Farrell, Hollidays rivals only during World Series
Families bonded during tenure at Oklahoma State University
ST. LOUIS -- In June 1981, Oklahoma State University assistant baseball coach Tom Holliday first set eyes on an 18-year-old kid from Jersey whom he'd been recruiting via scouting reports for over a year. The kid, John Farrell, went to Shore Regional High School in tiny Monmouth Beach, and he showed up in Stillwater, Okla., in a shirt and tie.
Fast forward 32 years later, and Farrell is managing the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Holliday's son, Matt, is the starting left fielder for their opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals. But there is a long story that brought them to this point.
"John's dad was a professional pitcher, so he had great bloodlines and everyone I talked to had said the right things about John," said the elder Holliday. "He was a good student, too, so we gave him a scholarship, sight unseen. And when he showed up, he was the most perfect gentleman you'd ever imagine for an 18-year-old."
At Oklahoma State, Farrell pitched the Cowboys to College World Series appearances four times, and he compiled a 20-6 record. Farrell met his wife, Sue, there; she was a member of the Diamond Dolls, a baseball support group started by Holliday's wife Kathy, and the two women were close friends. Then, Matt Holliday was just a toddler, and Farrell would often watch him while Tom and Kathy went to dinner or a movie.
"Our babysitters were our players," Tom said.
In 1984, his senior season, Farrell went 12-2 with a 3.16 ERA and was drafted by the Indians in the second round. Farrell played eight years in the big leagues, pitching for the Indians, Angels and Tigers, all the while keeping in contact with his college coach.
"Sometimes you lose touch when guys go pro, but John and I stayed in touch," Holliday said. "Everyone I bumped into would say John was a really special guy, a good guy, and you're proud that people say things like that about guys who are yours. John was one of the guys we were proud of."
When Farrell's pro career was over in 1996, he returned to Oklahoma State to finish his degree. He would attend classes Monday through Thursday, then fly home to Cleveland on the weekends. That same year, Holliday was promoted to head coach, replacing legendary coach Gary Ward.
"I would drive John home after classes and we'd talk. He became a friend and a confidant," said Holliday, who is nine years older than Farrell. "When I was being considered for the head coaching job, I asked John, 'Would you want to coach?' First he said, 'I don't know.' Then, 'Maybe.' And then, 'Yeah.'"
In an interview with the Providence Journal last week, Farrell discussed the decision.
"It seemed like to me such a natural fit, being back in an atmosphere that was familiar and knowing him as a coach prior," Farrell said. "Coming out of playing, in hindsight, it was the best position I could have gotten into. It afforded me the ability to learn how to coach, learn how to scout, organize and wear a bunch of different hats that laid a foundation for my post-playing career. I'm forever grateful."
Farrell spent five seasons as the pitching coach at Oklahoma State. During that time, he got to know the teenage Matt Holliday, who was recruited to play football at his father's school. But Matt was drafted by the Rockies in 1998 and chose to play baseball instead. On the field, Farrell's influence helped to lower the Cowboys' team ERA each year of his tenure.
"When I hired John, I realized how much he had grown up and was even more articulate than before," Holliday said. "He had already taken to the detailed side of coaching. John had everything written down every day, everything he wanted to communicate and do with his pitching staff. I trusted him completely."
So did Mark Shapiro, whom Farrell knew well from his time with the Indians. As Cleveland's vice president of baseball operations, Shapiro twice tried to hire Farrell away from Oklahoma State, and both times Farrell refused. But when Shapiro became the Indians' general manager in 2001, he offered Farrell a job as the director of player development, and Farrell accepted.
|"A lot of paths intersect along the way in this game, and the Holliday family has always been great to me."|
|-- John Farrell|
"Some guys just have the right personality and like to be around the game enough that you can see them going on to be coaches or executives, and you saw that with John from the beginning," Holliday said. "I always thought to myself, 'He's so bright, he'll figure this out and really have a future in this game.' I always thought John would be a general manager in the big leagues."
Farrell hasn't been a GM yet. Rather, in 2007, he took a job as the Red Sox's pitching coach, which set up his first professional face-off with Matt Holliday.
That fall, Matt and the Colorado Rockies defied the odds and made it to the World Series against Farrell and the Red Sox. Matt had led the league with a .340 average and 137 RBIs that season, and it was Farrell who had to decide how to pitch him.
"John's job was to get hitters out, and Matt was having the year of his life," Tom Holliday said. "Matt kept saying, 'OK, dad, how's he going to pitch me?' They came close to hitting him a few times. He had three hits off [Curt] Schilling in Game 2, and the last time up, Schilling went up and in, then he threw him a great split and Matt got a base hit up the middle. Matt was 4-for-4 that day. And the rest of the series, John didn't give him much to hit."
The Red Sox swept the Rockies, four games to none.
This time around, the Red Sox and Cardinals are more evenly matched. Tom, now a pitching coach for North Carolina State University, missed Games 1 and 2 in Boston because of a recruiting trip in Texas. But his seats for Game 3 -- 15 rows behind home plate at Busch Stadium in St. Louis -- afforded him a perfect view of both his protégé and his son, and he understands the enormity of this situation for them both.
"This is really, really big for John. It could be history-making," Holliday said. "But Matt probably has six or seven years left, and he has one ring and he really wants to win another, so this is very important to Matt, too."
Holliday and Farrell exchanged text messages before the start of the Series, with Holliday congratulating Farrell on a great first year managing the Red Sox. But Holliday is rooting hard for the Cards in this World Series.
Farrell isn't offended.
"A lot of paths intersect along the way in this game, and the Holliday family has always been great to me," Farrell said. "But the old saying goes, 'Blood is thicker than water.'"
Matt Holliday agreed. "I would hope he's not conflicted," he said of his father at World Series media day last Wednesday. "I am his son."
Whether the Cardinals win or lose, Tom Holliday will be proud of Matt. But he'll be proud of Farrell, too.