LUCCHINO AS QUEEG AND OTHER TITO TALES

By Murray Chass

January 27, 2013

The picture painted in the early pages of the new Terry Francona book is reminiscent of the scene in the film “The Caine Mutiny” in which the ship’s captain, fellow by the name of Queeg played by Humphrey Bogart, demands to know what happened to the ship’s supply of strawberries.Terry Francona Book 225

In “Francona: The Red Sox Years,” Queeg is played by Larry Lucchino, president and chief executive officer of the Boston Red Sox. Co-authors Francona and Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe, perhaps the best columnist left in the shrinking world of newspapers, tell not about missing strawberries but of missing sweatshirts.

It is two days after the Red Sox stunning World Series triumph, the franchise’s first in 86 years, and they are preparing for the city’s parade honoring them. “But then no one could find the sweatshirts,” the authors write.

Proclaiming the “World Champion Red Sox,” the sweatshirts had been prepared for everyone to wear in the parade, uniformed and front-office personnel as well. But when the time came to pass them out, they were missing.

Lucchino, the authors say in the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt book, “was fuming” as he spoke to a clubhouse attendant. “Francona overheard Lucchino muttering, ‘Can’t you guys do one thing right?”

“Goddamn, Larry, we just won the (blanking) World Series, Francona thought to himself. That should be good enough. Who cares what we wear? We could go down the street naked and they’d still clap for us. . It doesn’t matter. This is the greatest day of our lives.”

Just as Capt. Queeg never found the missing strawberries, Lucchino, whom Francona thought of “as something of a bully,” failed to find the sweatshirts. Theo Epstein, who was then the team’s general manager, suggests in the book that no one wanted to wear the unattractive sweatshirts “so I think we had the clubbies lose them.”

Lucchino, not unexpectedly, plays a major role in the book, from the missing sweatshirts to Francona’s dismissal after the 2011 season following an eight-year run that included two World Series championships. They did not end their association on the best of terms. Neither did Francona and John Henry, the principal owner.

The final term of estrangement resulted from an article that appeared post-firing in the Boston Globe. The article told of pitchers eating fried chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse during gamers but, more damaging to Francona, said the manager had been distracted by his use of pain medication.

Lucchino and Henry both denied being the source of the story and said they would look into it.

“Both Larry and John said they’d get back to me after their attempts at discovery,” says Francona, also known as Tito, “and neither one of them ever did. I think that’s what bothered me the most.”

The book also tells about the beginning of the relationship between Francona and Lucchino. Recounting their first meeting when Francona was being interviewed for the managing job, Francona says, “He kept asking me to assign a percentage to the psychological side of the game, as opposed to the physical side.”

Larry LucchinoFrancona says he was reluctant to give a number, but Lucchino pressed him for one and he eventually relented. “I’m not even sure what number I gave him, but I know that’s most of what we talked about the day,” Francona recalls.

He should have quoted Yogi Berra: “Baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical.”

Francona got the job, and Lucchino offered him a two-year contract for just over $1 million, a fairly meager deal for that time in the development of managerial salaries. When Francona asked if he was serious, Lucchino said, “Yes, take it or leave it, because if you don’t want it, we’ll get somebody else.”

After talking to Epstein about the salary, Francona took the job for $1.55 million.

“The hard-line contract offer,” the authors write, “was typical of Lucchino, ever-mindful of demonstrating that he was the boss.”

Epstein, whom Lucchino had brought in from San Diego to be, at age 28, the youngest major league general manager ever, developed his own problems with Lucchino, walked out of his job and Fenway Park in a gorilla suit after the 2005 season.

“Everyone knew there was tension between mentor Lucchino and protégé Epstein,” the authors write. “Epstein bristled at the notion that he was Lucchino’s creation….”

Epstein very likely would have eventually made it on his own, but he was Lucchino’s creation, just as Kevin Towers was in San Diego when Lucchino ran the Padres.

Nevertheless, Epstein might very well have wanted to borrow and paraphrase a remark from “The Caine Mutiny” when the Fred McMurray character says of Capt. Queeg, “If only the strawberries had been poisoned, all our problems would have been solved.”

