Friday, November 26, 2010

The Two Terrys

  • The Francona-Collins parallel:

On the surface, you'd never think there was any common denominators between Red Sox manager Terry Francona and new Mets manager Terry Collins.

Francona----calm, cool, collected; a player's manager; well-liked and personable----is the epitome of a man for whom players want to play.

Collins----intense and in-your-face; enthusiastic; carting heavy baggage from his prior jobs----is a wild card.

In retrospect, given Francona's success as Red Sox manager, you'd never remember that after 2003, he was as questionable a hire then as Collins is now for the Mets.

Let's take a look.

Resume failures and the truth.

Francona was portrayed as a puppet who: A) was happy to get the opportunity and was willing to work cheaply and follow organizational edicts regarding strategy; B) had been hired as a conciliatory gesture to lure Curt Schilling to agree to a trade to the club; and C) had a poor track record as a manager in his prior opportunity.

Collins's penchant for yelling and screaming had caused certain players to tune him out with the Astros and Angels; he had been interviewed for jobs since being fired by the Angels in 1999 but the reputation persisted; perceived as a retread who hadn't worked out and wasn't a difference-maker, his attributes were glossed over and his past followed him, sabotaging any attempt to get back into the manager's office.

In reality, were there aspects of these beliefs that were accurate? Yes. But what's accurate isn't always the full story, nor is it fair.

Francona had a rotten team with the Phillies; no one could've done much better than the 285-363 record he accumulated in 4 years at the helm. Following his dismissal (they did him a favor), he moved into various baseball capacities and increased the breadth of his experience. First he was a special assistant to Indians GM John Hart; then he spent a year each as the Rangers and A's bench coach.

The Indians were considered one of the most intelligent and well-run clubs in baseball with a simultaneously analytic and aggressive approach; in addition to that, there were smart people like Mark Shapiro in the front office. Managers who have a view of the clerical and off-field machinations and are out of their customary realm will be well-versed in why a GM might make a call that seems confusing at the time. A manager wants to have a player to help him win now in the selfish interests of keeping his job; a front office person has to take everything into account----Francona's time with the Indians had to help him with the hands-on Red Sox front office.

The Rangers were an aging wreck by 2002, but Francona expanded his coping skills in witnessing a circus as Alex Rodriguez was in year 2 of his disastrous run in Texas. Francona had managed the Birmingham Barons during Michael Jordan's foray into minor league baseball. Having managed in Philadelphia----where booing is the template----anything else would be a Carl Pavano-day at the beach. It all prepared him for the crisis-a-day and reactionary atmosphere of Boston.

The Athletics were run in a similar way to the Red Sox. At the height of the Moneyball phenomenon, the manager was a conduit to the front office. Such was going to be the case with the Red Sox when he got the job. After Grady Little's tenure was over, the Red Sox wanted someone who was going to take a moderate (if not low) paycheck and follow the guidelines that Little ignored.

There's a difference between following said guidelines and doing what he's told. Francona adheres to the Red Sox reluctance to "give away" outs with bunts and capricious stolen bases; that, as much as the team being good on an annual basis has helped him survive.

Because he's so affable; that he has a thorough comprehension of the way things are under the new age in baseball, Francona has lasted; been credited as the "best" manager in baseball (he's not); and will have a managerial job as long as he wants whether in Boston or elsewhere.

Collins's rejuvenation is similar.

After being fired by the Angels, Collins was director of player development for the Dodgers; managed China in the World Baseball Classic; managed in Japan; and was the Mets minor league field coordinator. To imply that Collins's past as a manager in the 1990s is going to be a detriment to the work he does now is insulting to the man's intelligence; to the power of learning from mistakes and evolving.

Only a fool would repeat the errors of the past; Collins is too smart to let this opportunity get away from him by making the same errors he did with the Angels and Astros. Strategically, he's always been very good; it was the fiery demeanor that turned off youngsters who grew tired of hearing him scream; and veterans who weren't accustomed to not being in charge. That won't happen with the Mets and their hand-in-hand front office-manager relationship.

Does it fit?

Some have called Francona the "best" manager in baseball.

He's not.

That's an honorific I'd give to Tony La Russa or Jim Tracy; but for what the Red Sox needed at the time, he was a perfect fit.

