I’ve been surprised by the resistance of many fans to the possibility of Terry Francona becoming the Cardinals manager to replace Tony La Russa. The arguments are many. That he doesn’t know “the Cardinal way;” that he lost control of the Red Sox clubhouse in September; that he allowed the Red Sox to crash and burn; or that he only won in Boston because of a high payroll.
I’ll try to debunk these theories one by one.
The Cardinal way. Do you know what the Cardinal way is? Traditionally, the way the Redbirds won in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 60s and 80s was with pitching, speed and defense. For anyone that was a Cardinal fan before 1997, that’s how the winning teams were built. The Cardinal way was Rogers Hornsby, Frankie Frisch, Pepper Martin, Enos Slaughter, Curt Flood, Julian Javier, Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith and Joaquin Andujar, to name a few.
Since the arrival of Mark McGwire as a hitter, the Cardinals have gotten away from the speed game. They’re sluggers. This season, they set a club record for the most consecutive games played between stolen bases with 33. Their 57 steals were less than a fifth of the total of their 1985 counterparts, who had 314. The Cardinals defense was the reason they were 10½ games behind Atlanta on Aug. 25. It wasn’t until Jon Jay was inserted in centerfield and Rafael Furcal was acquired to play shortstop that the defense turned into a strength rather than a weakness.
Whitey Herzog wasn’t a Cardinal when he arrived as manager in 1980. La Russa wasn’t when he arrived in 1996. The Cardinals haven’t always lived by the historic “Cardinal way.” Why do they need to now? The Cardinal way should be a winning way.
To the point that Francona lost his club, he did. To injury. In the Sox’ tragic September, third baseman Kevin Youkilis got hurt Sept. 15 and never returned to the lineup. Ace lefty Jon Lester was 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA for the month. Josh Beckett was 1-2 with a 5.48 ERA. John Lackey was 0-2 with a 9.13 ERA. And Clay Bucholtz didn’t even pitch due to injury. The heart and soul of the Red Sox offense got hurt, and the starting pitching disappeared. That will cause a manager or a franchise to lose control. Granted, Francona admitted that there are things he’ll change with his approach in his next stop. But the Sox September is not a reason to deny him a shot as another club’s manager.
Much was made of Lester, Beckett and Lackey going back to the clubhouse to drink beer, order fried chicken and play video games. How many times have you ever seen a major league manager disappear from the dugout during a game? Do you really think Francona was supposed to leave the dugout to check on what was happening in the clubhouse? Those issues are on the lack of professionalism on the part of the pitchers, not on Francona. In St. Louis, the professionalism of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright wouldn’t abide that sort of behavior anyway.
To the issue of the Red Sox payroll. It was high, but it wasn’t like the Yankees. Francona was great at bringing up and developing young players. Here are some guys that arrived from Pawtucket under Francona’s tenure and became regulars:
Jacoby Ellsbury (Rookie of the Year, one-time all-star, will be in top three in MVP voting this year).
Dustin Pedroia (Rookie of the Year, four-time all-star, 2008 AL MVP, sure to be top-10 MVP this year).
Youkilis (three-time all-star, twice in top six in MVP voting).
And among the pitchers:
Lester, Bucholtz, Papelbon, Bard
All of them were key contributors that arrived as rookies under Francona and were key foundation players for either championship or very good Red Sox teams. In fact, Francona benched J.D. Drew (a Theo Epstein OPS pickup) to play rookie Josh Reddick this year. He also integrated young players like Mike Lowell and Coco Crisp into the lineup. Did he take advantage of getting guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Curt Schilling? Sure. But David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek were already on the team when Francona was hired in 2004. Francona resurrected Adrian Beltre’s career on a one-year deal. Mike Cameron was what he was when Boston signed him, and Carl Crawford and Edgar Renteria clearly failed under the strain of playing in Boston.
Bottom line, Francona is far from a guy who relies on free agents to win. If you want to blend youth into your program, he’s shown he can do it at a high level.
As I look for a favorite to manage the club, I look at history. Sure, there have been situations where a manager from inside an organization took over and succeeded. Dusty Baker with the Giants, Tom Kelly with the Twins, Mike Hargrove with the Indians, Cito Gaston with the Blue Jays. However, when you look at recent history, most (La Russa, Bruce Bochy, Joe Girardi, Charlie Manuel, Jim Leyland, Phil Garner, Bobby Valentine, Francona, Jack McKeon, Joe Torre) have managed other teams prior to winning the World Series. Others like Ron Washington, Ozzie Guillen, Joe Maddon and Bob Brenly arrived at their jobs as coaches from other teams.
I’m still trying to find the coach in major pro sports with zero coaching or managerial experience that has succeeded at a championship level. I really like Mike Matheny, but it’s a huge gamble for the Cardinals to hire him.
If, as it appears, the Cardinals are going to trust a rookie with this club, they better be right. Because the perfect candidate is sitting there, waiting for the green light to helm the franchise for another decade.