Thursday, August 27, 2015

Francona: The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy

Why I Read It: This season, reading about the Red Sox was better than watching them.

Summary: A bio of the Red Sox manager, focused on the years 2004-2011.

My Thoughts: For a long time, I couldn't stand Dan Shaughnessy. I always felt like he was that smarmy, needle-nosed kid in high school who had to point out that you did your math homework wrong, or that you had used the wrong version of to, too or two. Many of his article themes in the Boston Globe seemed to be prying, making more out of minor little topics than they really needed to be.

But Dan (Boston sports fans who follow the literary side have lived with him as part of their community for about three decades now; the first name feels appropriate, though there are many that call him simply "Shaughnessy") grew on me with this book. Perhaps he has softened with age. Perhaps I have. But there was one key to that change for me.

Dan has a long-running feud with pitcher Curt Schilling when he was in town, the two often at odds on many topics. It would have been very easy for Dan to take shots at Curt in this book, but he didn't. He treated him very fairly, even praising his pitching performances when warranted (as I'm sure he would say one should). I have a personal reason for standing in defense of Curt, and will always look to him with respect. I was heartened by the even presentation of Curt's ups and downs, flaws and successes, as they related to Francona's time in Boston.

As to the main content of the book, it was fabulous, bringing truth (at least as seen by one set of eyes, Francona's) to many of the longstanding stories around the rise and fall of the Red Sox. I'm sure there are plenty of points in the book to which Red Sox ownership might point with a furrowed brow and a shake of the head, but until that happens, I'm happy to have read these pages.

The Red Sox went on a pretty damn good run with Terry Francona at the helm. The team applied new game day prep strategies to get the edge they needed, and sometimes different divisions within the team (baseball ops, field staff, ownership) found themselves at odds with one another as to what was appropriate and what was just too much. Somehow, with too many cooks, this kitchen served up two World Series championships in four years.

This story, though, digs deeper than the Red Sox and into the life of the manager, openly exposing his personality (as if after eight years with the Sox he had anything left to hide) and sharing his brightest and darkest moments. It details, too, how insular the baseball world is, the ways in which the constant shuffling of players and coaches from city to city from year to year causes paths to cross numerous times in the sporting life. Being second generation, having grown up in clubhouses, Terry Francona has a network almost second to none. There are very few degrees of separation between him and most of today's Major League Baseball players.

A bonus is the in-depth reporting on the general manager at the time, Theo Epstein, and the story of his relationship with Francona. Having parted ways with the Sox shortly after Francona, Epstein lets his opinions fly as well.

I'm trying to place this book in the pantheon of "best baseball books I've ever read," and can say it's right up there at or near the top. I'm not sure exactly where it falls, but, wow, was this one fun.

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