Crucible of cancer forges stronger bond between John Farrell, Torey Lovullo

"I know he's watching every night," Torey Lovullo said of John Farrell, "and we talk about the game, but he has stepped back, and deserves a lot of credit for that. It's not easy, but he's fighting a different fight." AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

CLEVELAND -- It began here innocently enough nearly two months ago. Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell thought he had a stomach ache.

"He was complaining about stomach pain," Torey Lovullo said. "We were about to meet with Joe Torre, and he asked me, 'Hey did you eat the spread? I have a terrible stomach ache. I’ve got to leave and go into the training room. If I miss anything with Joe, I apologize.'"

Doctors determined that Farrell had a hernia, and on a Monday, the day after the Red Sox ended their series with the Indians, Farrell underwent surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. The next day, he rejoined the team in Miami, accompanied by Red Sox medical director Larry Ronan, and told reporters he thought he’d hurt himself tossing an equipment bag a few nights earlier in New York.

"He was staggering around, but he was OK," said Lovullo, who managed that night in his place.

The team played just two games in Miami, then returned home to Boston with an off-day Thursday. Lovullo went to Foxboro for that night’s NFL exhibition between the Patriots and Packers. He remembered thinking it odd Farrell texted him while he was at the game and said he needed to talk. It was around 11 o’clock when Lovullo, who had returned home from the game, sat down in the chair in the bedroom of his rented condo, a block away from Fenway Park, and called the Red Sox manager back.

"Hey, man," Farrell said to him. "I want to get in touch with you about what’s going to happen tomorrow. There’s going be a big announcement."

Lovullo remembered thinking, "Oh my God, what’s going on?"

"I’ve got cancer," Farrell said.

When doctors had opened Farrell up to repair his hernia, they had discovered another mass and had it biopsied. It came back positive for Burkitt lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

"God, I just sat there," Lovullo recalled here Saturday. "I didn’t say anything for about 10 seconds, and he said, 'Hey are you there? Are you OK?' In true John Farrell fashion he just said, 'Hey, I’m going to be OK. We’re going to make it through this and we’re going to come out the other end. We’re going to have a great year this year, we’re going to have a great year next year. There’s no other option.'"

Farrell’s voice did not waver as the two men kept talking. It would not be until the next afternoon, at his regularly scheduled pregame session with the media, that Lovullo saw Farrell well up.

"As we were walking through this whole thing that night, what we were going to do, he was laughing about losing his hair," Lovullo said, "and I said, 'Well, if yours goes, mine goes, too.' We were just connecting as friends would, through any type of crisis."


The first time they met? Well, that happened in the old, drafty Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. The date was Sept. 26, 1988. Torey Lovullo was 22, the same age as Mookie Betts, just a year out of UCLA, making his second major league start at second base for the Detroit Tigers. On the mound was John Farrell, a 25-year-old right-hander for the Indians winding down what had been a successful rookie season, one in which he would win 14 games. It would be the only time Lovullo and Farrell faced each other on a ballfield.

"I remember sitting in on the scouting report," Lovullo said, "and they said he had a hard, heavy fastball and couldn’t command it very well to the glove side, which meant for a left-handed batter you could get out over the plate and do your work. He had like a 93-, 94-mph fastball. I remember telling myself after seeing it, 'Make sure it’s elevated because you can hit it if it’s elevated.' It was a fastball up, out over the plate. I yanked it right down the first-base line. Hit it right over the first-base bag."

Lovullo wound up at third with his first major league triple. It would also be his last. When the next batter hit a comebacker to the mound, Farrell cut down Lovullo at the plate.

"How funny is that," Lovullo said, "getting thrown out? I knew a friendship would ensue and I wanted to help him out and get off the bases. We both did our job. I got a hit, and he got me out on the bases."

The two were teammates on the Angels for one season, in 1993. Farrell was barely hanging on after two Tommy John surgeries. "He was trying to reinvent himself," Lovullo said. Lovullo had become a fringe player, failing to fulfill the forecast of his first manager, Sparky Anderson, who in perhaps his most famous misreading of a prospect’s talents, had boasted: "Torey Lovullo, there’s nothing he can’t do."

Lovullo and Farrell became friends. "You kind of gravitate to people you have things in common with," Lovullo said. "I respected him. He was a very hard-working, very professional pitcher. I respected his ability. I enjoyed his sense of humor. He was very light-hearted. He was very intelligent."

Farrell could sound like "an Einstein" one moment, and "then sit down and have a conversation with a Bazooka Joe like me," Lovullo said, likening himself to the old comic-strip character. "It was very impressive.

