Griffin: Q&A with John Farrell
The Star sat down with Blue Jays manager John Farrell in his office at spring training in Dunedin. Following a rookie managerial season of highs and lows on the field, John and his wife Sue spent the months of October and November, 2011, staying at a hotel in Boston, as their 20-year-old son Luke underwent successful radiation treatment at a Massachusetts clinic, with the goal of reducing a non-malignant tumour at the base of his skull. It was Luke's second time in treatment in the past two years. The family returned home after Thanksgiving and Luke returned to school at Northwestern University in Chicago in December. He is now taking his regular turn on the mound as a leftanded pitcher. The Farrell's eldest son, Jeremy is a minor-league third baseman with the Pirates, while a third son, Shane was drafted by the Jays last June, but has been forced by injury to give up his aspirations as a pro ballplayer. After his difficult winter, John Farrell is back for his second season with his second family.
Richard Griffin: You're probably not aware, but you are now the longest serving head coach or manager in terms of hiring date of any team in Toronto major pro sports. It's hard to believe. In addition, there's only 15 major league managers with a longer tenure than you. Half of them! What does that tell you about your profession?
John Farrell: A lot of turnover? That there has to be an alignment of understanding of where the organizastion is, of the stage where the organization is at, whether it's growing, whether it's rebuilding, whether it's expectation is to not only be in contention, but will probably be measured by how deep into the post-season a given team achieves.
RG: There's often a honeymoon period for GMs, managers, coaches. Have you experienced that. Do you feel that. Do you feel there's any pressure to win sooner rather than later here. Or...
JF: I think any competitor probably has greater expectations of themselves than what others internally may have for you, for the team and certainly whatever the public perception or expectation might be. I always look at things in somewhat of a five-year cycle, where the first year you come in and you learn what is here. The second year you begin to make changes that you collectively feel need to be made to continue to make progress. Then years 3-4-5 you're continuing to build on it and with that continuity even in this pro sports world, where continuity is a relative term, when you get into that third, fourth, fifth and hopefully longer, so rises the expectation and that's what you're eventually judged upon.
RG: This is a more personal question, but in terms of maintaining a family, there's different pressures in different jobs. Has it become harder to be a husband and father starting from Cleveland in the front office, to pitching coach in Boston to where you are now?
JF: I think the toughest balance that anyone in professional sports has is between home life and a profession. This can be all-consuming and if you let it control you, other areas will suffer. It takes an understanding spouse, an understanding wife that is in it with you. Fortunately we have a family that has lived in the game long enough that even though the time apart from our sons is a large amount of time, they're all pursuing their own dream and their own path. But fortunately through technology, we're able to keep up to date and in contact frequently, whether that's through phone, e-mail, text, watching their games on video, there's a way that you can manage the time apart.
RG: You obviously are a very proud father of three sons. Jeremy has been to Dunedin a couple of times with the Pirates. You've been able to visit with him in Bradenton. He carries himself like a man, like someone with an obvious respect for the game of baseball. Can you give me thumbnail sketch on each of your three sone, starting with Jeremy, Shane and Luke.
JF: Jeremy's very driven, very focused. He might work to the point of diminishing returns and overwork at times. He's very clear on what his professional goal is at the current time and that's to become a major-league player. In what role we'll see. He will not rest at anything to exhaust all means to try and realize his potential and that is hopefully one day to wear a major-league uniform.
Shane? He's suffered the most physical ailments and as a result has ended his playing career because of some things that are completely out of his control. And I think the thing that you're aware the most and that you bleed the most for them is when they have an injury. You see the challenges and disappointments they go through when play is interrupted and in his case where he's had to shut it down at a relatively early age. They learn life experiences through the sport. He's now looking at the next path. He wants to remain in the game, whether the scouting path it will take or some other role, I think he will be successful within the game, just the way he deals with people.
And then Luke, who's had his own challenges, physically. He's the one that's probably taught us the most, through his resiliency, through his will to fight and overcome some things that were within his control. Not to rank one or the other, but to see him back on the mound after what he's been through, that's probably been the most joy of anything that's happened to our entire family, to see him come back from that and get back on the mound, as he loves to do.
RG: Does that two months of adversity in October-November that followed up on two years earlier, did that make three sons, a father and mother come closer together?
JF: Yeah, and actually through the first procedure they had. When you're able to just be in a room and hear their conversations that gets exchanged. It went from that brother rivalry and competition to one of true concern and support. I think it's taught them that even if they might think of themselves as being invincible, things can change on a phone call and they're in a little bit of a battle. But all three have taken whatever challenges have been thrown at them and they've embraced them and they've worked their tails off to try to overcome them.
