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Managing it all

Amid barbs, Sox's Francona holds steady

He opens all his mail at Fenway Park, even the envelopes addressed in crayon. He's had unpleasant encounters with fans on the street and in hotel elevators. He hears abuse from the stands and often on the airwaves. He's aware of the e-mailers and talk-show jockeys who've nicknamed him "FranComa," but he knows there's little to gain by fighting back.

"I don't get up in the morning and see how I'm being perceived," says Terry Francona, manager of the Red Sox. "It doesn't help you do your job. I knew coming in that if we lose, I was gonna be perceived as a dumb-ass."

The Red Sox do not lose most of the time. They just won two straight against the Orioles, including Saturday night's electric no-hitter by Clay Buchholz, a kid pitching his second game in the majors. Despite getting swept in New York last week, the Sox have the best record in the major leagues and a six-game lead in the American League East. They are likely going to the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. They even won a World Series three years ago, and yet Francona - the fourth-year manager who delivered Boston's first baseball championship in 86 years in 2004 - has an ever-expanding legion of critics. He enjoys none of the public reverence and worship that washes over Bill Belichick in Foxborough.

Former Governor Michael Dukakis long ago said that managing the Red Sox is the hardest job in New England, and through the years, the position has driven men to drink while pushing others to the brink of despair. The streets around Fenway are stalked by ghosts of those who tried and failed: men named Cronin, McCarthy, Higgins, Herman, Williams, Kasko, Zimmer, Johnson, Hobson, and Little. Walpole's Joe Morgan was uniquely qualified to handle the position when he managed in Boston 20 years ago, but even Tollway Joe would be overwhelmed by the sheer madness that engulfs all things Sox in this first decade of the 21st century.

Often a target

Francona is a target no matter what he does. Friday night he was questioned for his selection of relievers in a loss to the Orioles. Last week he was ripped for letting Josh Beckett start the seventh inning in New York (Alex Rodriguez hit the deciding home run to send Beckett to the showers). Earlier in August, he was roasted for allowing Eric Gagné to blow a couple of games in Baltimore. Some fans want more sacrifice bunts. Others want David Ortiz hitting fourth instead of third. Old-schoolers would like to see Francona get a little tougher when it appears that his millionaire ballplayers are walking all over him. There's no winning, even when he wins.

"I try real hard not to deal with it," says the 48-year-old Francona. "You have to have enough confidence to do the job. You answer questions and you move on. If you pay attention to it all you either get your feelings hurt or it affects the way you manage."

Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills, a longtime Francona friend, says, "Sometimes I have to scoot away so I don't get hit by the shrapnel."

A couple of weeks ago, Francona had an encounter with a couple of Sox fans in a hotel in Baltimore. The exchange started with one of the Sox loyalists questioning Francona's deployment of Daisuke Matsuzaka. It ended when the other fan asked Francona what he planned on doing that night, and the manager snapped, "Get away from you as quick as I can!"

"Everybody heard about the night in Baltimore when the fan followed him into the elevator," remembers Mills. "Well, there was another incident like that a year or two ago and I was in the elevator and the fan started asking him why he didn't pinch hit for someone. I was standing there, trying to change the subject, trying to stop things before it got hot."

The manager knows he's occasionally going to have his space invaded.

"This is a hard subject," says Francona. "I know that we could be 30 games out and nobody cares. So it's good that they care. But once I get back to the hotel, it's then that I want to take a deep breath and say, 'Whew.' But then sometimes you end up getting crushed, like in the elevator. Hey, it's something I've got to deal with.

"Sometimes I'll be speaking to a group of fans, away from the park, and I'll ask a guy what he does. If he says he's a dentist, I'll say, 'What would you say if I stood over you while you were pulling out a molar and I told you that you were doing it all wrong?' And the guys will say, 'Well, that would be ignorant.' Well, this is kind of the same thing. It's just that everybody identifies with baseball. That's part of what makes it special. If I show that I can't handle it then they've got the wrong guy."

That's why he opens all his mail. Francona gave us a window into the mailbag in his first year in Boston when he noted, "Some of the things they ask you do to are physically impossible."

But he dives into the post office pile anyway because you never know when there might be something from a kid in need or a worthy charity seeking help.

"I don't want to miss something like that just because some blowhard is insulting me," he says.

