Re-living the Francona Years

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Re-living the Francona Years

Last night, in the shadow of the Celtics fifth straight loss and amidst the lingering pain of our annual Patriots hangover, I plowed through 1,513 tiny iBook pages worth of Francona: The Red Sox Years.

The book, co-written by the former Sox manager and the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy, is both an easy and important read for Boston fans. Honestly, if you were affected even one iota by the 2004 title, if you've been offended even slightly by the recent behavior of this current ownership group, if you're even remotely jaded by the state of this organization and want a better understanding of how and why everything unfolded the way it has, this book is worth your time. As someone who's been openly, sometimes excessively critical of Shaughnessy's recent newspaper work, I feel like I can say that from a fair and balanced place. Although, considering I'm the same guy who consistently refers to John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner as the Three Stooges in my columns, perhaps there are certain biases at work.

Anyway, there's already been a ton written about Francona, after a few excerpts came out last week and the entire book was released on Tuesday. And most of it has focused on two major themes.

1. Ownership: Both Francona and Theo Epstein are very candid about the highs and mostly lows of dealing with Henry (who unsurprisingly, exists almost entirely by way of e-mail), Werner (who comes off as the most disingenuous member of the trio) and Lucchino (who's portrayed as every bit the egomaniac that his reputation would suggest). In fact, most of the stories involving ownership merely reiterate what we already suspected about the motivations and priorities inside Yawkey Way. Still, it's interesting to learn about the specifics.

The end of the book focuses almost entirely on Francona's relationship with ownership in the aftermath of September 2011, but none of it is very groundbreaking. There's no deeper insight into who may have leaked the manager's dirty laundry, and most of the conversations have already been reported in some capacity. The relationship leading up to 2011 is far more captivating.

2. Manny Ramirez: There are some unbelievable Manny stories in this book. Hilarious stories that build on the already mythical legend of Manny Being Manny like when the Cardinals accused him of stealing signs in the 2004 World Series, and Manny responded (eventually) by admitting that he didn't even know his own team's signs.

But there are also a few seriously messed up stories. Stories beyond him attacking Jack McCormick, that show despite the goofy persona a darker, legitimately evil side of Manny. Francona recalls numerous conversations with veterans players (Varitek, Damon, Mirabelli, Ortiz) where they'd almost helplessly try to figure out ways to deal with someone so selfish and corrupting, yet equally irreplaceable. Ramirez: The Red Sox Years would be the greatest book of all-time.

But there's much more to Francona: The Red Sox Years than Manny and the owners. Believe it or not, there's also a ton of insight into Francona who he is, how he approaches the game, why he manages the way he does and even why he's been so vengeful and unforgiving in light of everything that happened. I think Theo Epstein summed it up best when he said:

Tito loves baseball. He loves the game. He physically loves the clubhouse. Emotionally, I think he loves to let go of the outside world. Some people compartmentalize the job. Tito compartmentalizes the real world, throws himself into the clubhouse, loves every aspect of the clubhouse. He loves being down there and loves nakedness, vulgarity. Loves joking around, loves busting peoples balls, loves playing cards. He loves everything about it. Its part of the fabric of who he is.

Through it all, you come to understand why Francona's approach was initially so effective, and also why it ultimately fell apart. You also learn about the absolute insanity of managing in Boston. How Francona came to dread stopping at red lights, because it invariably led to some sort of critique or pep talk from the guy in the car next to him. How he used to sneak off and eavesdrop on Joe Maddon's media sessions and be blown away by how easy Maddon had it.

There's a lot about Francona's relationship with Theo, and just Theo in general. How invested and involved he was on a day-to-day, almost pitch-to-pitch basis. How there was a time when he'd wait in Francona's office after every game, ready with rapid fire questions on a multitude of Tito's in-game decisions. Of course, Shaughnessy goes pretty deep into the power struggle between Epstein and Lucchino, but I was far more interested in who Epstein was away from all that drama. Times when, despite his Doogie Howser existence, the GM was still just a fiery, young kid.

