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Tuesday, February 24, 2004
Pressure-cooker awaits Francona

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

It's hard to know whether to envy Terry Francona or pity him.

On the one hand, Francona takes over an enormously talented Boston Red Sox team which fell just shy of the World Series last October, then bettered itself with the additions of Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke during the offseason.

On the other hand, Francona faces incredible expectations and just a few obstacles.

For the first time that anyone can remember, the Red Sox are actually favored by most Las Vegas oddsmakers to win the World Series. Not the division, or the pennant. The Whole Thing.

Terry Francona
Terry Francona is learning how to relate to his players.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Francona will merely be expected to do what so many of his predecessors couldn't do: win a championship.

Think that isn't tantamount to having a bull's-eye placed on your back? Never has so much been expected from a Red Sox team. Consequently, never has the pressure been so palpable.

Francona might well manage the Red Sox to a first-place finish and/or a 100-win season only to have his team bounced in the postseason, the same fate suffered by the Oakland A's in recent Octobers. That would be his misfortune, since anything short of winning the pennant will be regarded as failure in New England.

Francona has just three seasons of major league managerial experience, and hasn't managed in the big leagues since the final weekend of the 2000 season. But there will be no probationary period, or time to adjust to a new city, new club or new league.

A good amount of skepticism awaits Francona. The Red Sox could have hired someone with more experience or a higher profile. Instead, won over by Francona's preparation, communication skills and competitiveness, they chose someone who has never posted a winning record as a major league manager.

Now, fairly or not, he'll be expected to validate the judgement of the front office and ownership.

Expectations aren't all that Francona will have to overcome.

After a frenetic offseason that saw the Red Sox do the romance dance with Alex Rodriguez for several weeks, Francona inherits a roster not only well-stocked but also slightly unnerved.

Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra -- albeit, through his agent -- registered his unhappiness with the process, claiming that the Sox showed him no loyalty in trying to deal for Rodriguez.

Forget that Garciaparra neglected to mention that the Sox had twice made contract extension offers, both of which he rejected out of hand. Garciaparra's future with the Sox -- if, indeed, one exists -- will be determined by ownership and GM Theo Epstein.

Boston's Finest
The Red Sox's projected lineup in 2004:

Batting order
Johnny Damon, CF
Bill Mueller, 3B
Nomar Garciaparra, SS
Manny Ramirez, LF
David Ortiz, DH
Kevin Millar, 1B
Trot Nixon, RF
Jason Varitek, C
Pokey Reese, 2B

Rotation
Pedro Martinez, RHP
Curt Schilling, RHP
Derek Lowe, RHP
Tim Wakefield, RHP
Byung-Hyun Kim, RHP

Closer
Keith Foulke, RHP

But either way, Francona must deal with the fallout. If Garciaparra isn't signed to a new deal before the start of the season, how will his uncertain status affect him on the field?

"Nomar is such a creature of habit,'' said an executive with another team, "that I wonder how he'll deal with all of this. He's so precise, so locked into routine, that I think all this unsettled contract business could weigh on him.''

The same might be said of enigmatic slugger Manny Ramirez, who, after being placed on waivers by the Sox, was offered as part of the package to obtain Rodriguez.

However, most agree that Ramirez is unlikely to change his approach -- such as it is.

"I wonder,'' said another executive, "whether any of this matters at all to Manny. He operates in his own little world. I don't think there will be much fallout with Manny. He'll be the same guy he's always been.''

Beyond possible discord surrounding his two most valuable position players, Francona will oversee a clubhouse in which at least five central figures are in the final years of their existing contracts -- Garciaparra, starting pitchers Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, catcher Jason Varitek and DH David Ortiz.

Such a scenario could provide extra motivation for the players in question. Or, conversely, the uncertainty could create an unsettled clubhouse, one where personal agendas and egos subvert the team concept.

That's particularly dangerous for Francona, who comes to Boston with a well-earned reputation as a player's manager.

Finally, there's the intense scrutiny that Francona is certain to face from the Boston media.

Particularly after their ALCS heartbreak and the subsequent moves -- and non-moves -- that helped extend the baseball season another two months, interest in the Red Sox has never been higher.

As many as six newspapers regularly travel with the Red Sox. At home, that number is nearly tripled. And that doesn't begin to account for the countless TV stations which chronicle the team and the ubiquitous talk radio presence.

Nomar is such a creature of habit that I wonder how he'll deal with all of this. He's so precise, so locked into routine, that I think all this unsettled contract business could weigh on him.
An executive with another team on Nomar Garciaparra

Jimy Williams, who managed the Red Sox from 1997 through 2001, welcomed his media obligations the way one anticipates root canal work. Grady Little was somewhat more comfortable, but sometimes bristled at the relentless second-guessing.

Having managed in Philadelphia, Francona is somewhat familiar with the demands of working in a big Eastern media market. But while the Phillies had fallen behind the Eagles and 76ers in fan interest, Boston's all-consuming interest (obsession?) in the Sox is unmatched.

To be sure, there are worse situations in which to manage. Francona could be managing a meager payroll -- with the talent to match. Instead, he has three All-Star starters, a top-notch closer and an offense which last season led the majors in runs scored. Fan support is legendary and ownership is committed to ending the long title drought.

Still, starting this spring, Francona will have his hands full. The honeymoon will end with the first three-game losing streak.

How Francona handles it all -- the players, the fans, the media -- will be one of the many fascinating subplots to a season which, good or bad, figures to be unlike any other in Red Sox history.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.