07/07/08 1:45 PM ET
Francona makes tough AL roster calls
Skipper out to field best team, gain home-field advantage
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
Even still, the job came with plenty of agonizing when it came down to his six selections, not to mention the five players who wound up on the Final Vote ballot.
Having gone through the process back in 2005, Francona had a much easier understanding of the process. And still, narrowing everything down was tough.
"The process is actually excruciating," Francona said. "Thank goodness you do it with people you care about and respect. I think the players deserve for us to agonize over it. It's a big deal."
Perhaps the toughest part of this year's process for Francona was the exclusion of two players -- one that he manages on a daily basis and the other a veteran pitcher he has great respect for.
Sure, the Red Sox had seven All-Stars, tied with the Cubs for most in the Majors, but Francona sure wishes he could have found a spot for Mike Lowell, who is hitting .297 with 13 homers and 54 RBIs, despite missing three weeks with an injury.
"The hard thing is, the reason I'm getting to sit here is because of how we played," Francona said. "Because of some really good players -- and a guy like Mikey Lowell is going to fall right smack in the middle of that. There's got to be some disagreements when you're making this team. That was a hard one. I felt pretty strongly that what he's done in his career and what he's done this year [merits a spot].
"Again, the rules aren't what they used to be. I also understand that. That's a big disappointment for me. I had a tough conversation with him that I didn't enjoy very much. I don't think he did either. That's a disappointment."
Another difficult omission was Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina, who pitched a superb game against the Red Sox on Saturday to run his record to 11-6 and lower his ERA to 3.64.
"The name that probably needs to be mentioned for me is Mike Mussina," said Francona. "Because of who he is and who he represents, we talked long and hard about what is right. Ultimately, what it came down to is, to do that, somebody would have been left off that is really deserving and that would have been difficult to do. So our decision was difficult because of again, who he is and the respect for the team he plays for. But to get that, we would have had to do something wrong."
When the selection process got to Francona, he had six picks, and four teams that still needed a representative.
"I understand it. I think it's good for the game," Francona said. "When you sit here and you're trying to make decisions, I guess you wish you could take 37, 38 guys."
Picking the proper Detroit Tigers player was another decision that probably didn't have a right answer. So after a long talk with Detroit manager Jim Leyland, Francona picked Carlos Guillen over Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco.
"I had a good conversation with Jim, a really good conversation," said Francona. "He was tremendous. I thought we needed to give Polanco and Granderson consideration. Some of our decision came into some flexibility, some versatility, trying to win the game also. Jim was really good. Placido Polanco is a good player and it needs to be reflected that I said that. Curtis Granderson is, too. Curtis Granderson is going to make a lot of All-Star teams."
Francona also was in charge of picking the lone members of the Oakland Athletics (Justin Duchscherer), Baltimore Orioles (George Sherrill) and Kansas City Royals (Joakim Soria). That left the manager with two picks that came with no club restrictions.
Those berths went to Twins closer Joe Nathan and Rays catcher Dioner Navarro.
Nathan (1.23 ERA, 25 saves, .205 opponents batting average) was a no-brainer.
Francona could have gone a lot of different ways before picking Navarro, who is hitting .318 with four homers and 33 RBIs. But two things heavily swayed his decision: The first is that the Rays have the best record in baseball and had only one All-Star representative in lefty Scott Kazmir. The other is that Francona thought he needed a third catcher.
"The way they've played this year is probably almost a manager's dream," Francona said of the Rays. "They were the underdog at the start of the year. They're playing so good. They feel good about themselves and they're getting contributions from everywhere. That's a fun way to play. At the same time, I think we need to recognize that they have the best record in baseball. We tried to do that. We can't correct voting. At some point, if their fans want them to be on the team, they're going to have to step up and vote. That's the way it goes. But also, we have a responsibility to respect how they played."
And that's why Rays third baseman Evan Longoria was a pretty easy decision for Francona to put on the Final Vote ballot. The others were outfielder Jermaine Dye of the White Sox, 1B-DH Jason Giambi of the Yankees, Royals outfielder Jose Guillen and Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts.
"Obviously, these guys that are named here, their name has come up in our conversations about position players, and very deservingly so," Francona said. "This is our way of kind of showing, 'OK, this is how we feel. You're probably deserving, but because there's a limit, this is how we'll do it.'"
Now that the team is in place, Francona will spend the next week deciding on his pitching alignment and starting lineup. And as a manager who has won the World Series twice while having home-field advantage, he knows that this game has turned into more than just an exhibition outing.
"We'll talk to the players in the next week," Francona said. "We have an obligation to try to win the game, to treat it with respect and to get as many guys in as we can. Ultimately, hopefully, we can do all of that. But we do have an obligation to try to win the game."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.