"If I was doing the USA Today crossword, I knew he’d be racing through and I could cheat off of his. He was good at everything. You played him in cards, he was good at cards. Play him in basketball, and even if he hadn’t played in 10 years he was good at basketball. I respected the way he did business. He was highly intelligent, yet made things very personal and easy."

They played together again, in 1995, in minor league Buffalo, and drew closer, and six years later, first Lovullo, then Farrell, took jobs with the Cleveland Indians. Farrell left Oklahoma State, where he was coaching, to become director of player development. He gave Lovullo his first minor league managing job as skipper of the Columbus Red Stixx in the Class A South Atlantic League. Lovullo’s salary: $32,000 a year. He had told Farrell he wanted to learn from the bottom up.

Lovullo managed in A-ball three years, then Double-A and Triple-A, Farrell promoting him each time. Even at the beginning in Columbus, Ohio, Lovullo said, he’d invite Farrell to come out and throw batting practice. Farrell had a way, Lovullo said, of connecting with the players.

"He was an incredible farm director," he said. "He knew how to manage people."

The friendship deepened and became more personal. When Lovullo was going through a divorce, Farrell lent a sympathetic ear. When Lovullo’s father, Sam, a successful TV producer ["HeeHaw"], became seriously ill, Farrell admonished him that his father took priority. Farrell had already lost his own father, Tom, a New Jersey lobsterman, a few years before. Lovullo asked him one day if there was anything he wished he had done while his father was still alive.

"I would have written my dad a letter," Farrell told him, "telling him how much he means to me."

Lovullo listened. "On a plane trip to L.A.," he said, "I wrote a letter to my dad. When you have those types of intimate conversations, you do nothing but grow closer. That’s what happened."

When Farrell became manager of the Blue Jays in 2011, he added Lovullo to his staff. When he moved on to Boston two seasons later, Lovullo came along. They won a World Series together in 2013, then endured a last-place finish a year later. But nothing prepared either man for that late-night phone call in August.


It came to him, Lovullo said, not long after he hung up the phone after his friend told him he had cancer. He would be managing in Farrell’s place, but that was different from taking his place.

"I didn’t sleep that night, maybe three hours total, on and off," he said. "I just said, ‘He’s going to be fine. I kept telling myself that I’m going to be as connected to him as I possibly can. I don’t want to utilize his manager’s space because everything still belongs to him as manager of the Boston Red Sox.

"I just thought that the manager’s office is sacred. Men work very hard to sit in that chair and I didn’t deserve it. I wasn’t worthy to sit in the same chair as him because of the fight he was fighting and the dues he paid to get in that seat. I didn’t come close to deserving that space."

Lovullo remained true to his vow. He dressed in the coaches’ room at home and on the road. He never conducted a media session in the manager’s office, choosing to do so either in the dugout or an interview room or in a hallway outside the clubhouse.

The day after Farrell broke the news of his cancer to Lovullo, he called a meeting in the Sox clubhouse. Only uniformed players and staff were present.

"John was the only one who spoke," Lovullo said. "He got up and composed himself and said, 'This is where I’m at, this is what I have, this is what I’m going to do to get better, and it’s a process that’s going to require me to step away from the team until the season is over. Torey’s going to be taking over on an interim basis, but things aren’t going to change.'"

Lovullo remembers looking at the faces as Farrell spoke. "Everybody had the same look I had the night before," he said. "Mouths open, just kind of in shock."

A few days later, another clubhouse meeting, and a shock of another kind. The Red Sox were hiring David Dombrowski as the team’s president of baseball operations. Ben Cherington, the incumbent general manager who had been with the team longer than any of its current players and had known most of them almost from the day they arrived, was stepping down. Listening to club president Sam Kennedy and assistant GM Mike Hazen breaking the news, Lovullo decided the team needed to hear from him, too. A message, he said, "from the dugout level."

Emotionally, he was still devastated. He’d called his wife, Kristen, a couple of times in tears. "I’m not ready for all of this," he had said. "She let me cry without judgment. She was a rock for me."

Managing those first few games, Lovullo said, he must have thought about Farrell a couple of hundred times a night. They had talked. "Why me?" Farrell had asked. "Why you?" Lovullo had asked in return. "The question, I think, so many cancer patients ask about this vicious disease."

But in this moment, he had clarity about what he needed to do.

"These guys didn’t know what’s going on at the dugout level," he said. "I said, 'This is it. Here’s my outline, you guys. We’re still a team. We still have each other to build around. Here are my expectations, and I have three of them. We’re here to win every game. We’re here getting evaluated, including me. We all have the same type of job to do every day, and then nothing changes. We know who we are. We’re the Boston Red Sox and that’s never going to change.'"

