Tito's spring has a different ring

BOSTON -- When Terry Francona arrived at his first spring training as a 21-year-old prospect for the Montreal Expos in 1981, little did he know he would spend the next 31 years enjoying the annual rite of winter.

"I walked into camp about 25 pounds overweight and [Expos manager] Dick Williams screamed at me," Francona said with a laugh.

Francona, 52, has experienced it all since his first camp, and now, for the first time in his career, he's a man without a uniform.

For the first time in more than three decades, the former Red Sox manager, the man who helped bring a pair of World Series titles to Boston in 2004 and 2007, is not working for a major league team.

His career as the Red Sox manager abruptly ended after the team's historic collapse last September, with the organization deciding it needed a "new voice" in the clubhouse and choosing not to exercise his club options for 2012 and 2013. So, after eight successful seasons in Boston, Francona was shown the door.

Francona and Joe Cronin (1935-1947) are the only two Red Sox managers to work the dugout for at least eight consecutive seasons. The Red Sox were 744-552 during Francona's tenure in Boston.

On Monday, instead of boarding a flight to Fort Myers, Fla., the spring training home of the Red Sox, Francona left Boston and traveled to Arizona for a few weeks because he knew this would be an emotional time for him.

"Everybody kept asking me all winter, 'Hey, how do you feel?' And it's really no different during the winter," Francona explained during a phone interview with ESPNBoston.com. "Now, this will be the first time since I left college that I'm not going down with a team in uniform, so it'll be different. It'll get a little, I don't know if I would say emotional because that's probably not true, but it does hit you a little bit. I knew it would, and I guess down deep, I guess I'm OK with that because that means I care about the game. If I didn't miss it, something would be wrong."

From the time he was a prospect with the Expos until this past year as manager of the Red Sox, each spring training presented different challenges and expectations. Boston was picked as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series in 2011, and for the majority of the summer it looked as if that prophecy would come to fruition.

Then September came and the Red Sox went 7-20 down the stretch and missed the postseason for the second consecutive year. Looking back at the hype during spring training months earlier, Francona said that last February didn't feel any different than any other Red Sox camp.

"It's never really any different," Francona said. "If the perception from outside the clubhouse is you're supposed to be good, or not good, I don't think I really ever cared about that. For every manager, spring training -- and for [the team's] fans, too -- it signifies a new beginning."

The Super Bowl is over. People are fed up with the winter months. Baseball season is about to begin with the arrival of spring training.

"It cheers everyone up," Francona said. "Like I said, it signifies a new beginning and it's the same way for a baseball team. It's a fun time of year. You're either meeting new people, new players or you're establishing relationships or you're seeing guys you've known for a while and reestablishing. I always got a big kick out of that."

Speaking of new beginnings, Francona will enter a new and different phase of his baseball career, only this time he will be critiquing the game and its players publicly as an analyst for ESPN. He said he's looking forward to the new challenge.

"Yeah, sure. I wouldn't have done it if I wasn't looking forward to it," he said. "It's different and I have a lot to learn. I think it's probably healthy for me to do something like this and I'm really fortunate this came along."

After the Red Sox failed to reach the postseason, Fox asked Francona to join the broadcast team for a couple of postseason games to fill in for Tim McCarver. Francona was excellent as an analyst, which made another major network notice, and he landed a job with ESPN.

"The Fox people took a huge risk, asking me to do those two games, and because of that I got this chance with ESPN, and they've been wonderful to me," Francona said. "It's been fun. It's been healthy to take a step back. It's a hard thing to understand because you may not want to take a step back, but when you actually sit back and look at it, it's a healthy thing for me to do."

Of course, the reason ESPN had an opening was because former analyst Bobby Valentine was hired to replaced Francona as manager of the Red Sox.

There's a tradition that outgoing U.S. presidents leave a note in a desk drawer in the Oval Office for the incoming commander-in-chief. Francona did not leave any words of wisdom for Valentine in the manager's office at Fenway Park.

"I talked to Bobby at the winter meetings because we did that ['Baseball Tonight'] interview, and there are probably some things I left in that office, but not on purpose," Francona said with a laugh. "I'm not the neatest guy in the world."

Francona has talked to a few of his former players this offseason, but those conversations remained personal because he did not want to voice his opinion on the what-ifs.

"I don't want to cross that line," he said. "I've known these guys for years and I care enough about them not to want to give them my opinions. They need to move on and play the game the right way. … I had my turn and now it's someone else's chance and I don't want to get in the way of that.

"That's why you makes changes," Francona added. "Bobby's going to do it his way and that's what you're supposed to do. I did it my way and for most of the time it worked, but in the end it didn't and that's why you make changes. I understand that."

Francona, a baseball lifer and son of a former major leaguer, said he is content at the moment and hopes that someday soon he'll be back in uniform.

"I'm always going to stay in the game," he said. "That's all I ever really wanted to do. But to manage again, it's kind of a two-way street. First of all, somebody has to want you, and then secondly it has to be the right situation. I don't want to manage just for the sake of managing. I would want to be in a situation where I enjoy the challenge, because it is challenging and it takes a toll on you. I would want to be in a situation where I could do my job and enjoy the challenge."

Francona can be considered one of the greatest managers in Red Sox history. There's no denying his love for the game and his love for Boston, during good times and bad. He's also not the type of person to dwell on his personal accomplishments.

"I don't spend much time doing that," Francona said. "I've always tried to stay in the moment and I've said that a million times because that's what I believe. I just really don't think like that. I do remember the day we got our rings in '05 we were 2-4 and I remember as I was getting my ring thinking, 'Damn, man, we've got to win today because we're 2-4.' That probably best sums up how I felt about it."

There have been many changes in the Red Sox's organization this offseason both on and off the field. It's going to be strange without Francona holding court this spring training.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.