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Surprise success links AL's top skippers in '12

In eight years managing the Boston Red Sox, Terry Francona had more postseason appearances (five) and World Series championships (two) than American League Manager of the Year Awards (zero). In fact, he never finished higher than fourth in the balloting.

That's par for the course. Francona's teams had high payrolls and big names. They were expected to win. If they did, the manager only gets credit -- if he gets any credit at all -- for not getting in the way. If they didn't, he shouldered the blame. As a result, this is an honor that almost always goes to the manager of a team that was predicted to finish far off the pace, but ends up confounding the experts.

Francona understands that. So when asked how he would vote if he had a ballot this year, the new Cleveland Indians manager quickly zeroed in on three candidates who neatly fit the profile: Robin Ventura of the White Sox, Buck Showalter of the Orioles and Bob Melvin of the A's.

Not only did Ventura take over a team that had a losing record in 2011, it was a team that had lost ace starter Mark Buehrle and solid No. 5 starter Edwin Jackson to free agency and a trade. Closer Sergio Santos was dealt to the Blue Jays, and no effort was made to retain starting left fielder Juan Pierre, who also departed as a free agent. And then there was the fact that Ventura had never managed at any level and had, in fact, been out of the game for several years since retiring as a player.

But the White Sox took a share of first place on July 24 and hung tough since then.

"Ventura came in with no experience with a team that wasn't expected to do much," Francona pointed out. "He's been real consistent from Day 1. He's just created an atmosphere where the players can play and they enjoy the clubhouse. And I think they've embraced that. His staff is real energetic, guys like Joe McEwing. I just think it's a change that's been well received in the clubhouse."

The Orioles were even further below the radar than the White Sox. They hadn't had a winning season since 1997. When Showalter took over late in the 2010 season, he was the seventh manager in 13 years. And playing in a division that included the big-spending Yankees and Red Sox, the gravity-defying Rays and the resurgent Blue Jays, there was little reason to suspect that this year would be any different.

"It seemed like the first month of the season, it was a little bit of a feel-good story, then the second month of the season, then the All-Star break. Well, you know what? They're still right there," Francona said with a laugh. "The one thing that's noticeable when you watch them play is the attention to detail. He's forced them to do that, which is a compliment."

The A's were coming off an 88-loss season, but had traded their two winningest starters (Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez), as well as closer Andrew Bailey.

"I don't know much about Bob Melvin," Francona admitted. "But the fact that they just came out of nowhere ... . From everybody I talk to, they say he's real even-keeled, a likeable guy. Everybody thought, myself included, 'Nice run.' They put a little scare into everybody and then they'd fall back into place. Well, shoot, they got hotter."

Not to be overlooked is Rays manager Joe Maddon, who has once again led a club with a payroll that pales in comparison to those of its division rivals to contention for a postseason berth.

The common theme is that all four managers seem to have created an environment in which the players are both comfortable and motivated. That ultimately trumps X's and O's.

"Everybody knows how they feel about the game," Francona said. "Whether you want to bunt or hit-and-run ... you can throw that around all you want and it's fun to talk about, but if you can get your guys going in one direction, you're way ahead of the curve. You have to have enough talent. But if you have that talent and the players want to do the right thing, you're in pretty good shape.

"Sometimes it's not hard to accomplish that, and sometimes it's impossible. I'm a perfect example of that. Sometimes [in Boston], it was really good. We had guys who policed the clubhouse. I think every good team has guys like that. And then, last year, it didn't work. We couldn't find that personality on our team, that willingness to sacrifice, all those clichés. We just never got there."

So for whom, when everything is taken into account, would Francona cast his ballot for the AL Manager of the Year Award?

"Buck Showalter," Francona said.