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Skipper sailing after rough patch

Francona shows steady hand at wheel

Nothing against "Gilligan's Island," but Terry Francona's wife, Jacque, figured he could find something better to do after his playing career than track the survivors of the SS Minnow. Rousing Francona from the couch, Jacque persuaded him to enroll in a real estate course, which he tolerated only until she called him one day in class to say an old friend, Buddy Bell, was looking for him. In a move that launched Francona's journey to the corner office of the Red Sox clubhouse, Bell, who was director of minor league scouting for the White Sox, asked Francona in 1991 to join the Chicago organization as a minor league coach. At that, Francona bolted to the front of the real estate class.

"I'm not coming back," he told the instructor. "No one's going to buy a house from me anyway."

So it was that Francona found himself 13 years later guiding the injury-depleted Red Sox to their worst May start since "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" hit the charts in 1976. The Sox dropped their fifth straight game May 4, lost sole possession of first place in the American League East, and threatened to make Francona nostalgic for an evening with Ginger and the Professor.

But rather than reach for the remote, the 44th manager in Sox history gathered the team in the visitors' clubhouse in Cleveland. The session lasted less than a minute, and Francona never uttered a word in anger.

"He said, `Guys, I just want to let you know that you're good. I love every one of you guys. You're going to be fine, trust me. That's it,' " Kevin Millar recalled.

The Sox won their next four games and 15 of their next 23 to reach today -- the 100th day of Francona's tenure since spring training began -- better positioned to help him become the first manager to win a World Series for the franchise since Ed Barrow in 1918.

"When you have a manager who's on your side, boy, it makes it a lot better," Millar said. "You feel the difference. We loved Grady Little last year, and there isn't a better guy to come in here and fill those shoes than Terry Francona. He's been unbelievable."

Francona's meeting in Cleveland ranks among a number of significant moments in his first 100 days, a span in which he has gone from greeting his new team on the first official morning of spring training to asserting himself as a manager who respects and protects his players as fiercely as he demands they play the game correctly.

Along the way, Francona has made some mistakes. He has proven adept at dealing with the "carnivorous" media, as former manager Johnny Pesky half-jokingly calls the daily horde of reporters. Francona has dedicated himself to the kind of computer-driven preparation Little never fully embraced. And he has kept the Sox winning despite one crippling injury after another.

"I think what he's done has been outstanding," Alan Embree said. "You can't really ask too much more out of your manager than what he's doing."

Minimum of baby-sitting Francona never has been big on team meetings. In the first of his four years managing the Phillies from 1997 to 2000, he called only one, to upbraid pitcher Bobby Munoz for publicly criticizing catcher Mike Lieberthal's pitch-calling. But he saw something in the Sox during their five-game losing skid he wanted to address.

"I thought they were trying too hard," Francona said. "I love the fact that they cared, believe me, but I thought as hard as they were trying to do the right thing, sometimes that doesn't work. I just wanted to put them at ease a little bit."

Other times, Francona has scolded a player, as he did, for example, after Millar did not run out a dribbler down the third base line in the final exhibition game in Atlanta. When the Sox made a number of additional base-running blunders once the season began, Francona wasted no time convening a closed-door meeting to review the fundamentals of winning baseball. No one squawked.

"What a great concept, when you have veteran players who are trying to get better, and when you tell them something, they don't give you that look like, `I've got this under control,' " Francona said. "They listen and they try to do better."

While the session underscored Francona's demand for professionalism, the meeting was unusual since he has established himself as a "player's manager" who generally has allowed the Sox to resolve any thorny issues, from minor feuds to underachieving teammates, among themselves.

"He knows he has an older group and doesn't have to do a lot of baby-sitting," Embree said. "He knows stuff is going to be taken care of in the clubhouse by the players, and he lets it happen. He's not a watchdog, and to an older club, that means a lot."

When Curt Schilling, for instance, wrapped his arm around Derek Lowe and counseled him during Lowe's latest difficult outing, Schilling could have been seen as usurping the staff's role.

"[Francona] could have said, `Well, let the pitching coach do this,' " Embree said. "But why, when you have a group of guys here who can police themselves?"

As for Schilling, who agreed to waive his no-trade clause with the Diamondbacks partly because he wanted to pitch for Francona, the manager endured some criticism after Schilling surrendered a grand slam to Chris Gomez on his 123d pitch in a 7-3 loss April 22 in Toronto. But Francona, who stood by his decision, otherwise has taken little heat for his handling of Schilling. Not that it matters.

"I think that's probably the biggest misconception people probably had of me coming in here," Francona said. "I kept getting warned [about the intensity of Sox fans and the media]. I don't think they understood that if I get criticized, it's not going to kill me. I care as much as anyone else, but it's not going to make me wilt. I'm excited to be in an atmosphere like this."

Nobody's perfect Francona is comfortable enough with his role that he has not shied from acknowledging mistakes. He made no secret that he erred in using Bill Mueller as a pinch hitter May 13 in Toronto after Mueller told him his right knee was bothering him. Mueller further banged up the knee sliding into second base and played only two more games before he underwent surgery Friday.

Francona also acknowledged mishandling reliever Scott Williamson several times early in the season. A couple of times, Francona said, he unnecessarily directed Williamson to warm up before summoning Keith Foulke. Another time, Francona asked Williamson to warm up during a blowout game, only to sit him down. Williamson went on the disabled list May 21 with inflammation in his right elbow.

"I scuffled early on with [handling] Williamson," Francona said. "That bothered me. I had a couple of times where I actually went to Willie and said, `I'm sorry.' "

Francona also has raised some eyebrows by sometimes using his rookie relievers in perilously close situations and other times sending out his premier relievers when the Sox are leading by wide margins. But the veterans in the bullpen defended him, saying the team needs to learn early in the season which youngsters they can trust in crucial situations. They also supported Francona's approach to protecting large leads.

"The way he looks at is, every win does count, especially when we don't have our normal lineup," Embree said. "We haven't had our normal lineup all year, and he just doesn't want to let anything slip away."

Francona has little, if anything, to regret about the rest of his job performance. He has bonded well with superstars Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, and Nomar Garciaparra, though he needed to appease Ramirez by abandoning his plan for Ramirez to bat third in the order. Martinez has given Francona high marks, never more so than when the Sox ace was peeved at management for the way his contract negotiations were handled. Martinez made a point of saying, "Francona has been great."

Garciaparra has endured some criticism for the length of his absence with an Achilles' tendon injury -- there have been reports that even management is wondering about it -- but the shortstop fully supports Francona, who first managed him in the Arizona Fall League in 1994. "He's been unbelievable," Garciaparra said. "I knew what I was getting with Terry from 10 years ago, so I was excited. He's a lot like Grady, which is definitely not a bad thing. It's a great thing."

Unlike Little, who relied as much on his instincts as statistical research, Francona has a laptop at his desk at Fenway and carries it with him on the road. He uses the computer daily to develop at least four sets of numbers he uses in the dugout, including statistical matchups for starters and relievers on both teams. He easily could delegate the responsibility, but he prefers to do it himself.

"If I do it," he said, "I remember it."

Francona began his computer-assisted managing in Philadelphia, where he also developed a better understanding of working under adversity and dealing with an aggressive media. Tim Wakefield, who has played under five managers since he joined the Sox in 1995, gives Francona high marks across the board.

"He's done a great job of handling everybody in the clubhouse, handling things on the field, handling our pitching staff, and handling the media," Wakefield said. "That's a tough thing to do coming into Boston."

A lot tougher than tracking Gilligan and the Skipper.

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