Why Francona is this team's MVP

BOSTON -- During the season, if Boston Red Sox players, coaches or staff members needed to find manager Terry Francona at any given time on a daily basis, he would be in either his office, the clubhouse or the dugout.

He was nowhere to be found on Monday afternoon, a day after the Sox's season ended against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park.

Just because Francona's office was empty, and even though the clubhouse and dugouts where ghost towns, don't think for one minute the 51-year-old manager wasn't already focusing on the 2011 season.

Boston's baseball operations department conducted meetings throughout the day on Monday, reviewing the season that was and attempting to preview the season that will be. Francona may or may not have been a part of those meetings, but you can bet his hiatus from the game this offseason will be a short one.

The Red Sox and Francona endured one of the more challenging seasons in recent history in 2010. Serious injuries to major players in the starting lineup was one of the reasons the Red Sox failed to make the playoffs and finished third in the American League East.

As tough as it was on the field, it was even tougher in the clubhouse.

Through it all, Francona's office door was always open.

Recently, the man who just completed his seventh season as manager of the Red Sox stood in the dugout at Fenway Park and it was clear he was tired, that this season took its toll on him. Francona would never admit it.

The Red Sox stayed competitive and kept the division interesting almost down to the wire. The club received incredible contributions from many unlikely sources this summer. It can be hard to fathom how Francona was able to keep his club focused despite all the adversity.

Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell has been on Francona's staff for the past four seasons. Farrell has seen the best of the Red Sox, and witnessed some not-so-great moments. So, he was asked: How did Francona handle this season?

"Like he's handled everything else we've experienced over the last four years -- very even-handed, outwardly continues to show the same demeanor and never shows unease or panic to the players," Farrell said. "That is a signal to them that everything is under control and our objective never changes and that is to win every night no matter what we have encountered adversely or positively."

In the midst of a grueling and arduous 162-game season, the Red Sox stayed mentally prepared and focused.

"We follow his lead," Farrell said. "I say that as a coaching staff as well. We look at him to set the tone and set the example. We learn from it and it gives us a sense of calm as well, knowing all the interactions he may have with [general manager] Theo [Epstein] and all those private and personal conversations about the team, it never comes back to us in a way of uneasiness or uncertainty and we go about our job with an added confidence that we're going to get through this despite what we're facing at that time."

Backup catcher Kevin Cash was one of many players the Red Sox called upon to help keep the club competitive while many of the starters were on the disabled list. This was Cash's second stint with the Red Sox (he spilt time between Triple-A Pawtucket and Boston in 2007 and was Tim Wakefield's personal catcher the entire 2008 season). When both Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek suffered injuries, Francona wanted Cash back in the mix, so the club reacquired him in a trade with the Houston Astros in early July.

The two are close and talk baseball quite a bit. Cash knows how challenging and rewarding this season was for Francona.

"Terrible. Terrible job," Cash said with a smile. "Coming into the season, with this team healthy, we would expect to be playing on Wednesday. Given the injuries this team dealt with -- not that it's an excuse or anything -- for what he got out of the players that probably there was no expectation to get some of those numbers or production out of those players, it speaks for him, just because he makes everybody comfortable."

The environment in the clubhouse was positive despite all the low points on the field, he said, and that's what kept the players who were in the lineup calm and focused.

"It's Tito's job -- once the ship starts sinking -- to make it right and make them believe they're going to be in there every day and we're going to need them to produce," Cash said. "The calmness Tito brings every day, a lot of managers would be in that office with the door shut pulling out their hair. Well, he doesn't have any hair, but the way he acts relaxes the club enough to go out and play. He's awesome."

Despite winning fewer than 90 games and missing the postseason for only the second time in his seven-year tenure as manager, Francona did witness some special events this season.

The Red Sox saw Jon Lester continue to be one of the top left-handed pitchers in the game, posting a 19-9 record with a 3.25 ERA. And Boston finally witnessed the emergence of right-hander Clay Buchholz, who finished with a 17-7 mark and a 2.33 ERA.

While those two performed on the mound, they said it was Francona's presence in the clubhouse that helped keep order this season.

"I think he did a fine job," Lester said. "It's hard enough to manage this clubhouse when everybody's healthy, with the different egos. Everyone has come in with different expectations on what their season is going to be, and how much playing time, and how many at-bats they're going to get and how many innings they're going to pitch.

"He did a pretty good job with what he had to work with. We had a lot of guys who were not expected to play every day who played every day. I think he managed that well. This was a tough year on a lot of people and obviously on the front office. For him, it was even harder on than it was on us."

Unfortunately for the Red Sox, 2010 will always be remembered as the injury-plagued season. But there were also serious issues off the field that did not involve baseball, and the Red Sox handled them with class. At the forefront was Francona.

First base coach Ron Johnson and hitting coach Dave Magadan both suffered family tragedies in the midst of the season, and Francona made sure both coaches, and their families, were taken care of.

"The one thing people, our fans or the public, may see from him is the way he deals with players," Farrell said. "He cares a lot about his players. There's no question he is a players' manager. He has that same compassion for his staff and the families of each that when issues arise, he's the first one there to respond in some fashion, whether it's a call, or help, or anything he can do within his right, within his power to help out and ease the situation the best he can."

Francona's name has come up numerous times as a candidate for AL Manager of the Year. There's a strong possibility he could earn the accolade. The fact he's managing a team in a large market makes the club's trials this season so visible, but Francona has learned how to deal with the challenges that come with the job in this city.

"There are a lot of things that are so visible here because of the passion of this city and the fans who follow the Red Sox, and that's great," Farrell said. "But there are so many things that he does that people don't see, and he has no interest in some unforeseen notoriety. ... That is not who he is, and that's not part of his makeup to do it for any other reason than genuine caring that he has.

"We have such good fortune to share all sides of him. The strategy side in the dugout, to the fun and games in the clubhouse, and really a guy who not only loves and respects the game, but those who work in it side by side with him."

Francona's father, Tito, was an All-Star in the big leagues during his 15-year career. Terry Francona grew up in the game and eventually played 10 seasons in the majors before changing his career path to coaching and managing.

There's no denying the respect and love Francona has for the game, and that was evident in 2010.

"People use the word 'lifer' and that can be kind of demeaning in a way because that means all he's done and all he knows is the game of baseball, and that's the furthest from the truth. You're talking about someone who is very intelligent, who can read people like nobody I have ever been around. He'll manage as long as he wants to," Farrell said.

"He's extremely talented," he added, "and he has a very clear ability to make people work and play for him."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.