Terry Francona where he belongs

BOSTON -- The old manager with the new navy cap mistakenly smacked his head on the visitor's dugout as he settled in.

Forgive Terry Francona if he was still feeling his way around. For eight seasons, the dugout across the Fenway diamond was his haven, his baseball refuge, his life.

It didn't end the way he wanted -- does it ever? -- but a full year away from baseball diluted the anger and the disappointment and afforded him the opportunity to reflect, reevaluate and reenergize so he could again work in the only field he has ever known.

Tito needed baseball. Thirsted for it. The uniform didn't matter; he was sure any of them would fit. He is a baseball lifer, and this is all he wants.

The last time he came to this park, he was a bitter, jilted ex-manager who received the most rousing ovation of any of the luminaries attending the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. While he appreciated the sentiment, Francona took little joy in that.

He wanted to be in the dugout, not emerging from the center-field wall with all the other former Red Sox stars.

He wanted his identity back.

He's got it now, as the manager of a surprising team that sits atop the Central Division.

Francona happily arrived at Fenway with greetings for the clubhouse attendants and his old friend Jack McCormick, the team's traveling secretary. He shared a private moment with team president Larry Lucchino before the game. In between, he exchanged a couple of meaningful yet hurried handshakes with some of the players who won World Series rings alongside him.

He forever will be remembered as the manager who put a stop to the heartache of this franchise by steering his 2004 team to a World Series triumph. Three years later, he did it again. He was atop the Boston sports pedestal -- until the crushing collapse of 2011 abruptly ended his tenure here.

"I wish the ending was different," Francona mused in the hours before the first pitch. "It wasn't the script I would have written. I don't think I'll ever change my feelings about that, but I also don't wake up in the morning [thinking about it anymore]. I had my time. We all go through it, then you've got to move on."

He's "entrenched" in Cleveland, he said, "and I like that. That doesn't take away from what happened before."

Being the manager of the Boston Red Sox is a consuming, exhilirating, humbling and exasperating exercise, one that left Francona so deeply immersed that, in the end, he couldn't see it unraveling around him. He was a jangle of nerves, a man already plagued with multiple physical ailments who was reduced to a ghost of himself.

The Francona who has captured the hearts of Indians fans is loose, spry, reinvigorated. The Cleveland Francona tells hilarious stories about getting lost on his way to the park. The Cleveland Francona willingly performed his rendition of the Harlem Shake and allowed it to go viral on the Internet.

Asked if he could ever imagine his former manager doing that dance in the Boston clubhouse, pitcher Jon Lester laughed and answered, "No. Never."

He paused for just a moment, then amended, "Wait. I take it back. With the right team, maybe that '04 group with the Millars and Pedro [Martinez] and David [Ortiz]. Especially going into '05, I could see it happening. But otherwise? No."

Lester noted the ease with which Francona now carries himself.

"I think it's the market," Lester offered. "Cleveland is more like, 'Hey, I'm the manager of the Indians. That's what I do.' It's real cut and dry for him.

"Here, he had to do a lot of things. He had to manage the clubhouse, deal with the personalities, different things in the media.

"That job in there [the Red Sox clubhouse], and the manager of the Yankees, I don't think I'd wish those jobs on anybody."

And, yet, it was the job that established Francona as one of the best in the game, a "player's manager" who held his guys accountable but almost always within the confines of the clubhouse. Along the way, he endeared himself to a discerning baseball public with his direct and self-effacing manner.

His years at Fenway were prolific, but at a very dear personal and physical cost.

"When you are the manager of the Red Sox, it can take a toll on you," Francona admitted. "I was here eight years. I've always said its one of the greatest jobs in the world, but it's also one of the hardest.

"And toward the end there, it was taking a toll on me. I think I caught myself not being as patient as I would have liked to have been. I was stubborn.

"You take a year away and it allows you to recharge, reevaluate things and reevaluate yourself too, and you try to be the person where positives are coming at you."

Baseball does not allow for any pregame introductions for opposing managers. Francona did not bring out the lineup card, and the game could have been played without any hint of his presence, save for the gracious decision of the Red Sox to present a video tribute to him before the top of the second inning.

As his profile illuminated the center-field screen, the assembled fans, some 35,000 strong, stood and applauded for a very long time.

Francona confessed afterward he tried to "keep his emotions inside," but the video tribute caused those feelings to spill over. With the camera firmly fixed on Francona and his longtime friend and bench coach Brad Mills, they both acknowledged the applause with a grateful wave.

"I appreciate it," Francona said. "It was very heartfelt. Again, you don't want to be the main focus. You want the players to play. But it felt good, and I hope they realize that."

Mills acknowledged his friend needed a year out of baseball to work through the hurt and disappointment after his exit from Boston.

He came out the other side excited about Cleveland Indians baseball.

"He's been great," Mills said. "In every way. They love him. The players, the fans, everyone."

Told that he appeared more relaxed, Francona retorted, "I am relaxed, but I keep reminding people I wasn't going to Cleveland to go out to pasture.

"Every game means the same to me in Cleveland as it ever did here. The goals are exactly the same: to win the game we're playing.

"But I like where I'm at, maybe where I'm at in my life, in baseball. I'm really comfortable with where I'm working, who I'm working with. It doesn't mean we won't have challenges, because we will, but I like the idea of tackling them with who I'm with."

Tito's Tribe delivered a 12-3 spanking to his old ballclub, in spite of a 5 a.m. arrival in Boston on Thursday. The manager said he was proud of the way his team battled, and despite Francona's wish that his emotions would not seep into his players' emotions, winning pitcher Zack McCallister said the Indians were aware of what an important night this was.

"Everyone wanted a win, but not just for the team but for [Terry] too," McCallister said. "He's been great for us this year. He's well-liked everywhere he is."

There are more games to be played in this series, and it probably won't happen every time that the Fenway fans will chant Tito's name. But on this night it was a fitting homage to a man who gave everything he had to this baseball team.

Francona said following the game that Lucchino made a point to visit him before the first pitch, a gesture that he characterized as "very kind."

"Larry and I have actually texted a few times," Francona said, "like when they hired John [Farrell], and when I got hired here. There's an enormous amount of respect there.

"I didn't like the way things ended but he went out of his way to talk to me at the anniversary [last year], when I probably wasn't the most pleasant, and he came down to say hello tonight. I appreciated it."

The old manager in the new navy cap would like to get past all this nostalgia now. He might be calmer, happier and healthier, but, he insists, he really hasn't changed.

"I like waking up and going to the ballpark," Terry Francona explained. "I get there absurdly early and I stay probably absurdly late.

"I have no perspective, and I enjoy it."

The old manager with the new navy cap laughed at his own joke.

The uniform fits. The navy cap does too. It's baseball. And that's all Terry Francona has ever wanted.