Francona appreciative, victorious in return to Fenway
Red Sox organization, fans deliver warm welcome to former skipper
BOSTON -- For roughly 20 minutes, Terry Francona sat in the visitors' dugout at Fenway Park trying to convince a large pack of reporters that this was just another day in the life of the manager of the Cleveland Indians.
Francona takes enormous pride in his tunnel vision -- staying in the moment as he calls it -- with regard to each day's game.
"I'm sure, knowing him, it's just another day," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "I know this place is very special to him. I'm sure he just wants to go out there and manage the game and see a baseball game."
In nearly every ounce of Francona's baseball being, he didn't want the night of May 23, 2013, to be about him.
But guess what? He had no choice. Before, during and after Cleveland's 12-3 win over the Red Sox, the focus of the night was Francona.
No sooner had Francona started holding court with the press before the game than a fan yelled over, "We still love you, Francona."
Outside of Fenway Park, street vendors were selling magazines that accompanied a bumper sticker that said, "Thanks, Tito."
It isn't every day that David Ortiz ventures into the other dugout during batting practice to give the other team's manager -- and his former manager of eight years -- a hug.
Yes, this day was all about Francona, who guided the Red Sox to their only two World Series championships since 1918 in his highly-memorable tenure with Boston.
"And it should be," said Brad Mills, the former Red Sox bench coach and current Indians third-base coach who has been one of Francona's best friends for decades.
Then, there was the video that the Red Sox played after the first inning ended.
On the high-definition scoreboard in center field, the opening message was "Welcome back to our old friends."
Mills was listed first. Then right-hander Justin Masterson and former Sox catcher and current Indians bullpen coach Kevin Cash. After that, it was former Boston reliever Matt Albers, infielder Mike Aviles and lefty Rich Hill, the pride of Milton, Mass.
Then, the scoreboard message delivered the main message. "AND Terry Francona."
From there, the crowd roared as the highlights played. They ranged from Francona hugging Mills after winning Game 7 of the 2007 American League Championship Series to Francona coming out and greeting Cardinals manager Tony La Russa before Game 1 of the 2004 World Series.
There was a clip of Francona laughing at a news conference during a past Spring Training. Then, a shot of the biggest celebration of them all after the clinching World Series game in St. Louis.
The scoreboard then panned to a live shot of Francona and Mills, standing side-by-side near the end of the Indians' dugout. The crowd got loud, and Francona took in the moment as much as he could. A smile came across his face and Francona acknowledged the Fenway faithful with a wave.
"It was just because you can't help it. It was so special that I couldn't help it," Francona said.
After the wave, the crowd then chanted, "Tito! Tito! Tito!" The Fenway production crew capped the moment by panning to the 2004 and 2007 World Series banners that hang on the façade behind home plate.
"I tried to keep my emotions inside," Francona said. "When they did that thing after the first inning, I was honored and I was also thrilled that they showed Cashy, Mike Aviles, Matt, Rich Hill and then Millsy standing next to me. He's maybe my best friend in life. So to share that was pretty awesome."
Then, it was back to baseball -- Francona's favorite part of any day. And his red-hot Indians, winners of 19 of their last 25, took care of business.
"We got in late," Francona said. "You never make excuses, but I was thrilled with the way we came out with energy and grinded out at-bats. We made [Ryan] Dempster work hard and we got him out and got into the bullpen. In a four-game series, you help yourself by doing that."
The Red Sox played Francona's Indians in Cleveland from April 16-18. But that day didn't contain nearly the same emotion and nostalgia, partly because of venue but mostly because that series started the day after the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon.
Thursday was different in that it was the first game Francona managed in Boston since his managing days with the Red Sox came to a crashing halt after the September collapse of 2011.
"Every game I've ever been here [as Boston's manager], I've never rooted against the Red Sox," said Francona. "Now I will be like crazy. You know what, it's kind of nice. I came in today early because I knew it would be a busy day, seeing a lot of people you know. Whether you come in the ballpark and make a right or a left, those people are still the same.
