Francona at peace in Boston return

Terry Francona reflects on his time in Boston and on his new outlook on life in Cleveland.

His new team is in first place. His old team is in second place. Terry Francona doesn’t want to be a story Thursday when they meet in Boston. He knows that is unrealistic.

As he returns to Fenway Park for the first time as manager of the Cleveland Indians, familiar footsteps will evoke new emotion. This was where he stewed and triumphed over eight mostly illustrious seasons with the Boston Red Sox, including World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. The four-game weekend series will offer ample time for reunions, with cribbage nemesis Dustin Pedroia, with close friend and Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick, with longtime equipment manager Edward “Pookie” Jackson.

Francona has been to Fenway since his ouster following the Red Sox’s historic collapse in 2011. He worked one Red Sox home game from the ESPN broadcast booth in 2012. He received a thunderous ovation at last April’s Fenway Park centennial celebration, as New Englanders expressed their abiding love for Francona despite the deterioration of his relationship with team owner John Henry.

Earlier this month, I asked Francona if hearing those cheers eased any of the anxiety he would feel this week. He corrected me.

“I don’t have any anxiety,” Francona said, sitting in the visiting manager’s office during a series in Detroit. “I’m an Indian. I have great memories. I have some tough memories. But you move on. And as time separates it, you know, you remember more of the good. And there was a lot of that.

“There will be people there I care about forever. And that will never change.”

Francona, 54, would be justified if he felt bitter about the way it ended in Boston — serving as the scapegoat for a collective failure while details about his personal life reached the newspaper. “It wasn’t fair,” said Brad Mills, Francona’s close friend and the Cleveland third-base coach. But if you expect Francona to use this series as a platform to criticize Henry and partners Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino, then you will be disappointed. He won’t do it.

He’s too happy.

“Coming in like this, it’s a lot better than coming in the other way, if we were struggling,” Mills said this week. “I don’t think there’s a revenge factor, a ‘show-you’ factor at all. We want to go in there and play good baseball. That’s all we want to do. If we worry about this other stuff, Terry would be the first to tell you that’s worrying about the wrong thing.”

The Indians lead the American League Central — which they weren’t expected to do, not in May or any other month. Francona’s bosses, team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti, have been his good friends for more than a decade. Cleveland’s swashbuckling lineup is deep and resilient, with three walk-off wins over Seattle in a four-game series.

The ’13 Indians remind me of the ’12 Baltimore Orioles, with every hallmark of good baseball karma: the 11-3 record in one-run games (best in the AL), the 5-0 record in extra-inning games (best in the AL), the role players taking star turns (Yan Gomes, Ryan Raburn).

“I hoped it would be like this,” Francona said. “When this job opened up, there was a reason I wanted it. It’s because of my relationships with Chris and Mark.

“I came to work for Mark (as a special assistant) in ’01. Through that I met Chris. Chris was kind of like the smartest guy in the room that doesn’t make you feel dumb. Through Chris, now I know his guys. Right now, I’m comfortable. I respect them a lot. They have given me … it’s just a very good environment to work together, to try to tackle the challenges we have.”

So far, so good. For as much blame as Francona absorbed when the ’11 Red Sox unraveled, he deserves the same amount of credit for the Indians’ resurgence. Nick Swisher, who signed with the Indians in part because he wanted to play for Francona, told me recently, “We’ve got the best manager on the planet leading us.” The clubhouse atmosphere, which soured under Manny Acta last season, is noticeably different.

“He’d have his locker in our locker room, if it was up to him, just because he likes being around the guys,” said Swisher, whose father, Steve, managed Francona in the Indians’ minor league system in the late 1980s. “He loves being here at the ballpark, and that shines through. All those stories I’ve heard about how awesome he is — it’s almost like he’s better than that.”

Swisher and Indians designated hitter Jason Giambi — another ex-Yankee who wanted to play for the former Boston skipper — cited Francona’s communication skills as the best of his attributes. Giambi played for Tony La Russa in Oakland and Joe Torre in New York. Francona, he said, “fits in that mold.”

“He’s very close with his players, but at the same time he has unbelievable boundaries,” Giambi said. “You know he’s got hard decisions to make. He’s the manager of the ballclub. But he has this personality where you want to run through a wall for him and then hang out with him after the game.

“He gives you a tough decision, and you walk out saying, ‘Thanks, Terry. I appreciate it.’ He’s just that guy, you know? He understands. He understands how tough the game is. He understands the pressure. And he’s not trying to add to it.”

If there’s any question about how Francona is adjusting to his post-Red Sox career, the answer is self-evident: For him to manage so well in 2013, he had to bandage the wounds of 2011. In order to effectively handle a pitching staff that lacks a true ace, and a pliable lineup of switch hitters and multi-position players, he can’t be bothered by something Lucchino may have said two years ago.

Giambi marvels at how Francona, even after winning two championships, seems grateful to be at the ballpark each day. It helps that Francona returned to baseball with the Indians — an organization he has long admired, and one for which he and his father, Tito, both played. And Francona acknowledges that the year away restored his excitement for the game.

“Toward the end of Boston, I was probably worn down a bit,” Francona said. “That’s on me. You can’t just point fingers. The time in Boston, it can be very rewarding. It can also be very difficult. That’s just part of it. Sometimes it’s time to move on. Sometimes the things you don’t do well start showing — being stubborn or whatever. Sometimes it’s time to maybe make a change.

“There’s so much emotion tied up in a win or loss. After that grind, sometimes it takes a toll and maybe the good parts of you aren’t always coming out as much as they need to. That’s not good. When you’re able to take a step back without the emotion of a game hanging on everything, then all of a sudden you get a little better perspective.

“Halfway through (last) year, I found myself missing some of that, which is good. Then I also realized I have no perspective. Wins and losses kill me. It’ll always be like that.”

Speaking of wins and losses, Francona’s 744 victories are the most in Red Sox history with the exception of Joe Cronin. Francona’s .574 winning percentage is a record among all men who managed 400 or more games for the Red Sox. He is, by any measure, an all-time great in Boston. When his career is over, there’s an excellent chance he will be Cooperstown-worthy.

Thursday, Francona will win again — not necessarily on the scoreboard, but because he is back as one of the elite practitioners of his profession. Francona said he hasn’t given any thought to how he might react if he encounters Henry, Werner or Lucchino near the batting cage. If there’s any awkwardness over the next four days, Francona will try to make certain it doesn’t affect the team he cares about most — the Cleveland Indians.

“The only thing I wouldn’t have scripted was the way it ended,” Francona said of his time in Boston. “Not very many people can. Other than that, there was so much good there, and things have a way of working out. I’m happy as could be.”

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