Multi-talented Farrell finds home in Toronto
From lobster business to pitching coach, skipper's done it all
When he left his father's lobster business in Monmouth Beach, N.J., in 1980 and headed to Oklahoma State, all John Farrell knew was that he loved baseball and that he wanted to pitch in the big leagues.
"He is one of those rare people who could have done anything in the game," his former boss, Mark Shapiro said. " Anything, anywhere, " Blue Jays coach and teacher extraordinaire Brian Butterfield said. "General manager, Commissioner ... anything. You can't be taught what John Farrell has -- presence, integrity and the best people skills you'll ever meet."
Farrell was so good for a very good Oklahoma State team that he was drafted in the second round in 1984 by the Indians. He cruised through the Minors -- appropriately, as the son of a lobsterman, he pitched for the Maine Guides -- and by 1987 was in the Major Leagues. A year later, he won 14 games for an Indians team that was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated preseason issue. Arm problems cost him the 1991 and '92 seasons, and by the time he retired in '96, he was only able to start five games in three years.
So Farrell went back and got his degree at Oklahoma State, and coached there until Shapiro lured him to Cleveland in 2001 as farm director.
"There may never be anyone better at that job," said Red Sox VP of player development Mike Hazen, who was mentored by Farrell.
Then it was on to Boston as pitching coach in 2007, a World Series ring and respect earned from everyone in that organization -- from clubhouse kids to ownership, and especially pitchers.
"All you have to do is meet his three sons to know what John stands for," Curt Schilling once said.
Jeremy is hitting .417 with a 1.023 OPS for the Pirates' Double-A Altoona club, even if he was robbed of a homer this week by one of his father's favorites, rehabbing Grady Sizemore. Shane is a senior starting pitcher for Marshall, and Luke is a sophomore and Northwestern's No. 1 starter.
People skills. Farrell once said, "One has to treat every pitcher on a staff the way one treats his children -- with the understanding and appreciation that everyone is different."
Farrell had been on search lists for different general manager jobs, and feelers were constantly thrown out about working in other front offices.
"What I had never done on any level was manage, and it was something I was very interested in doing," Farrell said.
He was approached by a couple of teams about their jobs, but when he essentially was offered the Pittsburgh position, he felt an obligation to honor his contract with the Red Sox.
On the last day of the 2010 season, Terry Francona, the Red Sox players and most of the front office realized it was John's time to move forward and manage.
"It's not like I have a managerial resume," Farrell said that day. "We'll see what happens."
Ironically, it was suggested in the Boston clubhouse that October afternoon that Toronto seemed like a perfect fit, with its young pitching and some very talented young players.
"When [Blue Jays GM] Alex [Anthopoulos] called and we met with [team president] Paul Beeston, it seemed as if it really was the right place at the right time," Farrell said. "I was really impressed with Alex and what he wanted to do, his energy, his exhaustive approach. He's very much like [Red Sox general manager] Theo [Epstein] in that way. He really gets it."
Everything meshed. Farrell wanted guarantees that coaches would be treated with the economic respect they are due. He didn't ask for guarantees on payroll or particular players, because he and Anthopolous held similar value systems.
Anthopolous understood what Shapiro understands, that being a farm director and development director is the best preparation in the industry for a number of jobs, from general manager to manager.
"I was prepared for other managers to look at me with some skepticism because I hadn't managed," Farrell said.
But halfway through March, Buck Showalter, who has managed for nearly 25 years and 1,500 games from Oneonta to the American League and National League playoffs, said, "the team that really impresses me is Toronto. Look at John Farrell's staff. Watch how he delegates. I don't really know him that well, but I believe this -- the man knows what he doesn't know, and that's why he's going to be very successful."
As usual, Buck was dead-on. Farrell understands the game on a number of levels, through the broad lens and the ability to engender trust leaders must have.
"Everyone trusts him," Jose Bautista said. "He's a rare man."
Farrell has one of the best bench coaches in the business in Don Wakamatsu. Butterfield is as good a teaching coach as there is. The manager thinks the world of Dwayne Murphy as hitting coach, and he knows Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow and the pitchers have grown up with pitching coach Bruce Walton.
There was an unusual energy and joy in Dunedin, Fla., for Spring Training. When they played an intrasquad game and Yunel Escobar tried to start a double play by flipping the ball behind his back to Aaron Hill -- a throw that ended up in right field -- there was no rant. When Farrell and Butterfield got to the clubhouse after the game and went to talk to Escobar, Bautista had already taken care of the matter.
