Nice Guys Finish Last

The New York Times

October 16, 2008

by Doug Glanville


My recent prediction on a radio show that the Los Angeles Angels were the team to beat in the American League turned out to be wrong, but even when I made that statement I qualified it — it came with a lot of strings attached. Because I knew enough about baseball to realize that you never can tell what is going to happen in a short series. And I also knew enough not to ever count out Terry Francona, the manager of the Boston Red Sox (even though they are at present down in the American League Championship Series against the Rays).

My last day in uniform was in Tampa, Fla., as a spring training invitee of the New York Yankees in 2005. So I retired, technically, as a Yankee, after 14 seasons with the Phillies, Cubs and Rangers.

I didn’t really want to leave it at that. I grew up an avid Phillies fan, and it was a dream when I got the chance to play for Philadelphia after a trade in 1998. So once I decided to walk away from the game, I contacted the Phillies and asked them if there was any way for me to retire a Phillie, even though I spent the last game of my career as their opponent, in the Yankee dugout.

It turned out to be a little more complicated than I had anticipated. Legal wrangling was required to address liability, severance issues and roster spot regulations, even if you wanted to draw up a contract that for all intents and purposes was designed to explode after one day. After a few months of us figuring out a sound legal structure and resolving scheduling conflicts, the Phillies finally gave me a couple of dates to consider for a formal retirement ceremony at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. And when I saw that one choice included a June 25th showdown against the Boston Red Sox, I jumped on it.

It was Boston’s manager, Terry “Tito” Francona, who made this the clear choice. He was the Phillies’ manager when I first was traded to the team in the winter of 1997. I proceeded to play for him for the next four years — from 1998 through 2001 — as starting centerfielder. Under his tutelage I played the best baseball of my career, and I owe a lot to the environment he created in the locker room.

There is a lot of debate about the value of a manager to a major league roster of professionals. Many managers lose points when they work for an organization with bottomless resources for obtaining talent. Joe Torre, for instance, always seemed to get an asterisk next to his record whenever someone evaluated the Yankees’ reign over baseball for so many years in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. But make no mistake about it: when you have so much talent on a team, it can just as easily turn into an imploding festival of egomania. You have to know what you’re doing. And in this respect, Tito was a master.

It is all about understanding people — their roles, personalities and skill sets — and doing what you can to put everyone in the best position to be successful. A bit oversimplified, but that is about the gist of it.

Francona understood this as well as anyone I ever played for. From the day I met him in 1998 to his last day in Philadelphia in 2001, all he did was get better and better at managing people, while putting in his time to master the X’s and O’s. So it isn’t surprising that he has fulfilled Boston’s Impossible Dream by helping bring not one but two championships to their faithful fans — and he is still well-positioned to capture another one in 2008.

Francona was always a positive and even-keeled person through the inherent rollercoaster nature of a typical baseball season. He only chastised us when, instead of giving our best, we went through the motions or didn’t hustle. He didn’t obsess about the bottom line, didn’t live and die by scores and statistics. His top concern was how we went about our business to achieve this bottom line. If we did it honorably, he had nothing but words of encouragement for us.

It is rare to find a “players’ manager” who could also outmanage the best tacticians of the game. He could and did, by sweeping Tony LaRussa and the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series. LaRussa is renowned for his managerial prowess and cutting-edge techniques, but Francona was a step ahead of him. He had figured out a way to combine chalkboard expertise with his innate feel for people.

In 1998, when I was traded to Philadelphia, I was coming off a nice season in Chicago but the jury was still out as to whether I could be an everyday contributor to a major league team. After a spring training battle with Lenny Dykstra, I was awarded the starting centerfielder job. Francona proceeded to run me out there every single day. His confidence in me was unwavering. Toward the end of the season he finally said, “It looks like the bat is swinging you instead of the other way around, I’m going to give you a day off.” (I still led the National League in at-bats.)

I took (albeit naively) a unique interest in trying to directly help Tito be successful, something I never attempted with any other manager in the major leagues. After my first season with him, he was often criticized for being “too nice” and for not being able to make the tough decisions regarding personnel — so I bought him a copy of the movie “U-571,” in which Matthew McConaughey portrayed a gung-ho, up-and-coming sub commander who couldn’t make the decisions that were best for the ship if they came at the expense of his crew. I don’t know if it helped, but two World Series rings later, Francona’s “too friendly” critics are nowhere to be found.

Only once did I ever have any tension with him. My father had suffered a major stroke after spring training one year, and I was distracted to the point that in one game I forgot how many outs there were in the inning and let the winning run scored. Francona defended me to the press, telling them to “give the kid a break, his father had a major stroke a couple days ago.” I was upset — I didn’t want the press to know the details of what was a personal situation. When I asked Tito about why he spilled the beans, he explained, “I was just trying to protect you.” Which he sincerely was. So, after sitting with him a while and getting that casual don’t-worry-about-it because-I-will-take-the-heat smile, I just had to smile with him.

He also kept the locker room as loose as possible. He joked with teammates, joined in on practical jokes, even had a kangaroo court to handle in-house offenses. After one series against Boston we found that there was suddenly no hot water in the locker room. In response, one frustrated player chose to shower in the therapy whirlpool. I submitted a citation for “nastiness,” only to get shot down in court as the judges supported his “ingenuity” in the face of inconvenience. Only Tito’s court could come up with these kinds of judges.

Francona is funny, too. His one-liners should be in the Hall of Fame one day — he could disarm anyone. I laughed when I read his quote regarding Kevin Youkilis after Kevin was named the “Greek God of Walks” in Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball,” a reference to his extraordinary ability to see the difference between a ball and a strike. Francona’s reaction: “I’ve seen him in the shower, he isn’t the Greek God of anything.” Typical Tito.

His humility and modesty were inspiring. One off-season, I called him after hearing he’d had a near-death experience from a routine procedure on his surgically repaired knees. He just shrugged it off, saying, “Things happen, I’m fine.” And when news of his firing from the Phillies at the end of the 2001 season unfortunately leaked out a few days early and ended up on a press release in our lockers (including his), he managed right to the end — even when one of our coaches was so offended by the leak that he refused to work the last few games.

So I made the right choice to retire with Terry “Tito” Francona on the field. He graciously invited me into the Red Sox locker room and I actually spent more time there than in the locker room of the organization I was retiring from. I talked to some of my old opponents — John Olerud, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Matt “Smitherman” Clement, Curt Schilling and others. For a second, I almost thought I was in the lineup, but that is how Tito did it. Warm and inviting, all of the time. Even before I officially retired, he had a minor league opportunity waiting for me if I ever wanted to get back in the saddle.

The day I retired was special. I walked out on the field in front of a sold-out crowd and received a wonderful ovation. Tito took the time to talk to my wife-to-be and mother, greeting them behind home plate. As I threw out the first pitch, I was equally moved to see all of the Red Sox stop what they were doing to come out and give me a standing ovation. Something like that tells you a lot about their manager.

Republished from The NY Times


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