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Boston gives Francona royal welcome
Photographers crouched, shutters poised. Cameramen craned for a better view. Writers crammed into the visiting dugout at Fenway Park, up the steps and against the railing.
The pregame media horde might have been 30 or 40 deep, with a fervor normally reserved for a Kardashian, foreign dignitary, or even higher power.
“Is this the pope?” asked a grinning Brad Mills, the Cleveland third base coach.
It only seemed that way: His Holiness Tito II.
Indeed, “reverence” is not too strong a word to use when describing the attachment Boston Red Sox fans have to Francona, who returned Thursday as manager of the Cleveland Indians. He broke The Curse in 2004. He brought them another title in 2007. He is at least as popular now as during the eight seasons he wore the Boston uniform. Probably more.
And the affection crystallized into a heartfelt standing ovation following the first inning, during and after a tribute on the center-field scoreboard. The video recognized all the ex-Red Sox now with Cleveland, from coaches Mills and Kevin Cash to relievers Matt Albers and Rich Hill. But the voices and applause from 35,254 transformed when Francona appeared on the screen.
Francona, visibly moved, stood beside Mills in the dugout as the cheers reached a crescendo. He tapped his heart. He waved to Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, one of his favorites.
“I was honored,” Francona said after Cleveland’s 12-3 win. “I was also thrilled that they showed Cashie, Mike Aviles, Matt, Rich Hill, and then Millsy standing next to me, who’s maybe my best friend in life. To share that was pretty awesome.”
Earlier this week, Indians outfielder Ryan Raburn told Francona, “Man, they’re going to cheer the hell out of you!” Francona told Raburn modestly he hoped that would be true. But Francona did figure the cameras would find him as the montage played, so he asked Mills to stand beside him. Francona wanted his friend to be recognized, too. “That’s how thoughtful he is,” Mills said afterward.
Francona didn’t want Thursday to be about him. Perhaps, in a strange way, he got his wish: The evening might have revealed more about the Red Sox than it did their former manager.
Maybe the classy, dignified tribute can begin a meaningful reconciliation in the fractured relationship between Francona and the team. Maybe this was a first step toward retiring Francona’s No. 47, in recognition of the man who brought two World Series titles to a region that for generations had dreamed of just one. Maybe one day, a retired Francona will have a place in spring training as a special instructor and sage.
I hope all of that is true. I hope the homage to Francona wasn’t done begrudgingly, because team officials knew they would have been ripped otherwise.
Francona and team president Larry Lucchino — who have maintained a degree of civility amid very public differences — met briefly on the field while the Indians took batting practice. Lucchino described the conversation as “very cordial.” But he didn’t answer directly when I asked if it was emotional or awkward.
“All of us will always associate him with the successes we’ve had here in 2004 and 2007,” Lucchino said. “He will always be a reminder of that.”
Thursday was a reminder of something else: While Red Sox fans like the current team, they love the old manager. More than 19 months after his dismissal, Francona is more beloved in New England than the men who fired him. And with Thursday’s thunderous response, the Fenway crowd made abundantly clear that they would like the organization to make nice with their Tito.
The charm of the '04 championship was that the region had a single heartbeat — or at least seemed to — from ultra-rich owner John Henry to the smallest town common in Maine. That eroded over time and became especially strained during the Bobby Valentine debacle last year. This season brought the end of an 820-game sellout streak, even though the Red Sox are a close second to the rival New York Yankees in the American League East.
So, humility would be a good play for the Red Sox right now. It didn’t appear that Henry or Red Sox chairman Tom Werner reached out to Francona Thursday. And if they didn’t, they should. The best, healthiest organizations honor their all-time greats even in instances of personality conflict. It’s hard to do that when the principals aren’t on speaking terms. By all accounts, Henry and Francona haven’t FaceTimed in a while.
The rift between the Yankees and legend Yogi Berra persisted for more than a decade, before George Steinbrenner apologized to Berra for the way he was fired as manager. That brought Berra back into the Yankees' family. All parties involved have been better off since.
“Everyone was pleased when that occurred in New York,” Lucchino said when I made the comparison. “(But) I don’t know enough about that to opine on that. I’m just trying to be courteous, as he was.”
It’s unrealistic to expect that Henry, Werner, Lucchino and Francona will take a weekend camping trip, talk about their feelings and admit their wrongs. Francona, after all, has a first-place team to manage. But those conversations should take place, sooner rather than later, if for no other reason than the Red Sox's paying customers want that to be so. It might take months. It might take years. Eventually, it needs to happen. An abundance of pride is a lousy excuse to delay.
As Francona stood behind the batting cage Thursday afternoon, a fan called out to him from 10 or 15 feet away. She didn’t ask for an autograph. She merely said, “Thank you, Terry.” Francona smiled. He has a new, exciting team in Cleveland. He has old, loyal hearts in Boston. The old manager is doing just fine. If the Red Sox are as smart as they think they are, they will realize that they need him more than he needs them.