Commentary

Francona not a fit for Cubs' opening

With many familiar faces around him, Epstein should find a fresh one to lead the Cubs

Updated: November 11, 2011, 11:49 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- As the Chicago Cubs look for their new manager in a most public way, Terry Francona is lingering around the edges, a candidate without a photo op.

Francona, the deposed Red Sox manager, seems like a great fit to some (Two World Series!) and a terrible fit to others (Fried chicken! Beer! Chaos!). As the Cubs' new brain trust trots out candidates for public display, those intimately familiar with his work won't say Francona is a candidate at all. The mystery is appealing.

Francona is a very good manager. He certainly would be an upgrade over the previous managers they've had on the North Side. But it certainly seems the next Cubs manager is going to be one of the four candidates who went through an unusually public interview process the past two weeks: Pete Mackanin, Dale Sveum, Mike Maddux and Sandy Alomar Jr.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said the field "quite probably" is set at four. So where does that leave Francona?

"Certainly there are conversations that have gone on with Theo [Epstein] and Tito," Hoyer said after Alomar's interview Friday at Wrigley Field. "They've had a great relationship for a long time, and I think I'd let Theo expand on those conversations. He's the one who had them. He's the one who had the GM/manager relationship with him for a long time."

Of course, Epstein was long gone by then. But those weren't exactly glowing words for Francona's candidacy. All Hoyer needed to finish the job was a "vote of confidence."

So is it wrong to exclude Francona, the two-time World Series-winning skipper?

Well, Epstein said at his introductory news conference that he himself needed a fresh start for clarity and vision. That sounded like a no to Francona.

Then, a week later, when he introduced his top two lieutenants, former Red Sox co-workers Hoyer and Jason McLeod, he said you can't start over with a new team without some familiar faces. So, was that a yes to Francona?

He's also said he doesn't want to recreate the Red Sox organization in Chicago -- there's another no -- and that if he were to consider Francona, the manager wouldn't need an interview -- so that's a maybe.

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTheo Epstein and Terry Francona have had many past successes as a collaborative combination.

These messages could be seen as conflicting, but I don't believe Francona is a serious candidate for this opening, and I don't think he should be.

The Epstein-led front office seems re-energized by this task -- Hoyer said it was "intoxicating," and he wasn't talking about the Old Style -- and the executives have led spirited, unorthodox interviews that the candidates seem to have enjoyed.

Now that Theo's inner baseball circle is sealed -- Jim Hendry holdover Randy Bush included -- a new face at the helm of the team seems like it would be part of the new Cubs Way. A fresh face would bring innovation, creativity and a spark. Francona brings familiarity. He's also used to managing a World Series competitor. This team is trying to catch the Pirates.

So we're left to the final four. Earlier in the week, after hearing him speak, I thought Maddux was the guy. But as expected, Alomar's media availability went great as well. His résumé needs little introduction.

No offense to Mackanin and Sveum, but I think name-brands Maddux and Alomar are the clear favorites.

Alomar, wearing a black suit, purple and black striped shirt, and purple paisley tie, detailed how in-depth the Cubs' interview process is. During the game-simulation test, he said, they give candidates specific situations and show the results of the choices. You know who is warming up in the bullpen, who is hot on your bench.

"It's kind of like when you see Jon Gruden do it with the NFL quarterbacks, but more thorough," he said. "It puts you in a managerial position, and how to make decisions fast. I thought it was fun."

Alomar, 45, who made his major league debut in 1988 and retired in 2007, gives off a regal baseball presence. He is baseball royalty, the son of Sandy and the brother of Roberto. Like a lot of catchers, he was a manager in waiting the day he put on the tools of ignorance.

He said he got serious about managing as a career in 2001, his first of three tours with the White Sox. He has coached for only four years and is slated to be the bench coach of the Cleveland Indians, where he made his name as a player. Alomar was asked why he is the best candidate for the job.

"I didn't say I was the best candidate for the job," he said to mild laughter. But then he got serious.

