EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 26, 2006

Tito passes test of tough times

On Baseball

Rob Bradford

Get ready, here it comes. The Red Sox went to bed last night a third-place team, paving the way for a possible sub top-two American League East finish for the first time since 1997, and thereby opening a whole new kettle of criticism.

But this is time not to be vindictive, but to value.

Sure, Boston manager Terry Francona might be on his way to spending more days in third place than any manager since Jimy Williams thanks to last night's 5-0 loss to the AL East's new second-place inhabitants, Toronto. But it is in this setting - not the rocking chair lifestyle of a pennant race - that the Sox skipper's aptitude should be applauded.

If you don't believe heroes can emerge while playing out the string, remember what Williams did nine years ago last night in Detroit.

To set the scene ... on Sept. 2 the then first-year Red Sox manager announced that starting pitcher Steve Avery was being relegated to the bullpen. On the surface, the move seemed logical since the former Atlanta ace's 17 starts with Boston had resulted in a 6-6 mark and a 6.57 ERA. Upon further review, however, performance wasn't exactly the main impetus behind the demotion.

Avery, who was making $4.85 million for '97, was guaranteed a $3.9 million contract for the following season if made just one more start for the tail-spinning Red Sox.

So with fourth-place Boston playing at Tiger Stadium and carrying a less-than-inspiring 77-81 record, Williams, who had coached with the Braves during Avery's best years, decided to ignore the wishes of Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette and pitch the lefty in what appeared to be a meaningless affair.

The result was a five-inning, two-hit gem for Avery, and, more importantly, a reinvigorated view of the Red Sox manager from the perspective of the players in the Boston clubhouse.

Flash forward to the most recent navigation through a meaningless final month, in which the current Red Sox roster has been reinforced with much of the same kind of foundation-building support Williams displayed with Avery. The tangible evidence isn't in dollars and cents, but rather the simple hint of respect and understanding Francona has managed to grab a hold of throughout the Sox's recent unsettling run.

Francona's detractors have an especially easy target today. Manny Ramirez has made himself available for one at-bat since Sept. 9, all the while getting nothing but niceties thrown at him by his manager. The $130 million roster which Francona currently guides managed a total of two singles last night. And, most damaging, the Red Sox have slid into a third-place abyss that this ownership has never tasted this late in the season.

Understand what the third-year manager is attempting to do while dodging and weaving the negativity. Take Francona's pre-game meeting last night in Toronto, for example. There was the almost daily Manny question, which for some would elicit automatic, almost involuntary, eye-rolling, but instead is answered with a matter-of-fact succinctness.

"I'm hoping we get him back in there," he said, according to MLB.com. "We've got a two-game series, day off, (then three more games) ... Like we've talked about with everybody else, if we know guys can go home and we feel good about where they're at, that certainly helps a lot of things."

No hint of trade demands, or any of the other peccadilloes which Ramirez is known to present on occasion. Francona realizes he can only do what he can do. And, much to the players delight, even when he does become pro-active it is done away from the watchful eyes of those outside the clubhouse.

Francona also elaborated on his plans for the final days of the season, which will be partially made up of individual meetings with his players. Even the guys without contracts for next season will garner a get-together, which helps further define the manager's start-to-finish consistency.

"Even if there's not a clear-cut, definitive (answer), but just out of respect," Francona said, "we'll probably end up talking to four or five guys just to talk to them, just to show some respect to them."

All of this comes while Francona balances his teeter-totter of a roster, riding through the failures of youth (David Murphy, Dustin Pedroia, Craig Hansen), while not dismissing a season's worth of effort (Mark Loretta, Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis).

Francona has already shown both his acumen for managing in the postseason, and a steady resolve throughout the ups and downs of a regular season in Boston. Now comes his latest test - the walk across the hot coals that come with living life as the leader for a third-place Red Sox squad.

The Red Sox may seem lost, but their fans can rest assured that their leader is anything but.