Francona manages to enjoy time away


Terry Francona admitted it was weird holding a golf club in March instead of a fungo bat.

For the first time in quite a while, Francona is not on a baseball field during the spring. The former Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox manager, 52, is staying connected to the game as an analyst for ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," but for now he's enjoying a relaxing time on the golf course.

"It's probably the first time since college I didn't go to spring training in uniform," Francona said Thursday at the Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational golf tournament at Shadow Creek. "To miss being in uniform is natural for me, but it's probably healthy for me, too. I was a little beat up at the end of the year, and it was probably something I needed to do."

After leading Boston to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, Francona's option for 2012 wasn't picked up by the Red Sox. The decision was made after Boston's epic September collapse in which the Red Sox blew a nine-game lead in the American League East and missed the playoffs. Some thought Francona had lost control of the team, and it was reported that some pitchers had drank beer and eaten chicken in the clubhouse during games.

"I always tell people it was the greatest job in the world, but it was also the hardest job in the world," Francona said. "Every game meant so much. And I loved that part of it. But with the good, and there was a lot of good, there's also the bad. Everything is scrutinized so much. You just have to deal with it."

That's not on Francona's mind this weekend as he and 40 other celebrities play in Jordan's tournament. The two became friends when Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls in 1993, then signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox. He played in 1994 for the Double-A Birmingham Barons, managed by Francona.

"M.J. invited me to come out and play with him in 1994 during the All-Star break, but I couldn't do it," Francona said. "I'm having a lot of fun. I bumped into Roger Clemens, Jerome Bettis, Brett Hull. I almost wish I had an autograph book with me."

Francona might always be associated with the Red Sox's 2011 collapse, but he also will be cherished as the manager who helped end Boston's 86-year world championship drought.

"We were so into the moment at the time we beat Colorado (in 2004)," said Francona, who had a .574 winning percentage (744-552) in eight seasons with Boston. "But when we got back to Boston and had the parade, and you hear the stories about people bringing scorecards to the cemetery and leaving them on the graves, it sinks in just how important it was."

For the Red Sox, 2004 always will be extra special because of the team's comeback in the AL Championship Series, in which Boston rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat the rival New York Yankees.

Yet, when Francona visited the Yankees in spring training this month for ESPN, he was welcomed warmly by Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and the rest of the team.

"That was a funny feeling, walking into that clubhouse wearing a coat and tie," he said. "But it was nice to be received the way I was. I've always had the utmost respect for Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. They epitomize what the game is all about.

"The rivalry with the Yankees is the most intense I've ever seen. I always had to remind myself that as big as each of those games were, they didn't count for more in the standings than any other game, and you really had to stay focused because if you let it overwhelm you, it could really impact you after you were done playing them."

Francona and Bobby Valentine essentially switched jobs, with Valentine moving into Francona's office at Fenway Park and Francona taking Valentine's spot in the ESPN booth.

Francona got his first taste of TV last fall when he worked the postseason for Fox. He had no intention of sitting behind a microphone, but play-by-play man and friend Joe Buck convinced him to give it a shot.

"I thought Joe was nuts," Francona said. "But I had a ball. Joe told me he'd take care of me, and he didn't lie. He baby-sat me, and it was a great experience."

But Francona hasn't ruled out managing again.

"I don't want to manage just to manage," he said. "That doesn't make sense. You want to be in a situation where you have a chance to succeed."

■ NOTE -- Play in the 36-hole tournament begins at 9 a.m. today and is open to the public.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

 

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