Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Terry Francona: He is the very model of the modern middle manager

Okay. I don't know how it's all going to work out this season. And, God knows, I've cursed, booed, and second-guessed him plenty of times. This is, of course, my right, privilege and, I daresay, obligation as a lifelong member of Red Sox Nation. (I am thinking of retiring my self-definition from "baptized a Catholic, but born a Democrat" to "baptized a Catholic, but born a Red Sox fan." My earliest memory is toddling over to the black-and-white Philco to pick a player off base - undoubtedly egged on by my baseball-loving father. I was no doubt second guessing Pinky Higgins and Billy Jurgis before I reached the age of reason.)

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that Terry Francona is, in fact, the ideal middle manager for this day and age.

Us Baby Boomer managers - and at 48 Francona is a "last wave" Boomer - are told that we have to handle Gen X and Y-ers far differently than we were ever treated by the Greatest Generation. No autocratic, top-down, jump!-how-high? for these guys. It's about standing back, getting out of their way, and just letting them go.

The role of manager has been redefined over the years from "I'm in charge" to "please, what can I do today to facilitate your getting your job done." Gen X, Gen Y - they're the talent. Baby Boom managers - we're the facilitators.

Well, there's Francona managing a bunch of aging Gen X-ers and kid Gen-Yers, and he's facilitating away, standing behind his guys, not bad-mouthing them to the press, and not pulling any Billy- Martin-charging-Reggie-Jackson-in-the-dugout histrionics. (For those who haven't seen The Bronx is Burning, a Fox mini-series on the Summer of 1978: John Turturro, who plays Martin, is one hell of an actor.)

Francona's refusal to go ballistic on team members regularly brings the wrath of The Nation down on his dear little bald head.

We are pissed off when there's a bone-headed play, when Manny doesn't hustle, when someone makes a truly dumb base running error. So why isn't Francona?

Do something already! Yell, scream, let the spittle fly. Give us that satisfaction, will you please.

But whatever Francona says to his players, he's doing it privately, leaving those of us sitting in front of NESN with our mouths hanging open to pine for some Billy Martin-et getting in the player's face.

Yet when I think of the managers I've worked around and, fortunately, seldom directly for during my professional career, which ones were the biggest jerks? The ones who dressed down an employee in front of others, who hung someone on their team out to dry, who finger pointed when the flames started licking a little too close to their butts for comfort.

So, who's the better manager? Captain Queeg or Terry Francona?

Hmmmmm. Queeg got the mutiny, Francona got the World Series ring - and is sitting, however tenuously and uncomfortably if you listen to Red Sox fans, on the best record in the majors and a decent although certainly not insurmountable lead in the American League East. 

Like other middle managers, Terry Francona is also charged with carrying out someone else's strategy, and that can't always be easy. He may choose the starters and the batting order, but he doesn't choose the team. He may give advice, but he doesn't make the trades.

How often have us middle managers soldiered on, trying to execute "the plan" not of our making?

Talk about a poster boy for middle managers!

One big difference, of course, is the visibility factor. For most middle managers, the truth is that no one actually knows who the hell we are. Oh, maybe the president or CEO knows what group we're in or remembers our first name if we run into them on the elevator, but no one in the outside world recognizes us. No one comes up to us on the street and tells us what we're doing wrong. No one blames us for the slide in the stock price, the disastrous acquisition, the 20% lay-off, the moronic ad campaign. (Hey, we just work there.)

Not so with Francona, or with any other manager of a professional sports team. These guys get pestered. All the time. Especially if you manage for a team like the Red Sox with its large and rabid following, and many fans living in its diaspora. So there's no real escape whether you're in a home stand or playing in Anaheim or Tampa Bay. People come up to managers on the street and tell them off or, more benevolently, give them tedious, repetitive, unwanted advice or just plain suck up to them. ("Oh, Terry, you look so fine in that long-sleeved red tee shirt.")

Of course, I've always said that the key to being a good manager is having good people on your team. So it helps that the Red Sox are willing to open their might pocketbook and buy quality.

In any event, it ain't over 'til the Dropkick Murphy's sing Tessie, and I'm sure that I'll have plenty more to say about and to Terry Francona before this season's one for the books. But next time I get all bug-eyed, slack jawed, and w-t-f about what the guy's doing, I'm going to have to remind myself.  Terry Francona's a pretty darned good middle manager.


I make no apologies whatsoever to Gilbert and Sullivan for (mis)appropriating their words for my headline.

I will make mention of Dan Shaughnessy's column on Terry Francona in the September 3rd Boston Globe, which prompted my thoughts on Francona-the-manager.

For more on managing the Red Sox, check out: Why I'm Glad Manny Doesn't Report to Me.

No comments: