MESA, Ariz. – Theo Epstein didn’t want to recreate “The Boston Red Sox Show” once he got total control of baseball operations at Wrigley Field. When the Cubs president went searching for a new manager, he wanted to hire the next Terry Francona.
There will be no what-if scenarios for the Cubs front office when the Cleveland Indians walk into HoHoKam Stadium on Monday with their new manager. Even Francona was quick to admit: “They got the right guy.”
The same in-depth interview process at Fenway Park that identified Francona in the fall of 2003 revealed Dale Sveum some eight years later.
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Epstein hasn’t seen Francona since they’ve landed in Arizona for spring training, but they’re planning to meet for a drink later this month, before the 162-game grind starts all over again.
Epstein and Francona spoke two or three times a week during a three-week window in November 2011 that featured so many moving parts.
After two World Series titles and an epic September collapse, the Red Sox hadn’t renewed Francona’s contract. Epstein had finally emerged from Yawkey Way and his limbo period in the basement as Milton from “Office Space.”
Epstein had raided the San Diego Padres front office and hired Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, his boys from Boston. Epstein then fired manager Mike Quade during a face-to-face meeting in Florida.
The Red Sox were essentially working from a list Epstein helped create as Boston’s general manager. They zeroed in on Sveum – the third-base coach on the 2004 team that reversed the curse – before rebooting their search and hiring Bobby Valentine, a one-and-done disaster. Francona wound up replacing Valentine in the ESPN broadcast booth and taking a one-year sabbatical.
“We were starting a program here where we were, in a lot of ways, starting at the ground level and building it up,” Epstein said. “Sometimes it’s nice when you can have a manager that grows with the organization and grows with the big-league club. The only reason Tito and I kind of collectively decided it wasn’t the right thing was just because of where he was situated in his career and then where we were as an organization.”
The endings in Boston are usually messy, from Roger Clemens to Nomar Garciaparra to Kevin Youkilis. In an autopsy of the 2011 season, The Boston Globe used anonymous sources to expose a fried-chicken-and-beer clubhouse culture and paint Francona as a manager distracted by his unraveling marriage and use of painkillers.
But what comes across in “Francona: The Red Sox Years” is a very carefully constructed defense of Epstein and their relationship. Epstein is almost completely exempt from criticism in Francona’s bestselling memoir with Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.
“You grow together,” Francona said. “I think we both chose to do that. (For) eight years in Boston, we always had each other’s back. It doesn’t mean you don’t have disagreements. You always do. But we always had each other’s backs. When times were rough, I knew where to go. And he knew that.”
Francona and Sveum didn’t talk to each other during Epstein’s search process. They were once teammates on the Milwaukee Brewers, and their paths crossed in 2001, when Francona was an advisor in the Cleveland front office and Sveum managed at Double-A Altoona, the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate.
Sveum also didn’t get a scouting report on the interview format from Francona, who didn’t have to go through the question-and-answer session with the Chicago media.
That’s where Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux was asked how he would handle Carlos Zambrano: “I heard he’s a big teddy bear, so might pick him up and just burp him.”
Cubs executives appreciated how Sveum operated inside Boston’s “superstar culture,” where Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and the self-proclaimed Band of Idiots ruled the clubhouse. Kevin Millar would later brag about how the team would sip a little Jack Daniel's to take the edge off during the 2004 playoff run.
Sveum has the bald head, the tattoos, the permanent five-o’clock shadow and the Dale-isms that could make an English teacher cringe. In terms of a Q rating, well, just listen to the old man who complained to chairman Tom Ricketts this winter at Cubs Convention about the manager who looks like he “sleeps on a park bench.”
But Cubs executives remembered the meticulous spray charts Sveum developed after countless hours breaking down video and studying the data. Epstein and Hoyer noticed how Sveum wasn’t afraid to talk to players or teach at the big-league level.
“Whatever fires you have to put out or guys you got to fix,” Sveum said, “you just do your job. (2004) was just one of those special teams with special chemistry.”
The Red Sox took down the Evil Empire and forced New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to have a heart-to-heart with the late George Steinbrenner about how they do business. But one bad month began to overshadow everything right about “The Red Sox Way.”
In their recently-released book, Francona and Shaughnessy spare Epstein and direct most of the zingers at Red Sox ownership and their image-is-everything obsession with marketing Fenway Park and printing money through NESN, their regional sports network.
“(Tito) treated you like a man,” said Cubs outfielder Darnell McDonald, who grew out his dreadlocks in Boston and witnessed that 7-20 September collapse in 2011. “You hear guys talk about: ‘He’s a players’ manager,’ this and that. He knows how to manage people and personalities.
“It was unfortunate how it ended for him in Boston, but it’s good to see that he’s with Cleveland (and) I know he’s happy. Nothing but good things to say about him. He went about everything the right way. He gave the players a lot of freedom to do what they need to do to get ready to play the game. He had one expectation: To play the game hard, play it the right way. That’s all he asked.”
Francona was drafted by the Cubs in the second round of the 1977 draft, but decided to go to the University of Arizona. He wound up playing one season on the North Side (1986), but has no regrets about how he left things with Epstein, especially after the Indians committed more than $100 million to free-agent outfielders Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.
“I don’t think the timing was right,” Francona said. “I probably needed to take a step back. I think they were in a different place. We talked about it, and it was a comfortable conversation.”
Francona escaped the Fenway Park fishbowl. Sveum not only survived a 101-loss season with his reputation intact, he seemed to become even more popular in the clubhouse and gain more power within the organization.
The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948, which seems like a long time until you remember the Cubs last won a title in 1908. But somehow, it’s possible this story will have a happy ending.
“It ended up working out great where we got Dale, who we’re thrilled with,” Epstein said. “Tito got the benefit of a year off, which was an incredible way to change your perspective, reinvigorate yourself and then got a job at a great place. It worked out well for everybody.”