If this was his first test of managing at the big league level, Lovullo had passed.

"I think that gave them a little closure to the moment. Maybe it let us turn the page, if not necessarily the whole chapter. Get ready for tomorrow."


Last Thursday at Massachusetts General Hospital, 51 days after he had texted Torey Lovullo at the Patriots game, John Farrell completed his final course of chemotherapy. With a couple more weeks left of recovery, he will have gone through three 21-day cycles of chemotherapy. He has suffered severe headaches, endured crippling bouts of nausea, lost a full head of hair (Lovullo shaved his off) and felt the strength-sapping effect of the toxic chemicals intended to cure him. In the coming weeks, there will be follow-up visits to the hospital to test whether the chemo has done its intended work. In the meantime, he told a friend, "it was time to rebuild."

When the team was home, Lovullo had gone to MGH and found Farrell sitting up in his hospital bed, tubes connected to a port, the entry point for the chemo.

"I’d go, 'How you doing?' and he’d say, 'I’m doing fine, I’ll see you a little later,'" Lovullo said. "I’m thinking to myself, 'See you later? Are you crazy? You’re going to be asleep.'

"But with just a couple of exceptions, he did show up at the ballpark. That showed me how strong he was. He’d have treatment and walk right into the middle of a meeting and he’d be like, 'How we doing?' That served as an inspiration to me. It’s unreal he was with us."

Farrell mostly stayed out of sight at Fenway. He came out to say hello to Terry Francona or Brian Cashman and a handful of other visiting friends but otherwise stayed in his office or the coaches’ office.

"It was hard for him, but he stepped completely back and let us do our job. He’d contributed when he felt the need to contribute and was always involved with anything that goes on, but I think he realized he’s fighting a fight and has to take care of himself first."

Most every day when the team has been on the road, Lovullo has called or texted or used FaceTime. He feels badly about the couple of days he missed.

"I’ll say, 'This is what’s going on. This is what’s happening with Dustin [Pedroia], David [Ortiz], some guys he’s had a personal connection with for a long time. ‘Buch [Clay Buchholz] threw a bullpen, he looks good, the ball’s sizzling out of his hand.' Just give him a snapshot of what’s happening every single day.

"I know he’s watching every night, and we talk about the game, but he has stepped back and deserves a lot of credit for that. It’s not easy, but he’s fighting a different fight."


Torey Lovullo has interviewed six times to be a major league manager. The first interview was with the Dodgers. He also interviewed with the Indians and Red Sox, then had three interviews last year with the Rangers and Twins and Astros. He has been passed over each time.

Given a chance with the Red Sox because of the illness of his friend, Lovullo has flourished. His first night, the Sox routed the Mariners, 15-1. Prior to Saturday night’s game against the Indians, they were 28-18, a .609 winning percentage exceeded by only the Rangers and Blue Jays.

"We weren’t eliminated until there were seven days left in the season," he said. "If you had told me that two months ago, I would have said you were crazy. We played till the final week of [the] season and we weren’t eliminated. I’m really proud of that."

The team’s success has marked Lovullo as a prime candidate for any jobs that open this winter. Some have wondered whether new club president Dombrowski might opt for Lovullo over Farrell; Dombrowski’s response has been to say Farrell’s health is the team’s primary concern and has gone no further.

Lovullo’s expectation is that Farrell will be back. The manager has told friends he expects to be back, too.

"This is John’s team," he said. "John is the manager of the team. He’s got to get healthy. He’s going to come back. This is going to be his team. That’s how I’ve viewed it.

"The reality is we have a lot of work to do as an organization to get back to where we need to next year, and getting John healthy is one key part of that. That eliminates any discomfort for anybody in the clubhouse. We all know those are the guidelines and they’re not changing."

This is also true, Lovullo said. "Yeah, I do want to manage," he said.

Lovullo, who has a year left on his contract with the Sox, has yet to sit down with Dombrowski on whether the club will allow him to interview for other jobs while Farrell’s health remains unresolved. "I’m sure we’ll connect once the season is over," he said.

"I feel I have a complete résumé," he said, "but it’s out of my hands. I’ve learned a lot sitting in this position. I’ve learned to respect the position a little more. If it’s the time and the right place, I’m ready to take the next challenge and open the next chapter.

"But I don’t have a say in all of that. That all depends on what is going on elsewhere. But I love the Boston Red Sox. I love the opportunity they’ve given me and created for all of us. We want to win another world championship. That’s what’s going on."