Manager John Farrell proving to be difference for Red Sox

Jeff Passan
Yahoo SportsOctober 4, 2013
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The man in the fuchsia shirt wants to tell a secret, and, no, it's not how he manages to pull off a fuchsia shirt. He is David Ortiz. Every color in the rainbow asks him to make it look good. The secret is about the 2013 Boston Red Sox's success. A year after they ended their worst season in almost half a century, they're back in the playoffs armed with the game's best offense, best record and best collection of beards.

"I'll tell you what it is," he says, and before he finishes his thought a dignitary from the Dominican Republic sidles up to show him an iPad video of his 30th home run. He looks at it and grins. "Don't be afraid to send that to Papi," he says. Ortiz runs into the wife of a coach who gets a smooch and the son who gets a pat on the head. He walks by Baltimore infielder Ryan Flaherty and says he looked good at third base, then gives dap to second baseman Brian Roberts, who is holding a newborn. "You take good care of that bambino," Ortiz says. Some stadium sanitation workers say hi and he says hi back. Language, race, class – "Don't matter," he says. "People is people."

If Big Papi knows anything, it is people. He is a magnet for them. He has been in Boston for 11 years now, through the 2004 and 2007 championships, the 2011 collapse and 2012 implosion. The franchise's all-time-beloved hierarchy goes something like this: Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, David Ortiz. He was the guy who took the microphone five days after the Boston Marathon bombing and declared: "This is our [expletive] city." He believes in the power of what people can do to one another and what they can do for one another.

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This year represents the latter, and last year – well, the bitterness of it still lingers on his palate. Ortiz understands how it happened. Not just the injuries or underachieving or mega-sell-off, but the conflicts that festered and metastasized and left the Red Sox a diseased mess.

"I think about it every day," Ortiz says. "Things [don't] change from worst to first. It doesn't happen like that."

Except it did. And finally, all by himself for a moment next to a loading dock underneath Camden Yards, he's free to tell the secret of the 2013 Red Sox. It wasn't people, he says. It was a person.

"Our manager, bro."

John Farrell, 51, is in his first year as the Boston Red Sox manager. He arrived after two seasons as manager in Toronto, where the Blue Jays went 154-170. There, nobody heralded him as a particularly great manager, nor, for that manner, a noticeably bad one. In the modern game, a good manager is almost an anachronism, the sort of title reserved for a select few.

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Joe Maddon, 59, is in his eighth year as the Tampa Bay Rays manager. He is widely considered the best in baseball, a perfect blend of analytical acumen, intellectual curiosity, motivational know-how and empathetic humanity. He is the sort of manager who, in the late innings of a do-or-die game Wednesday night, had right-hander Joel Peralta on the mound ready to face right-handed hitter Ryan Raburn. Maddon called for left-hander Jake McGee. Raburn kills lefties. What he doesn't do is hit hard stuff, and because Maddon knew that, and respected his upper management's opinion on such things, he trusted that McGee would retire Raburn. He struck him out on a 99-mph fastball.

One series does not define a manager, of course, but the American League Division Series that pits the Red Sox against the Rays starting Friday at 3 p.m. ET is Farrell's first in the postseason. He was pitching coach and consigliere to Terry Francona when the Red Sox won in 2007, and the time he spent inside the Boston vise gave general manager Ben Cherington the sort of faith in Farrell necessary to bring him back and fix what went so awry last season.

"Straight up, I'm telling you. I watch everything," Ortiz says. "And I've been here a long time. The last guy was the wrong fit. This one – he give you confidence."

The last guy was Bobby Valentine. His tenure with the Red Sox was a sad trombone played on loop. His players hated him. And while some managers can turn that resentment into something – Tony La Russa was especially good at this – Valentine wasn't nearly as deft.

Cherington honed in on Farrell immediately. They worked together in the Cleveland organization when Farrell was farm director and in Boston during the second championship season. Their like-mindedness showed when they went about reshaping this team. Gone were the burdensome contracts of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, replaced by the perfect sorts for Boston's plan: productive glue guys.

