CLEVELAND — The manager of the Cleveland Indians knows just about everything there is to know about how things work in the Boston Red Sox organization.
Terry Francona managed eight years in Boston, averaged 93 wins, won two World Series, made the playoffs five times, and never worked in front of anything less than a sellout crowd at Fenway. He became the first Red Sox manager to win a World Series in 86 years and endeared himself to legions of loyal fans who’ve been known to be pretty critical of the skipper of the Local Nine.
Five years after he was fired — five years after chicken and beer and a nasty public split with Sox ownership — Francona is a strong candidate for American League Manager of the Year. He’s had four straight winning seasons and now finds himself readying for a first-round, best-of-five series with . . . the Boston Red Sox.
Tito’s got half the payroll and none of the star power of the Red Sox, but he’s got a puncher’s chance to end their season. It is at once awesome and awkward.
“That won’t enter into anything,’’ the Tribe manager said when asked about the “Boston factor” earlier this week. “I would be excited to play anybody anywhere. It’s the playoffs. I think we’re a worthy opponent. I think we will hold our own. The idea is to win one more game than them. We’ll see if we’re good enough. It will be fun finding out.’’
Francona’s never going to go public with how much it would mean for him to beat Boston. That would be like Bill Belichick or Tom Brady acknowledging that winning the Super Bowl this season would be a little more special than all the others. No. It’s far more classy and diplomatic to shower everything with sweetness and ambiguity. Leave it to the carnivorous Boston media to connect the dots.
OK. Will do.
Tito is still hurt by how he was treated at the end in Boston. Knocking the Red Sox out of the playoffs would be sweet revenge. This matchup is more than a professional encounter. It’s a tad personal.
Francona still has fondness for a lot of people and things around Fenway Park. He has great memories of the Starbucks on Route 9 in Chestnut Hill, the Marriott at Coolidge Corner, the Red Lantern, and the powerful shower head in his cramped old office at 4 Yawkey Way. He loves Dustin Pedroia almost as much as he loves his own kids and he’s been friends with John Farrell since they were teammates in Cleveland 28 years ago. Tito was Farrell’s chemo wing man when Farrell went for his first treatment at Mass. General in the summer of 2015.
And now they’re “facing” one another in the postseason.
“I’m not going up against John,’’ said Francona. “Our players are going to decide this. I have mixed emotions. He’s one of my best friends in the whole world — outside of baseball. So it pulls at you a little bit. The way I look at it, it’s an honor to be able to compete against them. And I’m including him in that. That’s kind of how I feel.’’
Farrell seconded that emotion Wednesday at Progressive Field.
“It should never be about the manager,’’ said the Sox field boss. “This will always be about the players.’’
Farrell acknowledged he learned two important things during his four years as pitching coach for Francona: “The preparation that goes into it, and making sure the players always know you have their back.’’
Pedroia, David Ortiz, Clay Buchholz, and Junichi Tazawa are the only Sox players left who remember Francona as Sox manager, but there are dozens of Fenway folks who’ll have a glad hand for the ex-manager when this series moves to Fenway Sunday. Francona has friends in Boston’s baseball ops department and he’s never cut ties with team doctor Larry Ronan, traveling secretary Jack McCormick, or his private posse of Sox clubbies who annually accompanied him on junkets (on Tito’s dime) to Mohegan Sun.
Does all that make this series just a little more special?
“It can’t be,’’ he said. “Whatever my feelings were, are, need to remain that way. It’s unfair to the players on both teams. Both teams have accomplished a lot to get here. It needs to be about the players. Whatever my personal feelings are, need to stay just that.
“There’s a lot of history there, a lot of people I really care about. Sometimes it’s just time to move on and I think anybody that’s spent two minutes with me knows how happy I am here. That makes it a lot easier to look across the field and see some of those guys and remember the good and maybe not so much what wasn’t good.’’
Tito has moved on and life is good here in Cleveland. His 82-year-old dad Tito, who played for the Indians in the 1960s, will be on hand Thursday to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 1. The Indians have a chance to advance to the American League Championship Series and maybe get Cleveland back into the World Series.
But it’s also a series against the Red Sox and no matter what is said or unsaid, it’s always going to be a little personal for the manager who was fired by the Red Sox five years ago.