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NICK CAFARDO | ON BASEBALL

Terry Francona was the best manager in Red Sox history

The 2011 collapse took its toll on Terry Francona, but the rest of his stint as Red Sox manager was off the charts, says Nick Cafardo.
The 2011 collapse took its toll on Terry Francona, but the rest of his stint as Red Sox manager was off the charts, says Nick Cafardo.(Gary Landers/Associated Press)

He’s a man who is one of the most self-deprecating successful people you’ll ever know. Whenever he’s asked a question tinged with praise, he always downplays it and tries to put others in a better light than himself.

I guess that’s what makes Terry Francona so special.

The last time he managed the Red Sox in 2011, the team blew a 9-game lead in September. It was a team that was supposed to win it all, but went 7-20 in the final month of the season and missed the playoffs. It was the infamous Chicken and Beer Year, the one that took its toll on Francona. It was likely the lowest point of his managerial career and life. But it happened. It was considered one of the greatest collapses in baseball history, rivaling the 1978 Red Sox collapse.

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But the before and after has been off charts — two championships with the Red Sox, almost a third with the Indians, who took the Cubs to Game 7 of an epic World Series two years ago, and last season the team won 102 games, including an incredible 22 straight games.

And so the question I asked him didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“Have you ever thought of being in the Hall of Fame?”

Because, you know, Francona is going to be there with Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, and others when he finally hangs it up. History will show that he is the best Red Sox manager of all time. Who knows, maybe Alex Cora, or one of the branches from his managerial tree will surpass him.

But, for now, the Francona/Theo Epstein management arm of the Red Sox in those incredible seasons from 2004 to 2011, some day will carry them both to the tiny village of Cooperstown, N.Y.

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“I don’t know about that,” he said of the Hall of Fame possibility. “I know I’m not the smartest person — everybody is nodding [he kidded]. I’m smart enough to have people around me who were really good and some of them were players.”

Francona’s list of players or coaches under his watch who are either managing now or have managed include Cora, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts, Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash, the Mets’ Mickey Callaway, the Diamondbacks’ Torey Lovullo, and former managers John Farrell and Brad Mills.

Franconca said he never thought about who would or wouldn’t be a good manager.

“I watched Alex [Cora] in Houston when he was bench coach,” he said. “Sometimes you learn a lot about a bench coach because he’s involved in all sorts of strategy things. He lets his guys be aggressive, taking extra bases. They let the guys who can hit, hit.”

In another funny line, Francona said of Cash, “I just remember everytime I saw Cashy come up, I said ‘I wish he could become a coach or a manager.’ But I don’t know if you think that way. You’re in the moment so you’re not thinking that way. So I’m not surprised. Of course you have to want it. Look at Jason Varitek. He could be a manager or general manager if he wanted. He can do whatever he wants.”

Stepping into Fenway is no longer the big deal it once was.

“It’s not emotional anymore,” Francona said. “It was at one time. I mean I’ve almost been here in Cleveland as long as I was in Boston. I think it’s more fun to come back as you get distance. You’re able to think about the good. You can’t be here for eight years and not get close to people. That part’s fun. You look up and go over their team and that brings you back to reality in a hurry.”

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He does remember the 45 minutes before every game when he’d walk down the runway from the clubhouse to the dugout. He’d sit there and Dustin Pedroia would join him.

“That was one of my favorite times,” Francona said. “Pedey would come down and AC [Cora] would be there. Guys would trickle down. Nobody has made an out yet. You could talk about a lot of stuff and it was one of the most fun times for me. I never wanted someone to walk out of the dugout and get loose without talking about something that was on their mind.”

He looks at this version of the Red Sox and seemed to be in awe.

“Everybody sees their talent,” Francona said. “That part is easy. They have brought it every day. They have 88 wins. They come at you. They can run you into crooked numbers in a hurry. This will be a big test for our team.”

The Indians seem to be peaking at the right time. The season started slowly with bullpen issues. But with Andrew Miller back, though not quite a 100 percent, and the bullpen acquisitions made by GM Chris Antonetti, it looks as if the Indians are primed for a big postseason.

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Who knows what the next chapter will be for this future Hall of Fame manager? If he wins a third championship, it’s a slam dunk.

When the final chapter is written, what Francona will cherish most is his relationship with Pedroia.

“There’s nobody like him and I can’t imagine there ever will be,” Francona said. “He’s so special that I was probably expecting too much out of him because of how he played the game and everything. There’s nothing he did that didn’t make him special.

“When he walks into a room, the light seems to get brighter. He woke up every morning to kick your ass. When you’re on his team you like that,” Francona added. “I keep in touch with him because I care about him and I know it’s hard for him.

“He willed himself to be the player he was and his body is paying for it. I wouldn’t be surprised [if he came back]. When you tell him no, he finds a way to make the answer yes.

“I don’t want to see him hurt himself. He wouldn’t have to play another inning because he is what he always will be to me,” Francona said.

He knows he’s one of the old guys in the profession now. His passion is still off the charts. Since he was a kid, accompanying his father, Tito, to major league clubhouses around baseball, it’s been in his blood. He’s had some health issues, but he seems to be in a good place.

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He claims he has no idea how much money he makes, which is his way of saying he doesn’t care because he loves what he does.

That’s Terry “Tito” Francona. The greatest manager in Red Sox history.


Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.