Terry Francona and John Farrell share a bond forged by baseball, sweat, tears, years, road trips, and the crucible of being a major league manager, particularly one in the home dugout at Fenway Park. They are baseball brothers and friends for life.
That’s why Francona plans to be at Massachusetts General Hospital on Tuesday, when Farrell begins chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Francona will go with Farrell to the hospital and then manage the Cleveland Indians against the Red Sox on Tuesday night.
“He mentioned he was going to start [treatment] on Tuesday. I was like, ‘I’m right there, man. I’ll meet you there. I’ll go with you, whatever,’ ” said Francona, before Monday’s Sox-Indians game.
“I may not do anything other than get in the way like normal. But being a friend, the only thing I know how to do is be a friend. We all don’t know exactly how to handle these things or what to do. But I do know how to be a friend, and I care about him a lot. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
The imposing Farrell shocked and saddened Boston baseball fans when he revealed on Friday that he had been diagnosed with Stage 1 lymphoma, a cruel blow in a cruel season.
At least one thing has gone right for the Sox this year. The schedule put Francona and his Indians at Fenway for a three-game set. Monday’s game wasn’t about two last-place teams sharing a field. It was about two longtime friends sharing a battle.
Farrell’s cancer diagnosis is a stark reminder of the outsized importance we put on sports as fans. It is a distraction, a passion, a way to mark the revolutions of the planet. That’s all.
How petty and insignificant does the air pressure of footballs seem compared to Farrell’s ordeal? Who cares about arguing pitching changes and double-switches? A man’s mortality means so much more than agonizing over highly paid adults playing a child’s game.
“You show up every day and you want to win so bad,” said Francona, who won two World Series as Red Sox manager in eight seasons, four of those with Farrell as his pitching coach (2007-10). “I probably have the worst perspective of anybody in this league on how important this game is. But all of the sudden it kind of smacks you right in the face, where you got people you care about that need you to care about them.”
If you believe in good omens, it is worth noting that Farrell is starting his cancer treatment on the same day that the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio Telethon starts.
The Telethon is an annual rite that reminds us that the most inspiring stories don’t come from athletes and that everyone needs teammates in the fight against cancer.
Farrell was at the ballpark Monday. He strolled into the clubhouse at 3:47 p.m. and went straight into the manager’s office. He hosted well-wishers who wandered into his office to offer their support. The 53-year-old was upbeat about starting his treatment.
Remarkably, Farrell, hours from chemo, was in his office postgame after interim manager Torey Lovullo and the Sox suffered an 8-2 defeat.
Across from Farrell’s office, by the entrance to the Sox clubhouse, was a note reminding the team that on Wednesday afternoon they are scheduled for a Jimmy Fund Telethon group photo.
Farrell is lucky that his cancer was caught during hernia surgery last week in Detroit.
He was happy to see Francona, a friend Farrell traces back to being teammates on the 1988 Indians. When Farrell managed a group of major league baseball All-Stars that toured Japan last offseason, Francona went along as a member of Farrell’s staff.
“In this game, you run into so many good people and you have so many friends,” said Francona. “But then there are a handful of people that are friends not just through baseball but outside of baseball. He is certainly one of those for me.”
Few of us know what it’s like to be a major league manager, to suffer the slings and arrows of second-guesses and extinguish the brush fires that arise dealing with 25-plus personalities.
But we’ve all been Francona, standing by a friend or loved one who is dealing with cancer.
People often ask me why I feature my middle initial in my byline. They assume it is a pretentious Globe-ism. Nope.
It stands for Lee, the name of my late uncle who died of cancer in 2006 at age 48. He was an avid sports fan, inveterate jokester, and the person on the planet who believed in me the most.
I have another uncle who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, an aunt who is a breast cancer survivor, and a friend who is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. She is the most upbeat and courageous person I know.
“I think like a lot of us you just do the best you can,” said Francona. “I think right now I’m supposed to be a friend, and that’s never been an issue. It’s always easy because he is one of my best friends.”
Francona has been touched by cancer before.
He was the Sox manager when their ace Jon Lester was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma in 2006. He fiercely protected Lester’s privacy during his treatment.
This year, Indians infielder Mike Aviles, who also played for Francona in Boston, has endured his 4-year-old daughter being diagnosed with leukemia. Aviles has taken multiple leaves and the team has pledged not to trade him.
In a wicked coincidence, Aviles was the player the Sox traded to Toronto for the right to hire Farrell.
It wasn’t always easy for Francona to convey his feelings about Farrell. But his being there for Farrell’s first treatment says more than words.
“I do know that if well wishes and lots of people caring, if that has anything to do with the outcome, he is going to be in good shape,” said Francona. “There’s a lot of people that care about him.”