He has the same glasses, the same gait, the same disdain for far-fetched questions. Even the colors he’s donning with the Cleveland Indians are similar to ones he wore in Boston. Terry Francona hasn’t changed much since his days as Red Sox manager.
What has changed is his approval rating. Francona, who returned to Fenway Park Thursday night as a major league manager for the first time since he was deposed after the Sox’ collapse in 2011, has never been more popular in Boston than he is now.
The man once referred to as “Francoma” by some irascible and irrational Sox fans is now popular enough that he could beat either Gabriel Gomez or Ed Markey for the vacant Massachusetts Senate seat.
In the middle of his pregame press conference in the visitors’ dugout, one boisterous fan belted out, “We still love you, Francona.” Like any relationship, sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
Time tints the past with fondness and regret.
The disastrous 69-93 reign of Bobby Valentine last season and the clubhouse-cleansing deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers that exiled Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Adrian Gonzalez were vindication for Francona.
The Sox thought the problem was the manager. It never was. It was a clubhouse culture of entitlement, a micromanaging ownership, and an organizational focus on building a brand over building a baseball team.
When he was here, Francona was never given the wide berth and undying adulation of a Bill Belichick. A lot of that is the nature of the job of Red Sox manager, a pressure-packed crucible of captious critiques, constant second-guessing, and scant credit.
Even compiling the second-most wins of any manager in Red Sox history (744), winning two World Series titles, and taking the team to the playoffs five times in his eight seasons wasn’t enough to make him the darling of a demanding fan base.
What did was becoming the scapegoat for an organization that had lost its sense of self.
A sustained cheer went up from the Fenway Faithful when a video montage of Francona was shown on the big board after the first inning. He smiled and waved to the crowd from the Cleveland dugout, pounding his heart as thanks and pointing to his old cribbage partner, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia.
It was one of the few opportunities Sox fans had to be vocal. Francona’s hardball reunion was sapped of all drama by a six-run Cleveland sixth inning, as his new team clubbed his old team, 12-3.
“I appreciated it,” said Francona of the crowd reaction. “It was very heartfelt, but again you don’t want to be the main focus. You want to let the players play, but it felt good. I hope they realize that.”
The Sox and Indians had met in April, but Francona was managing at Fenway for the first time since Sept. 21, 2011. On that night the Red Sox suffered a 6-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, blowing a 4-1 lead.
It was a harbinger of what was to come. The Sox’ season and Francona’s tenure would end in Baltimore a week later.
Francona said the sting of his departure remains, an exit made messier by a Globe exposé on the 2011 team’s demise that included unnamed team sources questioning whether marital problems and pain-killers hampered Francona’s performance.
“Yeah, and you know what, that will probably never change,” said Francona. “I wish the ending would have been different. That wasn’t the script the way I would have written it. I don’t think I’ll ever change my feelings about that . . . I have my time to [wallow]. We all do, and we got to get through it and move on. Being here [Cleveland] has had a huge help in that for me.”
Francona said after the game that Sox CEO Larry Lucchino came down to visit him before the game. Francona was in much more of a mood to talk to one of his former bosses than he was the first time he returned to Fenway, for last year’s 100th anniversary bash for the ballpark.
The former Sox manager left the park before you could say “Liverpool” that day.
“He went out of his way at the anniversary to talk to me, and I probably wasn’t the most pleasant,” said Francona. “Tonight, he just came down to say hello, which I appreciated.”
The best revenge on an ex of any kind is doing well without them.
The Indians are 27-19, best in the American League Central, having gone 16-6 in May.
The last time Cleveland made the playoffs was 2007, when they lost the ALCS in seven games to Francona’s Sox, who won the World Series.
“I kept reminding people I wasn’t going to Cleveland to go to pasture,” said Francona. “Every game means the same to me here in Cleveland as it ever did here. Our goals are exactly the same — to win every game we’re playing.
“But I like where I’m at. Maybe, for where I’m at in my life and baseball, this is a really good place for me. I’m really comfortable with where I’m working and who I’m working with.”
Francona has his old confidant, Brad Mills, as his third base coach. Infielder Mike Aviles, who got the start at third base Thursday, and pitchers Justin Masterson, Rich Hill, and Matt Albers all played for Francona in Boston.
“Once you play for a guy like Tito you really get spoiled,” said Aviles.
Perhaps it wasn’t just the players who now realize they were spoiled by Francona’s presence in the dugout for the Red Sox.
No, he hasn’t changed much since the Red Sox fire . . . uh, parted ways with him.
He’s still the same old Tito. He’s just now recognized in a new uniform and a new light.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.