CLEVELAND — Theo and Tito.
Theirs are names from "Sesame Street,'' or perhaps a couple of characters for a children's book series: "Theo and Tito Go to the Zoo.'' "Theo and Tito Say, 'Goodnight, Moon.' ''
But they are neither muppets nor fiction. Theo Epstein and Terry "Tito" Francona are the men who in 2004 brought Boston its first baseball championship in 86 years. Then they did it again in 2007.
Theo and Tito were together on Yawkey Way for eight years, winning an average of 93 games per season, making the playoffs five times, and filling Fenway for every game of every season. When they left after the chicken-and-beer collapse of 2011 — Theo voluntarily, Tito being pushed — it was like the breakup of Boston's baseball Beatles.
Now they are on opposite sides of two "other" long-suffering franchises in the 112th World Series, which starts Tuesday night at Progressive Field. The Chicago Cubs, led by general manager Theo Epstein, have not won a World Series since 1908 and have not even participated in the Fall Classic since 1945. The Cleveland Indians, managed by Terry Francona, have not won a World Series since 1948. We have two plagued ball clubs led by a pair of curse-busting bosses.
Something has to give.
Francona was the first manager ever hired by Epstein. After the Grady Little disaster in 2003, 29-year-old Theo went to work to find the man who would inherit the star-laden Sox roster. Epstein hired Francona over a field of candidates that included Joe Maddon, now the Cubs manager.
Epstein and Francona enjoyed a complex but fairly close relationship during their Boston years.
Francona was a 44-year-old father of four when he showed up for his first spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. One of his bonding moments with Theo came when he visited the eight-bedroom Cape Coral "frat" style house that Epstein shared with the other single whiz kids of Boston's baseball ops department. During a night of Miller Lite and Texas Hold 'Em, Francona played cards with the stat men and soaked up the new-age ambiance of a modern front office.
There was a steep learning curve in those early years. Francona had zero computer skills and pushed back a little when he was bombarded with statistics from the minions.
"I love information, but . . ." Francona would say, while reminding everyone that there was a human element to the game.
Epstein grew to admire Francona's skill at handling a clubhouse of 25 diverse personalities.
"One of Tito's greatest strengths was to empower players and put them at ease and let them be themselves and feel great about themselves,'' Epstein noted in 2012. "He created this atmosphere where you show up to the clubhouse and the outside world ceases to exist.
"It was just a group of guys doing what guys always wanted to do — hang out, have fun, make fun of each other, be themselves, show off, and find some sort of conflict on which they could all be on the same side, which was tonight's game.''
That's why Francona was good for the Red Sox in 2004, and that's why he's good for the Indians in 2016. You see it in the way the Tribe players interact with one another and talk about one another. They are having fun, and it truly seems to be a "team above self" environment, which is hard to achieve in baseball.
One thing that initially bothered Francona was the constant presence of Epstein in his office, especially in the minutes after a ballgame. Tito asked for a cooling-off period, but the general manager often wanted answers immediately. Francona would buy time for himself by disappearing to brush the chewing tobacco out of his teeth.
"Sometimes I'd take some extra time brushing that [expletive] out because I was trying to get my thoughts in order,'' said Francona.
"It was like a marriage,'' said Epstein. "It was always a delicate balance.''
In their Boston time, Epstein seved as a buffer between Francona and the Red Sox owners. John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino often had opinions they wanted to share with their manager, but generally their thoughts were filtered through Theo.
This got complicated in Theo and Tito's final days together when the Red Sox collapsed in September of 2011. Francona parted ways with the team after a particularly prickly exit interview with the owners. Two weeks after his departure, there was a firestorm ignited by a Globe story citing "team sources" who held that Francona appeared distracted "by issues related to his troubled marriage and to his health.''
Nine days later, Epstein resigned and went to work for the Cubs.
Francona never got to the bottom of who the "team sources" were, but his relationship with Epstein was somewhat strained after the story was published.
Fast-forward to October 2016, and time has dimmed much of the pain. When the Indians defeated Toronto to win the ALCS, Theo sent Tito a congratulatory text. Tito responded in less than an hour with, "Hope to see you next week.''
"We were together eight years, and eight years in Boston I would say is almost miraculous,'' Francona said. "There's a lot of fond memories.''
Theo and Tito. Once a great team in Boston . . . now back in the World Series on opposite sides . . . both likely bound for the Hall of Fame.