Talks with players

Red Sox players don't have much trouble with the man they call Tito. (Francona's father, a 15-year big league veteran, goes by Tito and the son is happy to be addressed similarly.) Francona never rips his players in public and he allows them to let their hair down, figuratively and literally. There aren't many team rules and he's ever-ready to communicate. This annoys some fans. They want a rip-snorting, Bill Parcells-esque taskmaster. They want their manager to sound offended if a player doesn't run out a ground ball. They want accountability, not excuses.

That is not Francona. There are times when it seems he'll do anything to keep clubhouse harmony. When Manny Ramírez was obviously playing too shallow in Fenway earlier this summer, the manager basically said he would let Manny do whatever made him comfortable.

"If you try to force somebody to play where they're not comfortable, they're not going to make plays," said Francona. "If he gets out of his comfort zone, he's not going to make plays."

It's a decidedly new-school approach for a man who grew up in old-school clubhouses during his father's major league career, and his own 10-season playing career in the bigs. Last week, the Globe ran a photograph of Ramírez sharing his iPod with Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano while standing in the Yankee Stadium outfield during batting practice.

Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson certainly never listened to tunes together during batting practice. Doesn't this offend Francona's sense of competition?

"Things do grate on me," he says. "But the whole reason we're here is to win and sometimes I have to make sacrifices, too, if we know what our goals are. For me to react to that [photo] just to satisfy my ego would be wrong. I think we know what our goals are and the best way to get them. I can't grab a guy on the top step of the dugout or pull a Billy Martin. That stuff doesn't work anymore, or at least it doesn't work for me. If I'm not myself out there it just won't work."

Veteran Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin has played for numerous big league mangers and says, "You run into a lot of guys who say they are players' managers. And then you never get to speak to them. Terry is quite the opposite. The door really is always open. He has the players' backs."

What about the perception he's soft on crimes against baseball?

"Stuff happens around here that people don't know about - stuff the people don't need to know about," says Timlin. "He handles it. On some teams the inmates run the asylum and then there's teams that are jails. Here there's cooperation. It's a team concept here."

"A lot of people don't know how good he is," adds Mills. "He gets blasted a lot on the radio, but those fans don't know what's behind some of the decisions. They don't know if maybe a guy has a hamstring [injury] or a bad arm. Terry takes those bullets a lot of the time and people will never know those things. Sometimes it's important that way for competitive purposes."

There can be no question about the manager's work ethic. He gets to Fenway at 10:30 a.m. for games that start at 7:05 p.m. On the road, Francona and his coaches sometimes arrive at the ballpark before noon. This has become an issue for some American League clubhouse employees who often don't get home from work until 3 or 4 a.m. They're not always ready to open the locker room when Francona arrives for work.

It's a long day and a long season for a man with a wife and four children, but it is the only life the Franconas have known. His son and three daughters are gifted athletes, good students, and unfailingly polite. Nick Francona, a student and former baseball player at the University of Pennsylvania, often travels with his dad during the summer and the Francona daughters keep Dad's iPod loaded with tunes. Considered somewhat new-age because he keeps a computer on his desk - a concession to Theo Epstein and the Red Sox' youthful baseball operations staff - Francona mocks his lack of skills regarding modern technology.

Media skills are another matter. Dealing with the daily throng is crucial for any man who manages the Red Sox, a notion not lost on Epstein.

Speaking about the 24/7 coverage that fuels Red Sox Nation, the young general manager says, "There's a narrative that coexists with our actual on-field play. In reality it doesn't amount to a hill of beans, but it causes daily emotional strife. Tito doesn't ignore that, but he doesn't get consumed by it. I can hide from you guys, but he needs to be there every day. He doesn't take it personally, which is important because if you don't have a couple of beacons of reason, others in the organization, players included, can lose perspective."

An occasional snap

Still, sometimes the manager snaps. Francona suffers from numerous medical conditions, including poor circulation. He was hospitalized during a series in New York in 2005 and there was concern he might have had a heart ailment (it turned out to be stress). He wears extra layers of clothing and takes blood thinners, which last year caused him to spit up blood during a postgame media session in Seattle. He has also become increasingly impatient with the press, frequently correcting or instructing those who ask questions. Woe is the reporter whose cellphone rings during a Francona press conference.

Francona was a lot more relaxed Saturday after Buchholz no-hit the Orioles, snapping a four-game losing streak. A cellphone went off while he was addressing the media and Francona quipped, "Must be the president."

Life is good. The Sox have a six-game lead, they've won two in a row, and there's no mail delivery until tomorrow.

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