He is a baseball lifer. Terry Francona’s father played 15 years in the big leagues and hit .363 with the Indians in 1959. Young Terry grew up in major league clubhouses, and remembers playing catch with Al Downing during batting practice when Tito Francona was finishing up with the Brewers in 1970.
His kids are ballplayers. Nick Francona is a freshman lefthanded pitcher at the University of Pennsylvania and was drafted by the Red Sox last spring. Daughter Alyssa is a high school senior catcher being recruited by Harvard and Yale.
In an odd way he is uniquely qualified to manage the Boston Red Sox. Francona skippered the Philadelphia Phillies for four (losing) seasons and learned all about vicious fans, columnists, and talk jocks of the airwaves. He also went to manage winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where police patrol the stands carrying Uzis. Francona remembers getting hit with assorted fruits and bottles thrown from the stands.
”I pinch hit for Tony Pena once,” Francona recalled. “Tony was good about it, but he said, `You better hope this guy drives in the run.’ After the game we were talking in the clubhouse and they asked me what I was going to do that night, and I told them I was going to go eat someplace and they said, `No, you’re not. Do you hear that banging on the other side of the clubhouse door? That’s for you!’ “
He pokes fun at his playing career, but he hit .769 in his senior year of high school and was the No. 1 draft selection of the Expos in 1980 after being named college player of the year at Arizona. His first big league manager was Dick Williams, a disciplinarian often cited as the best Red Sox manager of the last half-century.
Francona was a lifetime .274 hitter in 10 major league seasons, and didn’t know what to do with himself when his professional career ended in 1991. With mouths to feed (he and his wife, Jacque, have four children), he tried selling real estate for a while, but claims he was the worst realtor in history. When former teammate Buddy Bell offered him a position as a minor league coach with the White Sox, Francona jumped at the chance to get back into baseball.
When he was hired by the Red Sox last Dec. 4, Francona said it was the best day of his life, while Sox general manager Theo Epstein worried that Francona might be too nice.
Asked about the rigors of managing in Boston, Francona said, “Think about it for a second. I’ve been released from six teams. I’ve been fired as a manager. I’ve got no hair. I’ve got a nose that’s three times too big for my face and I grew up in a major league clubhouse. My skin’s pretty thick. I’ll be OK.”
Francona was ripped plenty of times in his first season in Boston. Fans and media took issue with his deployment of pitchers, his soft stance on rules, and his reluctance to bunt. There was suspicion that games were being managed by Bill James, via satellite from Kansas. Even Francona’s clothing annoyed some. He never wore a uniform top in the dugout and looked like a man readying to change your oil when he went to the mound to pull one of his pitchers.
Asked about mail he was getting, Francona said, “Some of the things fans ask you to do are physically impossible.”
Some of the rough stuff had to hurt, but he never let it show. He remained masterful with the media, patiently answering thousands of questions and actually trying to explain his decisions. It was something Jimy Williams and Grady Little would never do.
He made himself a target Opening Night in Baltimore when he took the blame for Pedro Martinez’s flagrant violation of a universal baseball rule. Pedro was routed by the Orioles and left Camden Yards while his teammates were still trying to win the game. Francona said it was his fault for failing to explain the rules to Pedro. Weak.
He looked weak again when the Sox were swept in New York and the best he could come up with was, “I love these guys.”
But that’s Terry Francona. Love him or hate him, he’s not going to rip his players in public. Ever.
The low point came on a September Friday in Boston when he did exactly what Grady did in New York last October. He stayed too long with Martinez against the Yankees. Fans booed him out of the yard that night, and the next time when he needlessly got himself thrown out of a game. Even Epstein made it clear the manager had not followed the prescribed (105 pitches and done) Pedro plan.
None of it matters anymore. Terry Francona, in his first year with the Red Sox, just won the 2004 World Series. He did something Williams, Joe Morgan, Joe Cronin, and Joe McCarthy never did. And he was humble about it when it was over. He was asked how he wanted his team to be remembered and he answered, “as winners.”
Francona had something to do with all of this. He was hardly an innocent bystander in the Sox’ success. His laid-back approach was obvious from the first day of spring training when he looked at Johnny Damon and told him to grow his hair longer if he wanted. He let Curt Schilling run the team when Curt wanted to make policy. He let Pedro take off any time he pleased. He jousted privately with Manny Ramirez, ultimately getting tough with the hamstrung slugger by telling Manny he’d have to play left field (not DH) if he wanted to be in the lineup.
Above all, Francona never panicked and he never abandoned his routines. This came in handy when the Red Sox fell behind the Yankees, 3-0, in the American League Championship Series. He told his players to go out and win the next game. And then the next game. The proverbial one-at-a-time approach. And it worked. Plagued by an aching belly, Francona drank Metamucil each of the last eight games, all Red Sox victories.
And then he drank champagne. Mount Pleasant, 2003 Brut Imperial.