Franconas leaders on field, ground

There was a time Nick Francona imagined following his father and grandfather into the big leagues.

"To be truthful," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said, "we just wanted him to pick something and be good at it, the same with all our kids. He didn't have to be a baseball player for us to be proud of him."

But neither, Nick Francona, the son, nor Terry Francona, the father, imagined a career track that could take the son to Afghanistan while the father is in the American League.

Nick Francona wears a uniform to work, too, but there are no numbers on the back. The 24-year-old is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, having received his commission after completing six months of training at the officer candidates school in Quantico, Va. There were 59 prospective officers in his class; seven were disqualified for medical reasons, and only half of the remaining 52 finished the program.

There are similarities, Nick Francona said, in commanding a platoon and managing a baseball team. His father reluctantly agreed, but cited one critical difference.

"If we don't fulfill our obligations," Terry Francona said, "we lose a game. If they don't, kids die."

While having lunch in a Newton restaurant this week, Nick Francona said he had some reservations talking about himself.

"I don't think of myself as special or different because of who my father or my family is," he said. "Being a Marine is special enough in and of itself. But I realize that I have an opportunity here, to let people know how special this thing is.

"It's almost eerie, but when you're a Marine you feel a real connection to the guys before, the ones who fought in Vietnam and World War II and World War I. They paid the price, and now it's up to our generation to bear that burden."

On his cell phone, Nick Francona has a photo of his dad sitting in a tank at an MK-19 automatic grenade launcher, taken when his father visited on what is known as Warrior Day at Quantico. When Red Sox GM Theo Epstein saw the picture, he had coffee mugs burnished with the image for some of the guys in the office.

"Hilarious," Nick said with a smile.

But for Terry Francona there is nothing frivolous about carrying the knowledge that his only son in all likelihood will be deployed sometime in the coming year to fight a war thousands of miles away.

"He's doing what he wants, and he's as happy as I've ever seen him," Terry Francona said. "I'm very proud, obviously. Very proud. But that doesn't mean you don't worry. One of your kids gets a runny nose, you worry, let alone go to war in a different country. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried."

Any dreams Nick Francona had of playing baseball were set aside after he tore the labrum in his pitching shoulder in his freshman year at Penn. It was, he said, a blessing in disguise, because it allowed him to focus his passion on other things that mattered to him. He'd always been a big reader, he said, with an interest in national security, in part a byproduct of being a sophomore at a boarding school in New Jersey when the planes flew into the Twin Towers, and the parents of some of his classmates were among those who did not survive.

"I never realized how affected I was by it," he said. "But it is the defining event of my generation. You have a choice whether to let it pass you by or take some action and define you. I'm fortunate that I'm at a time in life where I can still have an impact."

But becoming a Marine? That wasn't part of the equation for a kid enrolled in the Wharton School of Business at Penn. Those kids go to Wall Street, which is where Nick figured he'd be headed. That all changed, though, when lawyer Alan Dershowitz, whom Nick had met when Dershowitz spoke on campus, helped to arrange an internship for Nick at a Washington think tank dealing with Middle Eastern issues.

There Nick met a man who would have a profound effect on his future: Andrew Exum, a Penn graduate who as a captain in the U.S. Army Rangers saw duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, became a scholar in Middle Eastern studies, and would go on to serve as one of the experts advising Gen. Stanley McChrystal on his Afghanistan policy.

"That kind of opened my eyes that no matter where you went to school, you could do this," Nick said. "I'd never seriously thought of the military, but that definitely got me thinking about it.

"There are a lot of people in the Marine Corps who could be doing a million other things and be successful, but they chose to do this."

He'd already made up his mind by the spring semester of his senior year, he said, when he picked up the phone to call his folks. "I came to the realization that the metric I judge myself by wasn't how much money I can make," he said, "but by how much a difference I can make, what I had to do to be happy with myself."

His first thought was to enlist in the Navy, but when that dragged on, he said, he walked into a Marine recruitment office in Boston. The initial apprehension that greeted his decision, he said, has ebbed as his parents have become more acquainted with the Corps. The decision, he said, smiling, also had an impact on the older of his two sisters. She's now dating his best friend in the Corps.

"My mother's first reaction was, 'The Marines? They're the grunts, the ones on the ground, fighting,'" Nick said. "But since then she has met a lot of my friends, many who have a far better education than I do. One of my friends went to Cornell, Yale Law School and was a Fulbright Scholar.

"This isn't just an organization of all rough guys. Being a bad ass and being intelligent aren't mutually exclusive. These are tough guys. You're glad they're on our side. And the enlisted men are unbelievable."

Four months into the training at Quantico, he was assigned his specialty -- ground intelligence officer -- then was sent to infantry school. "You learn," he said, "to become a warrior. Probably the most I've ever learned at any school."

Yes, he says, it doesn't take long for people to figure out the connection to his father. "I think most of my Red Sox stuff has been pilfered by the guys," he said. "Me and a couple buddies went to a game in New York, and came back with bags of stuff."

He is home, now, for the holidays, but in the next four months there is a class to be taken for ground intelligence officers, another for scout sniper commanders. After that, he will be assigned to a unit of the First Marine Division, which is based at Camp Pendleton, and there he will await deployment.

Like his father, he said, his job is to create an environment in which the men under his command will succeed. "There's a difference, though, between $10 million ballplayers and Marines making $10,000 a year," he said, adding, "they don't have Manny Ramirezes in the Marine Corps. They just don't exist. In baseball, you can't just tell them what to do. In the Marine Corps, you say jump, they say, 'How high?"'

Nick Francona says he has no false sense of war's glory. He does believe, however, that his work is a worthy enterprise, one in which he is persuaded that his mission is about helping the Afghan people as much as it is killing Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It is why, he said, one of his commanders recommended they read "Three Cups of Tea" and "The Kite Runner" to gain an insight on Afghan life.

"Nobody wants to go to war," he said, "and everyone knows the danger. At the same time, the reality of the situation is you're not going to wave a magic wand and make it go away.

"There are bad people out there, and you sign up to be one of those who confront them. That's your job, and we want a chance to do our job."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.