NEW YORK - Terry Francona’s nerves were jangling in spring training. Every time he had walked into a major league clubhouse, he had been in uniform, part of a team. He had belonged. But as he stood at the doorway of the Braves clubhouse, he was a member of the media.
His job was no longer to do. It was to talk.
“The first time walking into a clubhouse with a suit and tie on is hard,’’ said Francona, who is now in the booth for ESPN. “Tim Kurkjian, that first day in spring training, he goes, ‘I’m going in. You need to come.’
“I opened the door, and I literally bumped into Eric Hinske. It was like somebody was looking out after me. He gave me a big bear hug.’’
Hinske was not the only one to welcome Francona back, even in the suit and tie.
“I’ve said to everybody, he’s leading the league in bear hugs this year,’’ said “Sunday Night Baseball’’ play-by-play man Dan Shulman.
Francona is being embraced, and not just by his former players. The ex-Red Sox manager has been welcomed by viewers for his homey style, his honesty, his fresh-out-of-the-dugout opinions, for the fun he has with partners Shulman and Orel Hershiser.
‘I want to be legitimate. I want to do my job. I want to kind of jump in with both feet.Terry Francona
He isn’t polished, not yet. But he doesn’t pretend to be.
“Everywhere he goes, they love him,’’ Shulman said. “People love him. He’s likable off the air, he’s likable on the air. That’s who he is. None of this is an act. And it’s fun. It’s really fun.’’
Francona will be at Fenway Park Sunday, but not in the manager’s office he inhabited for eight years. Instead, he will have someone direct him to the press box, a place he says he might have been in once, might never have been in at all.
(Note to Francona: Enter at Gate D. Take the elevators straight ahead. Fifth floor. Bring your credential.)
The man looks relaxed, a surprisingly healthy glow coming off tanned skin. He might have shaved 20 years off his appearance.
His morning, which started at 9 a.m. last Sunday, has already contained a production meeting, one in which producers replayed an inning from the previous week’s broadcast. His performance was scrutinized, advice given.
“I want to be legitimate,’’ Francona said. “I want to do my job. I want to kind of jump in with both feet. This is just the way I’m wired. I want to be good at it. I don’t want to guess. Whatever I’m saying, I want to have a reason for.’’
He had spent the previous day at Yankee Stadium making the rounds, talking to players. It’s something he’ll normally do on the Saturday before a game. Except at Fenway, a place where he doesn’t want to be the story. Or the sideshow.
The late morning brings a workout. Francona is glad the Crowne Plaza Times Square has a pool; swimming is exercise that doesn’t take a toll on his surgically repaired knees. That is followed by hours of game study in his room.
“He wants to prepare,’’ Shulman said. “He’s been in there working on his card for like an hour. He’s making me feel a little nervous about how much he’s doing.’’
That harkens back to his managing days, his obsessive preparation, his desire to know everything possible. While he used to get to the park by 10:30 a.m., now the car doesn’t take him to the park until 3:15 p.m. for an 8 p.m. game.
And there isn’t even cribbage to look forward to in the down time.
“Nobody,’’ he said, of his new, post-Dustin Pedroia partner. “My computer. It [stinks]. But I’m kicking the computer’s [butt].’’
He continues, the subject changing slightly.
“There’s some transition for me,’’ he said. “You can’t just cut the cord and move on. You do, but you can’t just change your feelings overnight.’’
Francona likes talking. He especially likes talking baseball. This makes him well-suited for his new role - relaxed, informative, stories flowing. But there are still moments he’s growing into, the ones that aren’t so natural.
These are the ones with the scripted remarks. He’s not just reacting and talking. He is performing. And if there’s one thing Francona is not, it’s a performer.
It’s evident in the fidgeting of the fingers of his off-microphone hand, as he stands between Shulman and Hershiser. His lines in the “SportsCenter’’ spot are about Robinson Cano. He talks about the second baseman being on the rise. Francona isn’t happy.
He tells Shulman he feels like he didn’t add anything. Shulman assures him he did.
“That’s just part of a natural rookie feeling,’’ Hershiser said. “It’s our job to encourage him, and it’s our job to say, ‘Just keep being yourself.’
“Because the worst thing he could do is all of a sudden try to become a broadcaster. We want Terry Francona in the booth. We don’t want Terry Francona trying to be a broadcaster in the booth.’’
He is universally lauded for his hard work, for really wanting to be good. That doesn’t always happen with ex-players and ex-managers. But Francona can’t help himself.
“He’s not satisfied,’’ said “Sunday Night Baseball’’ producer Tom Archer. “He wants to be great. He’s approaching this with all the passion that you would hope that a new analyst would.’’
But, as much effort and as much time as Francona is putting in, is this his future? Is this what he wants to do, at the expense of the uniform he loves?
“Maybe I do it a year,’’ Francona said. “Maybe I do it 20 years. I don’t know.’’
“It’s not going to draw him as much as managing did,’’ Hershiser said. “That’s the passion there, making an impact on a daily basis, dealing with the wins and losses every day, making an impact on a team. That doesn’t happen here.
“You get to talk about your fraternity, not be in the fraternity. You’re alumni and they’re still doing it. That’s hard.’’
Where will this lead?
There are more hugs, fewer harsh words, only hints left of a nature that occasionally turned combative with the media at Fenway. The stress has melted.
He ended last season battered, stripped of his position, a manager without a team to manage. He went from exalted to out.
His image was tarnished. That’s not, he said, why he is doing this, though it might just help to erase all that. But it’s not something he has to do.
“As a manager, you’re in charge of managing everybody, so everybody comes to you, from the top, the bottom, the middle,’’ Francona said. “My job was to make it easier for the players to play, whether it’s covering up something or whatever.
“That’s not my job now. It’s a little easier to be relaxed because I’m not being asked questions about players that I know they don’t want answered.’’
There is no imperative for a rehabilitation tour, not according to one American League general manager. Francona will still be at the top of most GMs’ lists for a future managing spot, if he should want it. And maybe he’ll want it.
“My passion is being in uniform,’’ Francona said. “There’s no getting around that. I love being in uniform. But this is probably very healthy for me, to be able to step back, to stay in the game but not have the outcome of the game be so important.
“I can imagine what I must have looked like at the end of last year. It wears on you. In a place like Boston, it’s going to wear on you more than other places. It’s just the way it is. You can’t have all that good without having some of the rough stuff.’’
Still, no matter the stress, Francona cares deeply about baseball. He cares about making a difference, about having an impact. And there he sits in Yankee Stadium, the fifth stop on his 2012 trolley tour, as accommodating and friendly as he has ever been in his new role.
“We’ll see where this leads,’’ he said. “I don’t know where it’s going to lead. And I’m really not that concerned about worrying about it.
“I’m enjoying what I’m doing and we’ll see where it takes me. I don’t really have an agenda, I just want to be good at this and see what happens.’’Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.