RG: Does that life experience for you, does that make handling a Blue Jays 20-10 start or a 10-20 start this year on the field, will ot allow you to treat them both the same?
JF: Well, we'll find out on that 10-20 start or 20-10, but yeah, I think it prioritizes things and life and health is clearly the most important. It makes that hanging slider a little bit easier to digest in that key spot. And I think we all look at who might be reading this or looking through it, I'm sure everyone's got their own story that they can go back to and draw from and in our case, Luke's unfortunate hand that he's been dealt has shown us a different side of him and it's certainly brought us all closer together.
RG: At the end of last season in Chicago, you talked about different things that you had learned about yourself in your first year as manager. Some of them philosophical, some of them in terms of dealing wth 25 individuals. Did you think about it more over the winter and did you come to spring training with any subtle changes in your philosophy of dealing with 25 different personalities?
JF: I would go back to our internal meeting at the opening of spring training. Communicatng a vision of what I think we can be and what we should become and more importantly, how we go about it. Every team is going to create its own identity at various times, ir it will evolve at some point in time during the year. I would like to think that we could arrive at that identity much sooner and I think that's by outlining expectations and what's important to us, things that we value as an organization, the coaching staff and myself and not to be reluctant to trust those, just to put it out there. Having come from the paths you mention, front office, pitching coach and now this position, I think every player wants direction. They want to know where are we headed. Now, overseeing a roster of 25 and a camp of 65, I'm probably a little bit more outgoing in describing that as clearly as possible. And I think that's the personal direction in their lives that everybody wants.
RG: Is it more important to underpromise to players than to overpromise, even to the public, that we're hoping that this will happen, this is your role and then maybe with hard work they earn something higher, rather than promising success that is unattainable?
JF: I think it's important to be very objective and honest with individual players or what we're talking about with our given team. But I don't think it's wrong to say that this is what I feel like we can achieve too as a group or this is what an individual player can achieve too. I think it's important to put out a vision of what the final product can be. They, or we, might not be there yet and yet there's going to be some obstacles, some goals, some plateaus that we have to reach along the way. I kind of describe this as a little bit of a journey with a destination, rather than, okay, this is just the final product. There's going to be some things along the way that we might not be aware of today and how we respond, that's what we can control and that's what matters most. That's why I feel confident with the staff that we have, their ability to teach and we collectively understand what we want and what we see as our true ability to contend. Everyone comes in eager and with a lot of optimism and energy to work and teach every day and I think the combination of it is what will get us there.
RG: This clubhouse, I was just talking with Alex and he said, what do you think. I said, I'm sorry but I'm going to have to say 85-86. He said why are you sorry? I said, well it makes me wrong because I predicted 78-81 all winter and it makes me wrong.
JF: Well we all have to adjust.
RG: This clubhouse seems far more confident, even without significant additions other than Sergio, this clubhouse seems far more confident. Is that something that you have passed on to them or something that you have just observed?
JF: I don't know if I can answer whether I have passed that on. They can answer that, what they feel, perceive, hear and have grown into. We've talked and I know talk can be very cheap, I'm the first to acknowledge that. But I think when you see real tangible players that have very good major league talent that are capable of achieving an awful lot within a framework of being themselves – and that's the one thing we trumpet is that there's a defined framework here, but we want them to be themselves. We don't want them to necessarily totally conform to the point where they're someone else, because then their abilities won't come out. So, providing that framework in their ability to maximize their abilities and be themsleves within it, as long as it doesn't compromise who we are as a group, that's where I think they feel good about themselves and that they can be themselves. That might be where that feeling of confidence comes from. They can be who they are in this clubhouse. Alex and the staff have done a great job in the due diligence of the people off the field in identifying those players. There's a lot of character in this group.
RG: Being a father of three young men, does that translate into how you treat these guys. There's no ban on social media. There's no ban on beer in the clubhouse. There's no treating these guys like they're kids. Does being a father help in that regard?
JF: Whether it's three daughters or three sons, I think parenting as we all know teaches us a lot of handling adversity and how we deal with each one of them differently. Some, even my own kids, some need a pat on the back, some need a kck in the butt. I think there are a lot of similarities there. We are a family at home and this is our family here. We want them to be able to express themselves at home. We want them to express themselves here. If you treat them and respect them as men and as individuals, I think you get that in return.