“What I wrote is just an opinion,” I’d offer.
“Well, not having information hasn’t prevented you from having an opinion” was a familiar retort from Francona.
Fortunately, he didn’t carry a grudge. I enjoyed the give-and-takes with the Sox skipper during his successful eight years (five playoffs, two championships) in the corner office on Yawkey Way. He was a baseball lifer, almost as old as I. He told great stories and he was funny. I believed that if we’d had different jobs, or more time together, we’d have gotten along great.
I was right. The former Sox manager and I spent the last year writing Francona: The Red Sox Years, which hits bookshelves Tuesday. The project was thoroughly collaborative, exhausting, and hilarious.
It all started two days after Francona was fired on September 30, 2011. I sent the ex-manager an e-mail, explaining that my literary agent, David Black — who had brokered the best-selling Joe Torre book with Sports Illustrated
’s Tom Verducci in 2008 — had multiple publishers interested in a Francona book. He responded quickly, said he wasn’t comfortable with the idea, but agreed to meet with David and me to discuss the prospect.
In an effort to advance my case, I sent Terry (friends call him “Tito” but we weren’t there yet) a copy of Reversing the Curse, a book I wrote about his first season in the Fenway dugout — the magical year when the Red Sox snapped an 86-year championship drought and won the World Series. “Check this out,” I said. “This is an example of how I’d write the narrative of your years here. If we did your book together, you’d tell me the background of everything that happened, I’d write the story, and you’d have editorial control over manuscript.”
A couple of weeks after sending Francona my book about the 2004 season, I called him to ask what he thought.
“It was OK,” he said. “But there was some stuff in there that really bothered me.”
There I was . . . back in the woodshed, getting reprimanded by the manager.
“You said I was starry-eyed when I took over the Red Sox! I was never starry-eyed! And that stuff about leaving Pedro in the game too long — you had that all wrong! You didn’t have all the facts.”
Hmmm. This did not sound like somebody who was going to be my coauthor. “OK, we can talk about that stuff,” I offered. “But does this disqualify me from working with you on your book?”
“No,” he said. “I just had to get that stuff off my chest.”
Francona decided he wanted to do a book, to put a ribbon on his eight years in Boston. A couple of weeks and several meetings later, we worked up a proposal and drove to New York to meet with publishers. Together. The ex-manager picked me up at my home in Newton. As I tossed my bag into the back seat of his Cadillac Escalade, he announced, “Our first stop is going to be someplace where we can get these windows tinted so nobody’ll see me driving you around.”
You learn a lot about somebody in a four-hour drive from Boston to Manhattan. I was finally able to get Francona to talk about growing up as the son of a major league ballplayer. Our roles changed, and he stopped being the protective manager. He was able to tell me what he really thought of Manny Ramirez, Josh Beckett, and chicken and beer. He explained how card games played at 35,000 feet galvanized the 2004 world champion Red Sox.
A lot of people who follow the Sox were surprised when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced our book deal in December 2011.
“That’s an odd pairing,” sniffed Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino during one of our conversations.
“I can’t believe you guys are doing a book together,” Pam Kenn, Red Sox director of media relations, told me.
“Why are you doing your book with that [expletive]?” former Sox pitcher Curt Schilling asked Terry.
Terry Francona is most comfortable in big league clubhouses where he can swap stories, play cards, and spit tobacco juice into plastic foam cups. He loves the baseball life and all of its trappings: Hit, run, throw, spit, scratch, repeat. The antiquated and sometimes elitist world of publishing was completely foreign to him, but Terry is a friendly soul with abundant curiosity. When Terry and I sat down with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editor Susan Canavan, he wanted to know all about her job.
“What is it you do?” he asked.
“Well, I’m the senior executive editor of our adult trade division,” said Susan.
“Adult? You mean, like, porn?” he said with a chuckle.
Everybody laughed. Then Susan explained her role in the sculpting of his story.
Our writing process was simple and structured. Terry and I would meet, usually in a hotel coffee shop or restaurant. I’d record a couple of hours of conversation, then disappear for a few weeks to write. When a chapter was finished, I’d e-mail it to Terry, and he’d call back with corrections, clarifications, and occasionally a deletion.
“Do we have to call Heathcliff Slocumb ‘useless’?” he’d say. “Let’s take that out.”
“I know you don’t like Schill, but we’re not going to call him a blowhard in my book.”
Fine. Schill is not a blowhard. Not in this book, anyway. We agreed it would be good to soften my wise-guy commentary and let Terry’s voice emerge. As the process unfolded, the manager became increasingly engaged. He stopped seeing me as the enemy. He let me in.
In the early months, we usually met in the coffee shop of the Courtyard Marriott near Coolidge Corner where Terry lived throughout the 2011 season. When he went to work as a baseball analyst for ESPN, he was a little harder to find. Sometimes he’d come to Boston. Sometimes I’d drive to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. One time we met in the middle: the Charlton rest stop off the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Our meeting in Charlton occurred in April 2012, when the Bobby Valentine Red Sox were already in free fall. As I set up my tape recorder and notepads at a booth in the McDonald’s, I was approached by several Sox fans who wanted to chat about the state of the franchise. This made me uncomfortable. It was too public. It felt as if there might be a total fan frenzy when turnpike drivers spotted Terry. I called to warn him.
“Tito, this might be a little tricky here at McDonald’s,” I told him. “There are a lot of fans around. We might have to do this interview in your car.”
“No way,” said Terry. “We’re already two guys meeting at a rest stop. We’re not going to be two guys in a car for two hours!”
“Got it,” I said.
Fortunately, I found a private boardroom next to the rest stop’s sunglasses seller. It was one of our better interview sessions.
When Terry hit the road with ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball crew, we managed to connect at hotels in New York, Detroit, Chicago, and San Francisco. He seemed to enjoy the process more every month. In July and August, he started calling me, offering new stories and new people for me to interview. By the end of the baseball season, he was ordering my lunch.
“I’ll have an iced tea and a chicken salad,” Terry would tell the waiter. Then he’d point at me and say, “And this guy will have a lobster roll.”
He was happy with the finished product.
“I’ll deny this if you ever repeat it to anyone, but you’re actually a pretty good writer,” Terry told me.
Here’s what he wrote in the book’s acknowledgments, on Page 346: “If you had told me on September 1, 2011, that by November of 2011, I would be jobless and writing a book with Dan Shaughnessy, I would have told you . . . that this would happen as soon as a 200-pound hog jumps out of my ass.”
Wish I could write like that.
Dan Shaughnessy is an award-winning Globe sports columnist and author of 12 books. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.
Francona: The Red Sox Years
will be published on Tuesday by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Also on Tuesday, read the Globe’s review of Shaughnessy’s book in the G section.