Bob Ryan

Francona is having the time of his life

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / February 14, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - I like baseball.

I mean, I really, really, really like baseball. I like watching it, debating it, reading about it, and, way back when, I liked playing it. I believe that every human being on this earth knows more about one thing than he or she knows about any other thing. In my case, that subject is baseball.

But even during the season, I can live without it. Over the course of the 162, other things get in the way, ranging from the concerns of other sports, to family, to movies, to books, to a concert, to taking a trip, to whatever. Watch every West Coast game? You crazy? I don't love baseball that much.

In other words, I'm not Terry Francona.

If you're Terry Francona, you have just begun a journey that could conceivably take you from Valentine's Day to a week past Halloween if the Red Sox are fortunate enough to make the World Series. You will get an occasional "day off," during which it will be impossible to escape from yourself because you are the manager of the fanatically followed Boston Red Sox. He had better love baseball, because there will be no escape from it for the next 7 1/2 months, for sure, 8 1/2 if all goes well.

"The idea is not to let it get overwhelming," he explains. "In August and September, I do find that things will bother me that did not bother me earlier in the season. We do go every day. There will be times when I'll come to the park and say something, and Millsie [bench coach and close friend Brad Mills] will say, 'Slow down.' Because of the nature of our relationship, he can say things to me of that nature."

Francona was on the path to becoming a lifer the moment he sprang out of the womb. He is the son of a major league player who was making his way up the baseball ladder when his son was born in Aberdeen, S.D., on April 22, 1959. He is a very intelligent, thoughtful man, which is part of the reason he is a good manager, the best the Red Sox have ever had. Anyone who spends time with him realizes he could have done very well in other areas. But he never really had to. He has been able to make a living in the world he loves. A total baseball immersion is A-OK with Terry Francona.

"I enjoy it," he says of managing. "I don't enjoy every single minute of it. There's a lot of frustration. But I don't have to give myself a pep talk before every season, if that's what you mean."

Again, think about what being a baseball manager means. In addition to all the preparation and evaluation, there is the simple fact that a manager does not watch a game so much as he inhales it. You and I watch a game at home with something to read during the down times (between pitches, for example). We get up for something to eat or drink. The phone rings. A family member makes conversation. We do not devote 100 percent attention to any game, let alone every game.

At the ballpark, there are other distractions. We may be studying that pretty woman or that fat guy or that cute kid. We may be fixated on a concessions guy. We may be focused on the out-of-town scoreboard. We may be involved in heated conversation. We may be doing a lot of things.

But Terry Francona is hanging on every pitch. He's got to run the game.

I think about this often. Never underestimate the necessary concentration it takes to be a major league manager, or any coach at a high level in any sport. I'm sure this is why so many of them are so resentful of any sort of criticism. They, and only they, know what it really means to be in charge of a team while the game is going on. We can goof off. They can't.

This man never gets tired of it. Never. There is never a point when a specific issue gets so big that it overrides the idea that the thing Terry Francona is studying and assessing with such care is a baseball game. When you get right down to it, they pay him to watch baseball games.

"I love the games," he says. " 'Fun' may not be the right word to describe the sensation every night, 'cause there's a lot of anxiety. What I enjoy is the competition."

In that sense, the fact that he is manager of the Boston Red Sox is a bonus, sure, but not the point. "I had fun in the minor leagues," he says. "I had fun in Double A ball with the White Sox [where he managed, among other people, Michael Jordan]. I probably didn't love it much on payday, but the rest of it was great. As far as that aspect of it is concerned, I've always felt that if you take care of your players, the rest of it will take care of itself."

If competition is No. 1 on the Terry Francona list of managerial satisfactions, a very close 1A is the area of relationships.

"I like going through a season with 'our' guys," he explains. "There are always going to be good times and bad times, but I always enjoy going through it with a group you like. It's not always going to be perfect. But I like who we are."

Twice, in 2004 and 2007, Francona has stood on fields in St. Louis and Denver for what he considers the ultimate managerial satisfaction, the thing that makes the huge grind that is a major league season worthwhile.

"My funnest times in baseball," he says. "All the emotions of a season into one. You've seen the videos and pictures. It's all genuine. Every single guy has a smile so big on his face. It's not forced. Watching the players celebrate have been my fondest baseball moments."

Yesterday he stood on Field No. 3 at the minor league complex and watched the pitchers and catchers go through the arduous shuttle drill. At every step of the way, he'll be there, whether it's freezing in Oakland April 14 or sweltering in Texas July 21 or any of those 81 dates in Fenway. Night after night, day after day, week after week, month after month, Terry Francona will apply his wisdom and passion to baseball while you and I take it off the shelf and put it back.

"Near the end of camp, I don't want to use the word 'panic,' but you get a feeling of 'Oh, [expletive],' 'cause there's no letup," he acknowledges. "But you get yourself back in the groove pretty quick."

Good luck, Skip. See you when you come up for air in October . . . November . . . whenever.

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