry Francona’s life, his excruciating physical struggles, personal tragedies and ultimate triumph as the man who, as Holley says accomplished what 32 managers before him could not: win a World Series championship. And he did it twice in four seasons.