Francona becomes voice of retro Sox

NEW YORK -- It wasn't so long ago that the Red Sox front office resembled a banana republic, a comparison at the time that insulted every banana republic around the globe. Owning the Red Sox didn't seem to be enough for John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner. The trio that took over the team from the Yawkey dynasty in 2002 didn't just want to sign the checks, but needed to be seen, heard, felt.

So tickled to own a team, they wanted to manage it, too. In 2003, Henry, in particular, hounded Grady Little, mocking his on-field moves until the very bitter end, when Aaron Boone's 11th-inning home run ended the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium and Little's tenure in Boston.

The next year, even when the Red Sox would be redeemed with a World Series title, members of the Red Sox front office at times seemed less than enamored with their title-winning new manager, Terry Francona. Some of the front-office underlings, taken with their own cleverness, giggled at the nickname "Fran-coma" when a Francona in-game move backfired.

In the front-office background, too, there was drama, and even general manager Theo Epstein did not seem to be immune. The subtext for the first three years of his regime was whether Epstein would be allowed to be the unencumbered general manager, or if the mercurial Lucchino couldn't resist tinkering.

Henry, Werner and Lucchino needed validation for their collective erudition. In 2005 -- in apparent response to Michael Lewis' runaway bestseller "Moneyball" -- they commissioned a journalist, presumably for posterity, to chronicle their daily routines, management style and approach to the business of baseball, a behind-the-scenes, special features companion disc to the DVD that was the regular season.

The results were -- despite the World Series ring, increased visibility and wild popularity -- predictably disastrous. Ownership's desire to receive credit -- that great destroyer of harmony -- overshadowed or at least rivaled the events on the field. And even during three seasons of marvelous baseball, the Red Sox front-office saga gained as much traction as the team did in the American League standings.

The resulting book, Seth Mnookin's "Feeding the Monster," was not "Moneyball," a measured and elevated dissection of a revelatory approach to a hundred-year-old game. Rather, the book made the Red Sox seem less erudite and more "The Real World," a baseball version of "Melrose Place," full of fractures and gossip. Private power struggles became public, and smart men who made fortunes in other industries came off as attention-seeking and amateurish.

Personally, I think he's gotten more comfortable every year. Any time you have this job, in this city, it takes awhile to learn the constituency and the landscape. The hard part is dealing with it.

---- Theo Epstein on Terry Francona

Surrounded by leaks, Epstein quit in a huff during stalled contract negotiations following the 2005 season, only to return presumably with more autonomy and a desire to be less visible.

Since their front-office nadir in '05, these Red Sox seem more buttoned-down, more grown-up, and -- at least in the daily operation of the franchise -- less reality TV. They leave the swinging to their hitters, the trades to the general manager, and virtually all of the talking to the manager. The owners sign the checks, and the Red Sox are in first place.

In its sixth year, this Red Sox front office seems to have gone retro, which is no small thing during an era in which the cult of the front office -- the general manager and ownership especially -- has turned 100 years of baseball management upside down. In a throwback role, Francona is now the public face of the front office. Epstein, who refers to himself as "available, but only if someone needs me," speaks of no longer wanting to be part of what he calls "the narrative," that daily soap opera fueled by the voracious Boston newspaper/talk radio/television machine in which baseball is only part of the game. For the GM, it all seems to have gotten old very fast.

"Being a manager in Boston is not just the game," Francona says hours before the Red Sox lost to the Yankees, 5-3 at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night. "It's the other things that can derail you. I'd like to think I'm more relaxed, but I think that comes from being comfortable around your team. The front office? Well, this is my fourth year. There's trust both ways. They know me. I know them. And I think we feel comfortable enough with each other now so … Theo and I can disagree, yell at each other and the next day it's all forgotten."

Baseball insiders still might loathe Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, the "Moneyball" protagonist, but anyone wondering how the baseball front office became so important over the past decade and a half can thank Beane's mentor, Sandy Alderson. It was Alderson who decided that -- John McGraw, Miller Huggins and Casey Stengel notwithstanding -- the manager wasn't the most important voice in an organization, after all. The credit should go to the front office. It was the general manager, not the manager, who drafted players, the general manager who traded players. And since it was the GM who selected players, what sense did it make for the manager to decide the type of style a team would play? Alderson even reasoned that such a structure was counterintuitive in an industry in which the manager position changed so often.

"We're not hiring you for your philosophy," Alderson told Art Howe during his interview with the A's in 1996. "We're hiring you to make sure you fit ours."

And based on their front-office philosophy, the A's have been taking pitches ever since.

Alderson showed so much contempt for the manager that he compared the position to a middle manager. Imagine Sparky Anderson as a neutered character from "Office Space." Alderson referred to the big, outsized managers once historically the face of the front office -- men like Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa -- as "dinosaurs."

The GMs were now the stars of the organizations, and the old baseball men howled. "Who knew the GM of the '82 Cardinals?" they would grumble. "But you knew Whitey Herzog."

And the money followed. Following the success of "Moneyball," Beane not only gained an equity stake in the A's but also was commanding $35,000 per corporate speaking engagement. Brian Cashman now earns nearly $2 million per season in salary. General managers are earning such unprecedented sums that even the commissioner, Bud Selig, asked clubs to curb spending on a position that was once anonymous.

Within that framework Henry, Lucchino and Werner came to power. Little didn't follow the plan and was canned. Francona battled hard to win a raise, even after being the first manager since World War I to win a title in Boston. With the exception of Angels manager Mike Scioscia, the new managers in the game were overshadowed by the Beanes, (J.P.) Ricciardis, Epsteins, and (Pat) Gillicks. Managers just made sure the trains ran on time.

And the press followed. Once, when the A's ran off another of their customary second-half hot streaks, Ken Macha, the manager, boiled at a story in USA Today that apparently bypassed his ability to lead men. The headline -- "Oakland's Beane has done it again" -- sent him frothing.

Nearing a division title, the Red Sox have at least partially rejected the old Alderson document and let Francona be an old-school manager. The voices are quieter upstairs. Epstein, now married with a child on the way, says he still loves the job without the sideshow. Francona, Epstein says, is "great" at handling the press and his clubhouse, and in a departure, the Red Sox finally are speaking with one voice.

"Personally, I think he's gotten more comfortable every year," Epstein said of Francona. "Any time you have this job, in this city, it takes awhile to learn the constituency and the landscape. The hard part is dealing with it. You actually need a real strategy, regardless of your strengths and weaknesses as a manager."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.