For instance, did you know that after the Sox were blown out in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, Epstein was so distraught that he went back to a buddy's apartment, forced himself to watch a replay of the Grady Little game, got wasted on vodka tonics and passed out on the couch? I didn't. And even better, after the Sox won Game 4, the vodka tonics became somewhat of a superstition, leading to Epstein being hungover for most of those four nights in October.

Honestly, as a fan, everything about the 2004 season is pretty awesome. Who knows how that year would have been remembered had one of numerous things gone differently, but the love that Francona and Epstein have for that crew is off the charts. Everything they say about that season only adds to the legend and makes you miss those days even more.

The early days of Pedroia, Lester and Papelbon are remembered just as fondly. Francona also delves into the legacy and psyches of guys like JD Drew, Edgar Renteria and Keith Foulke. There are so many stories, just stupid clubhouse stories that will make you laugh out loud. Like the time Francona found an old picture of Johnny Pesky wearing nothing but his underwear and used it to taunt Pesky with lines like: "I've got the only framed Johnny Pesky picture with his balls hanging on the floor."

Obviously, after the second championship, the book takes a turn. All the fun is replaced by depression and drama, and we see every inspiring character Francona, Epstein, Ortiz, Lester slowly morph into their own separate monster. Everyone loses control, and we end up where we are today.

And there's no question that the owners are responsible more making the whole experience at least 100 times worse. But after reading this book, I'm less inclined to blame them AS MUCH for the downfall of this team.

I've mentioned this concept already this week in regards to the Patriots and Celtics, but do you realize how hard it is to contend for a title every single year? It's impossible. And when the Sox started to fall short, the owners reaction was short-sighted and selfish, and only made things worse. But it was already bad. It wasn't all them.

Was it the owners fault that Ortiz hit a wall for two seasons? That Ellsbury, Youkilis and Pedroia all lost significant time with injuries? That Ortiz busted into a press conference and threw a tantrum over one RBI? That Tim Wakefield became obsessed with 200 wins? That Mike Lowell went from being one of the foundations of that clubhouse to just another disgruntled veteran? That Josh Beckett infected the pitching staff?

And even if their motives were slightly off, can we really fault the Three Stooges for spending all that money on Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez? Even if they overpaid, how angry can you be when an owner opens his wallet for two of the consensus best players in baseball?

It gets to the point where you find yourself asking the question: How different would we remember these guys, or this entire era, if not for September 2011? What if the Sox had won just one more game? What if they won five more games?

We forget how dominant that team was before the collapse, and how happy we all were with the state of this team. If not for one or two losses in September 2011, Francona might still be here, Theo might still be here, and we'd have a hard time getting too worked up over ownership's ridiculous behavior.

That's one way to look at it. Another one is this, courtesy of story told to Shaughnessy by former Sox CCO Mike Dee about the 2004 World Series parade.

"I was on the same Duckboat as Terry," Dee said. As we were going from the street to the water, fans were congratulating him and telling him how great he was, and he told them: 'If not for one stolen base, I'd probably have been fired!

And it's true. Looking back at the last eight years there are countless things that could have gone differently that would changed everything. So many "what-ifs" that would render the current state of the Red Sox unrecognizable.

But for a deeper, emotional, and mostly entertaining recap of what actually did happen, Francona: The Red Sox Years gets the job done.

At the very least, it's welcomed a diversion from the Patriots and Celtics.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

New MLB labor deal: All-Star Game no longer determines home field in World Series

New MLB labor deal: All-Star Game no longer determines home field in World Series

IRVING, Texas -- Baseball players and owners reached a tentative agreement on a five-year labor contract Wednesday night, a deal that will extend the sport's industrial peace to 26 years since the ruinous fights in the first two decades of free agency.

After days of near round-the-clock talks, negotiators reached a verbal agreement about 3 1/2 hours before the expiration of the current pact. Then they worked to draft a memorandum of understanding, which must be ratified by both sides.

"It's great! Another five years of uninterrupted baseball," Oakland catcher Stephen Vogt said in a text message.

In announcing the agreement, Major League Baseball and the players' association said they will make specific terms available when drafting is complete.

"Happy it's done, and baseball is back on," Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy said.

