What manner of man could break an 86-year-old curse, pull a team out of a 3–0 hole for the first time in postseason baseball history, sweep two World Series in four years, run the gauntlet of the Boston media on a daily basis, ignore the hysteria of Red Sox Nation, regularly massage two different sets of egos (clubhouse and front office) and suffer through his own health issues with stoicism, all the while never losing his sense of humor and only occasionally his temper?
A man who once swiped the bats of Lou Brock and Tim McCarver.
A man who had to manage Michael Jordan.
A man who plays cribbage.
A man who expectorates. A lot.
"I'm just a lucky man," says Terry Francona. The 48-year-old father of four and focus of millions is sitting in his temporary office in the visitors clubhouse at Fenway Park. Six weeks after sweeping Colorado, the Red Sox are once again renovating. There will be 900 new seats in Fenway next season and a restaurant at the base of the wall in center. And they're installing sprinklers in the home clubhouse, which is why the skipper has been relocated.
Francona himself looks refurbished, certainly more rested than he did while all of New England publicly fretted about his ability to stave off the Yankees, get through the Angels, rally against the Indians and cool down the Rockies. "The first time we won the Series, I wore myself out making appearances and going to banquets," he says. "This time I'm taking it easy, going to my daughters' volleyball games and an occasional Celtics or Patriots game. When we went to the general managers' meetings in Orlando, I just slept and did crossword puzzles. I think I set a record for room service. One day I went to the window, looked down at the pool and thought about going for a swim. Then I said, Nah, and went back to bed."
His desk is slightly cluttered with the ephemera of the job, along with two objects of some significance. One is a standard-issue telephone. "The light on the phone is always on when I walk in after a game," he says. "It's always a message from my father. If we win, it's, 'Way to go, sleep tight.' If we lose, it's, 'Hang in there, sleep tight.' Not much more than that, but it's always very much appreciated."
His father is Tito Francona, a former outfielder who played 15 seasons with nine different teams, leaving Terry with some interesting memories. In 1965, when Terry was 6 and Tito was with the Cardinals, Terry and the other players' sons sold broken bats to fans for extra cash. Terry figured he'd get even more money for unbroken bats, so one day he sold some of those, too. When Tito asked where he'd gotten all the money, Terry innocently explained what he'd done. "They were gamers!" Tito says from his home in New Brighton, Pa. "I had to go up in the stands and buy them back."
Bats weren't the only things Terry picked up. "I'd look in from the outfield," Tito says, "and see him sitting in the seats behind home plate, chin in hand, watching the game like a scout."
Terry was the Sporting News College Player of the Year at Arizona and a first-round pick of the Expos in 1980, and he seemed destined for stardom. In the spring of 1981, Sports Illustrated did a story on him and another rookie who grew up in baseball: Cal Ripken Jr. I happen to have written that story. Back then, Terry was a likable, kind of goofy kid with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a knack for making good things happen on the field. But injuries derailed his career as an outfielder and first baseman, and he went from the Expos to the Cubs to the Reds to the Indians to the Brewers (for whom he pitched a shutout inning), finishing up with the Cardinals at Triple-A Louisville in 1990. "My career might have been a disappointment, but it gave me a chance to learn from a lot of managers," Francona says. "My favorite was Gaylen Pitts, who had me my last year in Louisville. He'd pinch-hit for me late in the game—the right move, by the way—but the next day, he'd come out early to throw me BP. I try to treat every player the way he treated me, with honesty and consideration."
Francona dove right into coaching and managing in the White Sox system. As manager of Double-A Birmingham, he was charged with making Michael Jordan a baseball player. "That was a great experience," he says. "For one thing, it taught me how to deal with the media. For another, Michael could not have been nicer or worked harder. People make fun of his baseball career, but by the end of that season, he had a real swing. He was maybe a thousand more at-bats from being ready for the majors."
When Francona, then 37, was named manager of the Phillies in 1996, there were skeptics, including a former teammate and manager who said, "He's a free spirit, pleasant, fun to play with … but he's not the managerial type." That wasn't the first, nor the last, lapse of judgment for Pete Rose.