He didn't mention any individual accomplishments, such as six All-Star Games. He talked about the good teams he was on, the postseasons he played in, the difficulties he faced and, most importantly, the people around him.

"I think I bring a lot of things to the table that maybe some other guys don't bring, in regard to being a player," he said. "Going through injuries in the past, spending a lot of time in the minor leagues as a player, playing in the postseason, going to the World Series, playing for 10 different managers. All of them participated in the postseason, seven of them went to the World Series and three of them won. I played for winning people all of my career."

Alomar said he treats people how he wants to be treated. He believes in all the rituals of baseball. He is the perfect candidate to lead a team that will blend old and new as it tries to find an identity. Like Maddux, he was asked how he would handle Carlos Zambrano, and he expressed an understanding of the difficulties of melding youthful passion from another country to playing in the business-like major leagues.

He also joked that if all else failed, he'd handle Zambrano with "a stun gun."

Alomar's presence could be his best asset to manage a team in flux.

Respect became a problem in the Cubs' clubhouse this past year. Not as big a problem as starting pitching depth or defense or, well, every other facet of the game, but it was evident that the players tuned out Mike Quade early and didn't think much of his stewardship as the S.S. Cubbie sank like a stone.

I don't think the charismatic Alomar would have that problem.

[+] EnlargeMike Maddux
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezLike successful San Diego skipper Bud Black, Mike Maddux cut his teeth as a pitching coach -- an attribute that might appeal to the Cubs' new front office.

I could rave about Alomar all day. He's a born manager with innate skills at relating people. Unlike Maddux, he didn't look like he wanted to blaze a fastball between the eyes of his inquisitors. But he's known for being feisty.

While Maddux expressed concern about moving his wife and two college-age daughters from Texas, Alomar lives a few miles away in Bucktown, not far from Ozzie Guillen and around the corner from this reporter's humble abode. He even sends his 7-year-old daughter to a well-regarded public elementary school near Wrigley Field.

But I'm still not sure whether Alomar, also a candidate for the Boston job, eclipsed Maddux as the front-runner.

The real "Moneyball" approach by front offices has to do with finding market inefficiencies and capitalizing on them. That's not very easy anymore (not that it ever was), thanks to the explosion of statistical analysis. But Hoyer seems to have found one for managers: former pitching coaches. Hoyer inherited Bud Black, pitching coach Darren Balsley and bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds when he took over the GM job after the 2009 season. He liked that three-headed monster. Former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell is also the manager of the Blue Jays.

"Right now you have Bud Black and John Ferrell as excellent managers who were pitching coaches, and I think that trend is something you'll probably see continuing down the road," Hoyer said.

Speaking of that type of decision-making, I asked Alomar the "sabermetric" question. I figured he would soft-shoe around it and say numbers are important somehow, but he really spoke his mind. I loved his answer, which one veteran reporter translated as: Bleep that stuff.

"That helps," he said of advanced statistics. "But it doesn't tell you the whole story. It doesn't tell you the whole story in the game. There's also a lot of gut-feeling decisions you've got to make. If there's a stat you think is a flashy number that says, 'This guy is doing very good against the other guy,' you can use that during the game in a key situation, yes.

"But we cannot just depend on stats alone. You've got to depend on many other things that come before that. I don't like to become a fantasy manager. I want players to be able to manage themselves. The goal for a good manager is to have players who can manage themselves on the field and be team baseball players, not fantasy baseball players."

Boom!

In truth, Epstein and his crew feel the same way, to a degree. Computers don't run the game. Maddux gave a similar response, although certainly more measured.

Hoyer said the Cubs' executives probably are in the top of the "seventh inning," as far as the decision-making process goes. There will be follow-up questions to the candidates, maybe even more face-to-face interviews.

The only thing I'm sure about right now is that if the Cubs choose between Maddux and Alomar, they will win. It's turning into quite a winning streak for a 91-loss team.

Does anyone remember how "Go Cubs Go" goes?

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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