As part of the deal, the experiment of having the All-Star Game determine which league gets home-field advantage in the World Series will end after 14 years, a person familiar with the agreement told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal had not yet been signed.

Instead, the pennant winner with the better regular-season record will open the Series at home.

Another important change: The minimum time for a stint on the disabled list will be reduced from 15 days to 10.

The luxury tax threshold rises from $189 million to $195 million next year, $197 million in 2018, $206 million in 2019, $209 million in 2020 and $210 million in 2021.

Tax rates increase from 17.5 percent to 20 percent for first offenders, remain at 30 percent for second offenders and rise from 40 percent to 50 percent for third offenders. There is a new surtax of 12 percent for teams $20 million to $40 million above the threshold, 42.5 percent for first offenders more than $40 million above the threshold and 45 percent for subsequent offenders more than $40 million above.

Union head Tony Clark, presiding over a negotiation for the first time, said in a statement the deal "will benefit all involved in the game and leaves the game better for those who follow."

Key changes involve the qualifying offers clubs can make to their former players after they become free agents - the figure was $17.2 million this year. If a player turns down the offer and signs elsewhere, his new team forfeits an amateur draft pick, which usually had been in the first round under the old deal.

Under the new rules, a player can receive a qualifying offer only once in his career and will have 10 days to consider it instead of seven. A club signing a player who declined a qualifying offer would lose its third-highest amateur draft pick if it is a revenue-sharing receiver, its second- and fifth-highest picks (plus a loss of $1 million in its international draft pool) if it pays luxury tax for the just-ended season, and its second-highest pick (plus $500,000 in the international draft pool) if it is any other team.

A club losing a free agent who passed up a qualifying offer would receive an extra selection after the first round of the next draft if the player signed a contract for $50 million or more and after competitive balance round B if under $50 million. However, if that team pays luxury tax, the extra draft pick would drop to after the fourth round.

Among other details:

-For a team $40 million or more in excess of the luxury tax threshold, its highest selection in the next amateur draft will drop 10 places.

-While management failed to obtain an international draft of amateurs residing outside the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada, it did get a hard cap on each team's annual bonus pool for those players starting at $4.75 million for the signing period that begins next July 2.

-There is no change to limits on active rosters, which remain at 25 for most of the season and 40 from Sept. 1 on.

-Smokeless tobacco will be banned for all new players, those who currently do not have at least one day of major league service.

-The regular season will expand from 183 days to 187 starting in 2018, creating four more scheduled off days. There are additional limitations on the start times of night games on getaway days.

-The minimum salary rises from $507,500 to $535,000 next year, $545,000 in 2018 and $555,000 in 2019, with cost-of-living increases the following two years; the minor league minimum for a player appearing on the 40-man roster for at least the second time goes up from $82,700 to $86,500 next year, $88,000 in 2018 and $89,500 in 2019, followed by cost-of-living raises.

-The drop-off in slot values in the first round of the amateur draft will be lessened.

-Oakland's revenue-sharing funds will be cut to 75 percent next year, 50 percent in 2018, 25 percent in 2019 and then phased out.

-As part of the drug agreement, there will be increased testing, players will not be credited with major league service time during suspensions, and biomarker testing for HGH will begin next year.

Negotiators met through most of Tuesday night in an effort to increase momentum in the talks, which began during spring training. This is the third straight time the sides reached a new agreement before the old contract expired, but a deal was struck eight weeks in advance in 2006 and three weeks ahead of expiration in 2011.

Talks took place at a hotel outside Dallas where the players' association held its annual executive board meeting.

Clark, the first former player to serve as executive director of the union, and others set up in a meeting room within earshot of a children's choir practicing Christmas carols. A man dressed as Santa Claus waited nearby.

Baseball had eight work stoppages from 1972-95, the last a 7 1/2-month strike in 1994-95 that led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years. The 2002 agreement was reached after players authorized a strike and about 3 1/2 hours before the first game that would have been impacted by a walkout.

The peace in baseball is in contrast to the recent labor histories of other major sports. The NFL had a preseason lockout in 2011, the NBA lost 240 games to a lockout that same year and the NHL lost 510 games to a lockout in 2012-13.