Epstein could well have done that because his grandfather Julius Epstein and Julius’ brother Philip wrote the screen play for the legendary film “Casablanca.”

There was also that gorilla suit to come (“King Kong”?) when Epstein had had enough of Lucchino and walked into unemployment after the 2005 season, disenchanted with his pay ($350,000), a meager stipend compared with the $2.5 million the Red Sox had offered Oakland’s Billy Beane three years earlier.

Epstein and Lucchino, the book also says, disagreed on the construction of the team, Epstein wanting to build through the farm system and Lucchino wanting “to stand at the podium with the World Series trophy every year.”

Lucchino, Epstein believed, “was using friends in the press to make himself look good at Theo’s expense. Epstein decided to quit.”

In Epstein’s absence the Red Sox designated a pair of his assistants as interim general managers. According to Francona, Jeremy Kapstein thought he would become the general manager.

Kapstein, senior adviser for baseball projects, has a novel baseball background, none of it involving personnel matters. Thirty-five years ago, he was an agent, one of the first with the advent of free agency. The union was often suspicious of his methods of operation, but the worst accusation made against him was he took his negotiating fees directly from clubs instead of being paid by his clients.

But he switched sides after he married Ray Kroc’s step-daughter, Linda Smith, and became the executive in charge of the McDonald’s hamburger founder’s baseball team, the same Padres that Lucchino would someday run under a different owner.

However, Kapstein was in charge of the Padres only long enough to oversee their sale because he and Smith were divorced after 18 months. It marked her second divorce from a Padres’ CEO. Ballard Smith was the first, but that’s another story.

Anyway, Kapstein never became the Red Sox general manager because the gorilla guy returned a few months later, in time to win another World Series.

“The degree to which he actually left has always been in doubt,” the authors say, adding, “there was a sense that he never really left.” Once he resumed the duties of general manager, however, “There was no more interference from Lucchino, the man who always wanted to win now, even if it meant sacrificing some people in the farm system.”

If the relationship between Lucchino and Epstein was shaky, what about Lucchino and Francona?Lucchino Epstein Francona

“The Francona-Lucchino relationship was never wholly comfortable. Lucchino’s temper was famous, and his perpetual concern with the business and marketing of the ball club sometimes conflicted with the priorities of the manager, who was only interested in winning.”

“’Ever notice how Larry never says my first name?’” Francona would ask people. “‘He always calls me Francona.’”

The book wouldn’t be complete without some Manny stories, as in Manny Ramirez.

First story:

Ramirez didn’t take or get many days off, not with the productive bat he swung. “The tricky part was the manner in which Manny would take his time off.”

In late July 2005, with the Red Sox rolling, the manager told the left fielder he would not play in the final game of a seven-game road trip, giving him two consecutive days off because the team had an off-day following the trip.

However, Trot Nixon was hurt in the next-to-last game of the trip, and the Red Sox were going to be short-handed for the last game. Francona had one of the coaches ask Ramirez if he would swap off days, and Manny declined.

Francona then went to Ramirez himself and told him, “Hey, we’ve got no outfielders. We need you today.”

“But he was in one of those moods,” the manager related. “He just said, ‘You told me I had a day off.’” And he took it.

Second story:

For a game in Houston in June 2008, Ramirez needed 16 tickets. In such situations, players ask other players if they’re using their tickets. Each player is entitled to six tickets. The team’s traveling secretary handles tickets.

On this day, Ramirez went to the Red Sox traveling secretary, Jack McCormick, and said, “Jack, I need 16 tickets for tonight.”

“OK, Manny, just borrow them from your teammates and I’ll put them into the computer,” McCormick said.

“No, just do it,” Ramirez barked.

They went back and forth that way, and Ramirez’s voice became angrier and louder. “Just do it,” he repeated.

When McCormick began speaking, Ramirez “pushed McCormick violently , and the traveling secretary fell back onto a spring water jug that was on the floor by the entrance to the players’ lounge.”