Escobar's dramatic flair drove the conservative Braves batty, which is why they were happy to trade him for Alex Gonzalez.
"It's not easy to assimilate one baseball culture into another, especially with language barriers," Farrell said.
The Jays have tried, Escobar has worked hard to make the cultural conversion, and on Saturday morning, he was leading the American League in hitting and OPS.
"He is close to the strongest player on the team, he always had pretty good plate discipline, and he loves to play," Farrell said.
"He's learning how to work, and he loves to work and wants to be great," Butterfield said. "I think he will be great."
Farrell returned to Boston this weekend, which allowed his wife, Sue, to attend to her Faneuil Hall Marketplace shop, L'Attitude, and see her husband's team play the four-game series. In the first inning of the first game, one of Farrell's managerial philosophies went right into play. Scouts watching the Blue Jays saw them run crazy -- like Mike Scioscia's early Angels -- in Spring Training.
"He knows what bothers pitchers," one Blue Jays player said. "And he tries to exploit it."
Pitchers and all but the rarest of good catchers don't care to have to worry about the run and hit-and-run game. Farrell knows Clay Buchholz well. So when Buchholz walked Escobar to lead off the game, the threat of the steal became an immediate factor. Escobar forced Buchholz to make several throws to first, which is a weapon to chip away at his concentration.
It became an issue for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whose throwing problems have resurfaced to the point where they have become a distraction to Red Sox hitters; Salty hasn't hit, either, which has them looking around for another catcher or even raising the possibility that they will first recall their best catch-and-throw receiver, Tim Federowicz.
Buchholz eventually rediscovered the two-seamer and cutter that had abandoned him his first two starts, but it took him more than 90 pitches to get 15 outs, which got the bullpen into the game in the sixth inning. Even when the Red Sox pitched out, Hill went and forced a throw by continuing to steal, and Saltalamacchia's throw sailed into center field.
It was not about managing by numbers. The Jays attacked what sometimes distracts Buchholz, they attacked Saltalamacchia, and they were able to play back because Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford do not bunt and use their speed.
Boston is already in a vast hole with the worst run differential in either league, Crawford is struggling, and Ellsbury is trying to play Sizemore instead of a slash-and-run intruder. Before Josh Beckett started Saturday, they had the worst starting pitcher ERA in the league and had just two quality starts. Crawford was rested to help him clear his head, and Boston was swinging so frantically that the on-base percentage in the leadoff spot was .196, third hole .278, sixth hole .245, eighth .261 and ninth .250.
Farrell aches for Francona and his friends and former pitchers, but he believes that in Romero, Kyle Drabek, Brett Cecil and Morrow, he has a rotation that can win in the AL East.
"Drabek is a little like Buchholz," Farrell said. "He has really good power stuff, a clean delivery, he throws strikes and he isn't afraid. He can be really good. We get Morrow back soon, and he's got No. 1 starter stuff. Bruce Walton has done a great job with him."
Soon they will have Brett Lawrie -- whom Anthopoulos got from Milwaukee for Shawn Marcum -- playing third base, and Farrell believes he can be a star. Adam Lind, who some of us knew when he was a DH in the Cape League, has worked to be an adequate first baseman. Escobar may be emerging.
Then there's Bautista, the man who hit 54 homers last season.
"He's got astounding bat speed," Farrell said. "Preparing for him as an opposing pitching coach, I always liked him. He had a good sense of the strike zone. He had the bat speed. He played hard.
"But now that I know him? He's a special person, a tremendous player. When we moved him back to right field when Edwin Encarnacion won the third-base job it was a seamless transition. And Jose may have close to the best throwng arm of any right fielder in the league."
"There isn't anyone in this clubhouse who didn't think John Farrell would make a very successful manager," Francona said. "Anyone who knows him knew that. People like him don't walk in the door very often. I don't like seeing him across the field, because he will be successful. He's got a good team, and he is the right man to manage them."
He could have done anything, from running a lobster company, to politics, to being a general manager of a team. He could have been the best television analyst in the business, but instead, John Farrell is doing something he'd never before tried. And anyone who's ever known him trusts he will be successful, because he admits that he knows what he doesn't know, but what he does know is people, and people play.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.