"I got a chance to visit with a lot of people, which was fun. And go to our clubhouse. That's part of probably why it's making this easier to come back because I'm so proud of who I'm with now and what we're trying to do that it probably makes this trip a little easier for me."
Whether it was getting off the plane at Logan Airport in the wee hours of Thursday morning or taking a taxi to the ballpark, did anything feel different to Francona?
"No, it really didn't," Francona said. "I fell asleep on the plane. By the time we got to the hotel, I was so grumpy it didn't matter. So, no, not really. Like today, I was happy I got to see all the clubhouse kids and [Red Sox traveling secretary] Jack [McCormick] and stuff like that, which I enjoy a lot. Having the year in between really helped -- a lot."
Thursday wasn't the first time since Francona's departure that Red Sox fans were able to shower him with applause.
During the grand 100th anniversary celebration of Fenway Park on April 20, 2012, Francona might have received the loudest applause of the day. On that occasion, he exited through the tunnel under the bleachers and took his Red Sox jersey off, throwing it to a kid in the stands. He also came back once or twice as an analyst for ESPN.
This time, he had on an Indians cap and jersey, and that looked and felt weird to anyone who had followed his time in Boston with any regularity.
As reluctant as he was to be in the spotlight, Francona enjoyed returning to the place he poured his heart and soul into from 2004-11.
Francona started his work day on Thursday the same way he starts all others on the road -- by going to the office far earlier than he probably needed to.
"Everybody kept saying, 'Well, are you going to be emotional?' You don't know," Francona said. "We played a late game last night. We got in about 5 [in the morning]. I got up at 8. It's been a busy day. And from people that know me, I really don't think that far ahead. I know I've been accused of that in the games. But I just kind of take it as it comes and try to go with the flow and enjoy what we're doing."
The part about being accused of not thinking far ahead in the games was typical Francona, the self-effacer poking fun at himself.
The Indians -- who have been one of the hottest teams in baseball of late -- are now getting the full Francona experience, and loving it.
"It took me 19 years to play for him," said Indians reserve Jason Giambi. "And he's everything I thought he'd be. We've gone out there and played well and played hard for him every single day."
Like all teams managed by Francona, the Indians came in fully prepared for their four-game set in Boston.
"We're here, and we're here to represent him, so we're going to play hard for him," Giambi said. "We know what he means to us."
Though Francona no longer works in Boston, his relationship with the city remains strong, and probably always will.
But Francona was too busy compartmentalizing to really put all of that into perspective on Thursday.
"I don't spend any time thinking about stuff like that [on game day]," Francona said. "It's just not the way I'm built. I had, these were really special years here. Sometimes they were tough. These are some of the best fans in the world. And they care about their team more than … it's unbelievable. If you like baseball, this is a good place to be. And I got to be a part of that. I feel very fortunate."
As for the end of Francona's time in Boston, that was acrimonious. It was hard for it not to be.
Francona appreciated Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino seeking him out before Thursday's game.
"Yeah, he was very kind," Francona said. "Larry and I, I've texted with him a few times, like when they hired John [Farrell] and when I got hired here. There's an enormous amount of respect. Again, not to dig it up … I didn't like the way things ended. But he went out of his way at the anniversary to talk to me, and I probably wasn't the most pleasant. Tonight he came down to say hello. I appreciated that."
The one thing that is obvious is how right it feels for Francona to be back in a dugout this season. Though he drew strong reviews during his year as an analyst, a uniform is what Francona has worn for nearly his whole life.
"I think [the year off] helped," Francona said. "Saying that, I kept talking about getting perspective. I have no perspective. When we lose, it kills you. When we win, I'm happy. And I don't think that's ever going to change."
The same can be said about Boston, a city consumed with baseball every bit as much as the man who used to manage here.
"Everyone loved him here, and what he did here for a long time," said Pedroia. "He's a pretty important part of the history of this organization."