"After coming back here, there was a very candid and pointed conversation to restore the expectation, and that is winning," Farrell says. "In my mind, and in Ben's mind, winning is associated with Boston, regardless of the team but certainly with the Boston Red Sox. The deeper question was: How are we going to do it? And that's where there was a clear-cut vision of how we were going to get there. That's with the type of player Ben and I felt like would embrace this.

"It's certainly more Ben. He's to be credited with going out and getting the right guys that have fit in well, that have bought into this team concept, that have set aside any personal agendas. This is a group that has bought into that team concept. They love to play. They love to have fun. That game every night is what's most important to them."

It wasn't just Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes and the rest of the new faces, though. While Cherington knew Farrell was the right hire, he says he was truly convinced at the end of spring training. Everything Farrell said he wanted to accomplish he had. Anybody around the Red Sox during the Valentine spring training could tell something was amiss. Those looks vanished this season.

"The players were still human," Cherington says. "You can run a military school and get everyone to do what you say for a while. But nobody's having fun and it peters out. Players were having fun. Even now, you go in our clubhouse in afternoons, there's a lot of happy faces. There's a freedom of expression alongside a lot of hard work. They win, and they grow beards. That balance is so important, and John fosters that.

"The wrong person can make a big difference. So can the right person."

The rock-star GM is far more prevalent today than the big-name manager, and there is good reason behind that: curating players wins championships. The Red Sox are the best bet to represent the American League in the World Series because Cherington spent the offseason complementing Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and the other leftover pieces whose collective resurgence prompted the 28-game swing in their record.

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Still, it's worth asking: Have we gotten it all wrong about managers? The deification of front offices has seemingly been inversely proportionate to opinions about managers. Used to be the manager was the brains behind the operation. The portrait of manager Art Howe in "Moneyball" showed that front offices weren't beyond managerial emasculation. Only today, the Oakland A's are reaping, and fully appreciative of, the value of Bob Melvin, like Maddon an in- and out-of-game savant. Terry Francona and Joe Girardi similarly distinguished themselves and their teams in Cleveland and New York.

And then there is Farrell. Ortiz wants you to believe there is something intangible about him, and believing in intangibles is so difficult when baseball is overrun by tangible evidence that supports anything and everything. There is an argument, though, and a good one, and it is posited by someone in the front office that has stolen so much of the credit.

"The reason objective thinkers have said at times managers are only worth at the most X wins over the period of a year is because their focus is on game decisions," Cherington says. "From 7 to 10 every night, the manager makes decisions. Over the course of the season, those decisions can impact winning or losing some. Whatever that is, it's not a huge number.

"That's not factoring in all the other things. Every player on a team has a range of possible performance outcomes. Everyone has a high end, a low end and the most likely outcome in the middle. And if more players are performing toward the top half of that range, and the manager has something to do with that, the manager is absolutely valuable. It's still players first. You have to have talent to win. But I dismiss that a manager can't be more than his strategy."

Certainly those who don't buy into that will point to the objective, like the Red Sox scoring 853 runs when no other team cracked the 800-run barrier, or their major league-high on-base and slugging percentages, or their otherworldly 86.6 percent stolen-base success rate, or their Jon Lester-John Lackey-Clay Buchholz-Jake Peavy playoff rotation that stacks up well against Tampa Bay, Oakland and even Detroit. John Farrell has players. And players win ballgames.

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This is true. Ultimately, a manager is only as good as whom his GM gives him. This offseason, Cherington gave him a 37-year-old designated hitter with a bum Achilles. It wasn't getting much better as the games neared, either, and David Ortiz started fearing the worst. He wanted to play. He wanted to produce, to get rid of last season. He didn't want to let anyone down.

"I had a setback in spring training," Ortiz says. "And [Farrell] comes to me the minute he find out. ‘Hey, no rush. I need you. But I need you long-term. So take your time, get ready and when you're good to go, we're rolling.' "

It seems like just a little thing, and it is. But those little things matter. When you're together with the same people for eight straight months, hoping you can make it to the ninth, it takes that motivation and empathy as much as it does the analytics and intellectualism. The Red Sox believe Farrell has all four, that he can be right there with Maddon and Melvin, Francona and Girardi, the best managers the league has to offer.

The secret's out, bro.