There were skeptics too when the Red Sox chose Francona to replace Grady Little in 2004. But as GM Theo Epstein says, "We saw a guy who'd care about the players and treat them fairly and have a good personal touch with the different constituencies."
The second object on Francona's desk speaks to that personal touch: a beautifully painted cribbage Peg-Board. Cribbage is as anachronistic as Fenway, a counting-card game devised by 17th-century English poet Sir John Suckling. Besides the board, it demands cunning, skill, experience, etiquette and luck. Kind of like managing. And Terry, who inherited cribbage (as well as his nickname, Tito) from his dad, is very good at it. Thanks to his influence, it has become the game of choice for the Red Sox on plane rides and before the real games. "One of the reasons I get to the ballpark early is so that I can do all my prep work before the first player arrives," Francona says. "Then, if they want to come in and play, I have the time. Tim Wakefield insists we play on the days he starts. When Dustin Pedroia was struggling, he knew he could come in here, play cribbage, talk about things, relieve the pressure."
In cribbage terms, Francona pegged the game hole (121 points) this season by showing backbone and patience. During the spring, he resisted upper management's suggestion to turn closer Jonathan Papelbon into a starter, and that turned out pretty well. So did sticking with Pedroia, who was hitting .180 in May while the talk-radio crowd was demanding he be sent to Pawtucket. (The diminutive second baseman won AL Rookie of the Year honors.)
In early September, when everybody else in town was wondering why Manny RamÌrez wasn't in the lineup, the skipper allowed him to set his own timetable for returning from an oblique-muscle injury. It can't be easy to let Manny be Manny, not for someone who grew up in the game, as Francona did. But as he says, "Look, I could go old school and meet a player on the top step of the dugout for not hustling and maybe lose him. Or I could talk to him, man-to-man, and get him to understand that I'm responsible for 25 guys, not just him. That we're all in this together to do one thing: win."
There's another reason Francona has a chance to become the first Red Sox manager since Joe Cronin (1935-47) to last five consecutive seasons, and that's his ability to handle the media piranhas, which now include the Japanese contingent that follows Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima. "Sometimes I'll get short with the writers," he says, "but I like the challenge and understand they're in this for the same reason I am: They love baseball."
You would think Francona would feel the love back. You would think the faithful would be erecting statues of him instead of flipping him off as he drives by. You would think the front office would be signing him to a multiyear extension instead of letting him dangle on a contract that expires next fall. You would think he would get more credit for the Red Sox's success than, say, statistician Bill James does. But if you mention the name Terry Francona in polite conversation, you often get this response: "Why does he always have to spit?"
He spits because of the stress of the job. Actually, according to bench coach Brad Mills, the manager has cut back. "Now it's just three chunks of bubble gum with very little chewing tobacco mixed in," Mills says. "The thing is, Tito doesn't chew at all between the end of the season and Opening Day." Adding to the stress are health concerns: painful knees that require regular ice packs, a life-threatening pulmonary embolism suffered in 2002, ongoing treatment to prevent blood clots. In fact, the tight-fitting undergarments Francona wears because of the clots are what led to last summer's uniform flap at Yankee Stadium, when a security guard in the employ of Major League Baseball told Francona in the second inning that he had to have a uniform shirt on underneath his pullover. "I was on the sideline of a Patriots game recently," he says, "and the NFL official in charge of uniforms comes up to tell me how ridiculous he thought it was."
His hair is gone, his face is puffier, but Francona is still very much the friendly guy I met when he was just a rookie. Terry being Terry. When it comes time to wrap up a conversation begun 26 years ago, I mention the scene on the field after the ALCS win over the Indians when Francona went up to each and every one of his players and whispered something to them. I tell him my son saw that and said, "Man, I would love to play for that guy."
"Can he play?" Francona asks, laughing.
Seriously, what did he tell them?
"I wanted to thank them for playing through all the ups and downs. I just wanted to tell them how proud I was of them."
What manner of man is this? A good man.