Francona looks back on a special talent

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 12, 2009

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When he was told he would be managing a certain superstar basketball player, Terry Francona said he was half-asleep. He thought to himself, “I’ll handle this.’’ But the news hit when Francona walked out of the spring training trailer and found a horde of media waiting for him.

Yes, Michael Jordan was going to play on his Birmingham Barons team. He would be responsible for managing the career change of one of the best basketball players of all time.

“I was like, ‘Uh-oh,’ ’’ Francona recalled.

But it was a time Francona cherishes, especially because it prepared him for what he would later experience as manager of the Red Sox. Francona reflected yesterday, as Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, on his time managing Air Jordan in cleats.

“I was pretty fortunate,’’ Francona said before last night’s game against the Rays was postponed by rain. “At a time when it really seemed fashionable to be critical of Michael, his attitude toward baseball was very refreshing. He treated me and the staff and the players with a lot of respect. He treated the game with a lot of respect. In the situation he was in, you needed to be patient with him. But it was easy to be patient because of the way he treated everybody else. But it was a good year.’’

Francona managed Jordan with both the Barons and in the Arizona Fall League. Francona said if Jordan invested a couple of more years in baseball, he would have “found a way to get to the major leagues. Because the one thing I did find out is if you tell him no, the answer is yes.’’

That came from the off-the-charts competitiveness that Jordan displayed in his time with Francona. They played Yahtzee, they played tennis, they played golf, they played ping-pong. Jordan needed to win at all of it.

“That’s why he is who he is,’’ Francona said. “I know the talent is there. He was the most competitive person you’d ever see. That doesn’t mean he wins at everything he does. But it means he’s the most competitive. I saw him break a ping-pong table. I saw him break a tennis racket. He didn’t take losing very well.’’

Pickup basketball games got so competitive they had to be stopped. Francona wasn’t thrilled about the potential of having to call a boss to explain a broken ankle.

Though Jordan was criticized for his shot at baseball, Francona appreciated Jordan’s approach to the game. There was one night in Jacksonville, Fla., when Jordan had a day off. Francona sent him in to pinch hit with the game on the line. Jordan didn’t come through. But he did come to Francona after the game to say thanks.

“I hadn’t done it as a favor,’’ Francona said. “I don’t know why we did it. At that point in his career, I think that was every bit as exhilarating as trying to hit a 3-pointer with the game on the line. It was a time in his life when that’s what he needed to do.’’

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