It wasn’t Opening Day. It was bigger than that - a 100-year celebration of a ballpark, and Terry Francona could understand that as well as anyone.
All you had to do was refer to two of the greatest accomplishments in the history of the Red Sox - World Series victories in 2004 and 2007 - and find the smiling face of Francona, then the manager, in the team picture.
That smile faded quickly last September in the collapse of all collapses, which cost the Red Sox a postseason berth and cost Francona his job after eight seasons.
Hurt feelings? Until a few days ago, Francona had declined an invitation to be part of Friday’s 100th anniversary party at Fenway.
But he reconsidered, and Francona, along with more than 200 former Red Sox players and coaches, participated in a “Field of Dreams’’ ceremony that drew ovation after ovation from the sold-out crowd, and was the high point of the day as the Sox then lost to the Yankees. “That was great,’’ Kevin Youkilis said. “I know there was a lot of controversy about him not coming and stuff like that. It was great to see him out there and I know it probably meant a lot to him because the fans love him and as players we love him, too. He did amazing things here and it was definitely emotional to see Tito.’’
His arrival did not go unnoticed by members of Red Sox Nation before the game. As Francona entered the park, fans started chanting his name. And inside, the crowd broke into a “We want Tito’’ chant as the Yankees closed out the victory.
Francona’s entrance was without fanfare. He simply emerged from the garage door in center field as part of the parade. Wearing a home Red Sox jersey, Francona heard cheers the moment he stepped into view.
When asked whom he felt received the biggest cheer, Kevin Millar quickly said, “My vote would go to Tito Francona.’’
“I was introduced right after him,’’ added Millar. “The noise was like a learjet. I’m glad he was here.’’
Francona, who arrived late and left early - in contrast to his days in the manager’s office - took in the applause as he walked to the infield. He acknowledged a chant of “Tito, Tito’’ by patting on his heart.
Francona reached the mound and exchanged hugs (with John Lackey) and handshakes with members of the Red Sox pitching staff.
When the ceremony was over, Francona walked back toward the garage door in center, taking off his jersey and rolling it up.
“I want to give it to a kid,’’ he said, searching for the right choice.
Finally, he made eye contact with a youngster and tossed his jersey, with a nod of satisfaction.
Francona will be back at Fenway Sunday night as part of the ESPN broadcast team. Francona no doubt will talk about his return on Friday, and what the reception from the fans and his former players meant to him.
A year ago, Sox manager Bobby Valentine was the ESPN analyst, commenting on the way Francona went about his business. On Sunday, which is also Francona’s 53d birthday, Francona will have his turn to critique a team and a manager that have stumbled out of the gate.
Whether the distance between Francona and the Red Sox can be narrowed by a reunion filled with many good memories remains to be seen.
But Friday, at least, seemed like a step in that direction.