The title of "best" should be bestowed on someone from whom you can expect a drastic turnaround based on his overall skills. La Russa, if he's given the players he needs to compete and has Dave Duncan by his side, will win----it's a guarantee.

Tracy can be considered the best because he's a terrific strategic manager who's beloved by the players.

Francona is solid all around as he navigates the media, the players, the fans and maintains order. His style would not work everywhere. He's the same man as he was with the Phillies----albeit with a more thorough understanding of all aspects of the game----but his functioning and success is based on player talent and steering the ship.

After the Little era ended, the Red Sox were ready to win with Francona as part of the puzzle; the Mets are transitioning from the Omar Minaya/Willie Randolph/Jerry Manuel era to Sandy Alderson/Collins.

It fit then in Boston; it fits now in New York.

Fitting is sometimes more important than strategic skills. Collins is the right fit for the Mets. Francona was the right fit for the Red Sox.

The press-trumpeting of Wally Backman for the Mets job was driven by agendas. Agendas to see a former Mets player from the glory days of the 1980s in the managerial office; to have someone who was just as likely to crash and burn as he was to light up the sky.

Know this: Backman would've slipped up with the media had he been given the job and it probably would've happened in the introductory press conference. Collins was the better all-around choice for that reason alone----he'll deal better with the press.

Does he have warts? Of course. Francona had them; Joe Torre had them; La Russa has them. The only true judgment is in retrospect and it's not only wins and losses that are the determining factor. Would the Yankees dynasty have happened without Buck Showalter? Highly unlikely.

Would the Red Sox have become the machine they currently are without Little having made his gaffe and the conscious decision for the front office taking charge, leading directly to the trade for Schilling and Francona hiring? No.

We won't know until we know, but Collins and Francona are very comparable despite personality differences. Francona is more of a subtle, player friendly type; Collins is edgier. These are side aspects to the overall view.

The future.

Collins may not be the man who's managing the Mets when they're truly ready to compete for a championship. As he was with the Astros, he might be the man to teach the players to play the game and comport themselves correctly only to hand the reins over to someone who'll take his foot off the gas and let the players evolve into a championship unit in a more relaxed atmosphere. It's too soon to tell; but he's the right man for the job at the moment.

If you asked Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio whether they'd have done things slightly differently in their complaints about Collins while he was their manager, I'm sure age (and the resulting wisdom) would lead them to say, yes, we became better players because of Terry Collins. They didn't know it at the time, but it's the truth. I can see this happening between Troy Tulowitzki and Clint Hurdle----the relationship had run its course, but 10-15 years from now, they'll acknowledge how much they needed one another to achieve their destinies.

Functional managers rather than difference-makers are more prevalent and successful than is generally reported. It's easy to look at La Russa and say, "Well, he's Tony La Russa; he's the best". But it takes a full accounting of the work of managers like Francona and Collins to appreciate what they've done or will do. The in-game skill and resume are secondary to their suitability to what the employer wants and needs.

The ideal for the new look Mets is the Red Sox.

Built through both stats and scouting and backed up by money, that's the logical plot for the Mets to emulate.

The managerial decisions reflect that.

You won't see people compare them as people, but as far as doing their jobs and how they got to their current positions, it's an easy parallel even as they take different turns in temperament and style----they're mirror images of one another.

We'll see if the Mets get the results with Collins as the Red Sox did with Francona.

Whether or not it works in the transitory bottom-line of wins and losses, it's the right move and in the same vein as what the Red Sox did when they hired Francona.

I was on with Sal at SportsFan Buzz on Wednesday talking about the Hot Stove; the Mets; Derek Jeter; post-season award winners; and other stuff. You can click on the link here directly or here for Sal's site to listen on I-Tunes.


Brooklyn Trolley Blogger said...

I'd only say Terry Francona was plugged into a ready made situation in Boston. That team was on the precipice. Collins is coming to a team in flux. But I can feel what you're saying.

mike fierman said...

"Would the Yankees dynasty have happened without Buck Showalter? Highly unlikely."

if you are going to make such a ludicrous and outrageous statement you should at least back it up with a fact or two--even an opinion to support it. but no, you just say it and move on...
i demand a retraction or an explanation.