The first interview Michael Holley ever asked for as a reporter — from his mom, for her life story when he was a nine-year-old boy back in Akron — she refused to give him.
Mr. Holley overcame this setback, going on to write for the Akron Beacon Journal, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Chicago Tribune and for 10 years a column in the Boston Globe. Anyone who follows sports in this part of the world knows that he now hosts the midday Dale and Holley show on the WEEI sports radio network, 850 AM on your radio dial.
Mr. Holley came to the Vineyard on Saturday afternoon to speak and sign his new book, Red Sox Rule: Terry Francona and Boston’s Rise to Dominance. The setting was the prairie-like expanse of pasture at Herring Creek Farm, which borders the ocean at Katama, and the author said that if this was farm living, he’d like to have a farm.
The session was a benefit for the Edgartown Library Foundation, which has kicked off a $15 million campaign to renovate and expand the 1904 Carnegie building on North Water street. Nearly half the money has been raised — $3.5 million coming from the voters of the town and 25 per cent of the main construction costs from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.
Before discussing his three books and answering questions, Mr. Holley noted how much reading had meant to him as a boy growing up with a single mom in Ohio. “I’ve been a geek for a long time,” he said, raising a laugh from the crowd. He and his mother visited the library together, and he kept an eye on what she read, “making sure she was getting some wholesome books. When she read, I read.” When he knew he was going to be a sports writer, he often returned to the library to follow the newspaper writers who covered the Cleveland Cavaliers. “And I would ask myself, ‘Could I write that? . . . What’s it like to go to Chicago and cover a story?’ ”
As he made the move from newspapers to television and radio, Mr. Holley said, he had an idea for a book: Patriot Reign would be an inside account of how the leadership built the New England Patriots into an acclaimed football franchise: “Book writing is tough, but the toughest part was actually going to Bill Belichick” — head coach of the Patriots, who’d just won the 2002 Super Bowl — “and actually asking him for permission to do the book.”
The audience considered Belichick’s dour and secretive character a moment and murmured sympathetically. “If you don’t know him, he can be kind of tough,” Mr. Holley agreed. But Mr. Belichick met the writer in his office on a Saturday morning, listened to the pitch and checked in with owner Robert Kraft. Unlike Mr. Holley’s mom, Mr. Belichick agreed.
Mr. Holley recalled a meeting of the coaches under Charlie Weis, then the offensive coordinator of the Patriots. “They were trying to figure out how to attack the Oakland Raiders. It was unbelievable. They had, like, 110 plays on three whiteboards. . . . They were trying to cut it down to 75. And Charlie Weis is sitting there saying, ‘That won’t work because of their linebackers. That won’t work because of our protection.’ . . . That happened on a weekly basis, and I came to the conclusion that these are really smart people who happen to be obsessed with football.” Otherwise they’d be just as successful architects, accountants or warriors, Mr. Holley said. The book reached the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
His second book, Never Give Up, was about Tedy Bruschi, a 31-year-old middle linebacker who missed the first six games of the 2005 season after suffering a stroke one week after playing in the Super Bowl. Mr. Bruschi now serves as a defensive captain of the Patriots and has averaged 115 tackles over the last four years.
For Red Sox Rule, Mr. Holley wondered what it must be like for one man to manage his players as they contend with the psychological passions — nay, the clinical, life-altering obsessions — of their New England fans. He pitched the idea to Terry Francona, who last year led the Sox to their second World Series championship in four years.
“We all know about 86 years, right?” asked Mr. Holley. “Eighty-six years and no championship. But look at it a different way: 32 different managers, 32 different men over 86 years try to win a championship. Couldn’t do it. One guy did it twice in four years. So I wanted to talk about that.”
It would also be about Mr. Francona personally and his often unheralded gift for motivating and disciplining players without drama or even calling attention to himself: “Francona is a genius because no one sees him as a genius! He is so secure that he will never take credit for things that he deserves credit for.” He recalled how Mr. Francona wanted to anchor the bullpen by making Jonathan Papelbon the closer in 2007. But general manager Theo Epstein, who can overrule Mr. Francona on personnel matters, wanted Mr. Papelbon to start.
The issue went unresolved as spring training rolled along. Today, Mr. Holley says, everyone thinks the question was settled when Mr. Papelbon suggested the idea of closing to the manager, pretty much out of the blue. But Mr. Francona had orchestrated the whole thing. He went to catcher Jason Varitek, who agreed that the Sox needed a closer and that Mr. Papelbon would fill the bill. Mr. Francona then suggested to Mr. Varitek, a respected leader in the clubhouse, that he bring up the idea to Mr. Papelbon — “a Jedi knight trick: ‘Don’t you miss closing? Yes, you do! Yes, you do!’” Mr. Varitek did, Mr. Papelbon agreed and marched in to Mr. Francona’s office to ask for the job. “[Francona’s] the one who made it happen,” said Mr. Holley.
Mr. Holley found himself reporting on the Sox as the second championship season played itself out. He thinks the long-term future of the team looks bright. Unlike small-market organizations such as the Pirates, the Sox have the money to draft expensive players in the early rounds, can afford to hold on to other players as they reach the heights of their games and invest in rising talent in the minor leagues.
“The only thing that can stop the Red Sox now from being consistently good is just jealousy,” Mr. Holley said. “Somebody feeling as if they’re not getting enough credit. If Theo Epstein feels as though Terry Francona is getting too much credit, if Terry Francona feels John Henry [the principal owner] and Larry Lucchino [the president and chief executive officer] are getting too much credit, then that will stop them. If not, then I think that they will be consistently good for a long time.”
Editor’s note: The writer, a Jets and Yankees fan from New York city, wrote this story under duress.