“’Just do your job and get my tickets,’” Manny yelled as he stood over the fallen club executive.”

Several players and the manager came to McCormick’s rescue.

Finally, the book reminds us that in 1994 Francona managed Michael Jordan at Class AA Birmingham, when the basketball great said he was retiring from the National Basketball Association.

Jordan attributed his decision to try baseball to the wish of his father, who was fatally shot in 1993. There was suspicion that Jordan’s decision was linked to gambling and an N.B.A. choice to take a year’s leave or be suspended, but no evidence was ever produced to support the suspicion.

“Michael respected what we were doing so much, and that made it work,” Francona says, adding that a couple of times he played in pickup basketball games with Jordan.

“Michael got angry once when an exhausted Francona took the last shot in a best-to-11 game.

“I always take the last shot,” said Jordan.

“Now you know how I feel when I watch you try to hit a curveball,” said the manager.”

PUT AN ‘S’ FOR STEROIDS ON SOSA’S SHIRT

sammy-sosa-225When will Sammy Sosa wake up and join the real world?

The former Chicago Cubs’ slugger said last week the time has passed when the Cubs should have retired his uniform No. 21.

“I think that is something that I’m looking for,” he told reporters in Chicago. “That is something I want to happen. I’m kind of surprised it didn’t happen before, but time will determine everything. When that happens, I would be more comfortable and more happy. I will be there with all my family.”

Sosa, who retired five years ago, added, “I represented that number, so that number should have been retired a long time ago.”

What Sosa didn’t add was he besmirched that number, and if he checked the recent Hall of Fame voting he can see that’s why he received a paltry 12.5 percent of the vote. Only 71 of 569 writers who voted marked an X next to his name.

Many writers don’t believe Sosa is Hall of Fame worthy even with his 609 career home runs, but he has been damaged by his suspected use of steroids. He has always denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but circumstantial evidence and common sense weigh heavily against him.

He had never hit more than 40 home runs in a season – 40 was his career high – when he slugged 63 or more three times in a four-season span. No player who has been considered chemically clean has hit more than 60 more than once.

BIG TRADES PRODUCE BAD ANALYSIS

It never fails. A team makes a big multi-player trade for one of its best players, and some expert in the news media immediately says “they coulda done better,” or “they didn’t get enough.”

Latest example: Arizona didn’t get enough for Upton.

That headline appeared on ESPN.com, but with different names, it has appeared on many other Web sites and in many publications. There’s always somebody who knows better than the guy doing the job.

What I don’t understand is why these so-called experts think they know more than the general managers who make the trades. I’ll acknowledge that in some cases, depending on the general manager, they might be right. For the most part, however, I would guess the expert doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

The most important thing is the expert isn’t privy to all of the information the general manager has, which team is offering what players, for example.

I suppose these “analyses” are written because they sound good, may stir controversy and attract readers. But they aren’t worth the time it takes to read them. And if you have to pay for them, as in ESPN.com Insider, better to donate the money to the Sandy relief fund.

NEWS RELEASE GOES TWEET, TWEET, TWEET

Twitter is not for me nor for a lot of other people I know, but I received confirmation the other day that we are definitely in the Twitter age.

The Arizona Diamondbacks traded Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves last week in a seven-player transaction, and this was the first paragraph of the e-mail news release:

PHOENIX — The Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) announced they have acquired infielder/outfielder Martin Prado, right-handed pitchers Randall Delgado (@RandallDelgado) and Zeke Spruill (@zekespruill) and infielders Nick Ahmed and Brandon Drury from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for outfielder Justin Upton and infielder Chris Johnson.

Though it’s possible that other teams have included Twitter information in their news releases, this is a first as far as I know.

I’m not sure what to make of this development. It could be beneficial to reporters if players respond to their tweets (hey, give me credit; at least I’ve learned some of the terminology). But I don’t understand the urge that people have to expose their lives to any and all, and I lament the demise of actual person-to-person, voice-to-voice conversation.

One day we’ll wake up and discover we have forgotten how to talk to each other.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.