Commentary

Terry Francona has no end in sight

Red Sox manager reflects on his career as good friend Joe Torre is set to step down

Updated: September 19, 2010, 7:22 AM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- There was a time when Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona thought he might have to settle for a future as a real estate agent after his playing days were over.

"I was stupid," he said with a smile Saturday afternoon before the Red Sox lost their second in a row to the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 at Fenway Park. "Would you buy a house from me? I knew it, too."

After Francona finally decided to hang up his spikes and glove during spring training in 1991, he was home in Arizona for about six weeks and was watching "Gilligan's Island" one day when his wife, Jacque, approached him.

"I remember my wife looking at me and saying, 'This is what you're going to do?' I was perfectly content. So I went and took a real estate course just to get her off my back, knowing I didn't want to do that."

[+] EnlargeJoe Torre and Terry Francona
AP Photo/Steven SenneTerry Francona sent Joe Torre well wishes after hearing news of the Dodgers manager's retirement.

He also never thought he would ever manage in professional baseball.

"I thought I was going to be like everyone else," Francona said. "Win a batting title and be semi-rich and quit on my own terms. But 60 games into [my career], I was just trying to hang on."

Rewind to 1982. Francona was 23 and playing in his second season with the Montreal Expos. Then, after 627 big league games and plenty of injuries and surgeries, Francona tried hard to not accept the fact his career in baseball was basically over. It was April 1990 when the Milwaukee Brewers released him, so he played the rest of that season at Triple-A Louisville (St. Louis Cardinals). In the offseason he had surgery on his knee, shoulder and wrist.

Still, he wanted to give it one more try, so he went to spring training the next year in hopes of continuing his career. But he quickly realized his playing days were over.

"I stunk," Francona said. "I couldn't do it physically, so I went home and Buddy [Bell] offered me a job [in 1991 as a hitting instructor in the White Sox system]. Until that point, I had never thought about [managing]."

The reason Francona was reflecting Saturday on his coaching and managerial careers -- jobs that have taken him from the Arizona Fall League through Class A and Double-A, eventually to the majors as a bench coach and finally as a manager for the Phillies (1997-2000) before landing in Boston -- was because one of his good friends recently announced he is stepping away from the game at season's end.

When Joe Torre announced Friday he won't return as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the first person to inform Francona was Don Zimmer.

The Red Sox honored the organization's Hall of Fame class for this year prior to Friday's game at Fenway Park, and Zimmer, a former Red Sox manager and Yankees bench coach, was in attendance as one of the honorees. Francona and Zimmer have been friends for a long time, so Zimmer told Francona the news that Torre was done.

After the game, Francona sent Torre a note to wish him well.

"I hope whatever he's doing, I hope he does on his own terms," Francona said. "I think he deserves that and he's been doing it a long time. There's a lot of respect from a lot of people on how he conducts himself, so I hope he's happy with the decision he's made. That's what I care about."

When Torre manages his last game for the Dodgers next month, he'll be 70 years old.

"I can't see myself being alive at 70," Francona, 51, said with a laugh. "I'm sure I'll be a heart attack or two into it by then."

It's no secret Francona has dealt with a variety of health issues -- past and present -- but it hasn't kept him away from doing what he loves.

"To do this job, I think you have to be all in. If not, it doesn't work," he said. "When it comes to a point where maybe you can't be, or you don't want to be, it's time to do something else. The travel and the pressure you put on yourself to do well, I can see where that could get at you a little bit."

When asked if there's ever been a point he's thought about retiring, and if it is based on reaching a certain goal or if other factors are involved, Francona was genuine with his answer.

"If I can't do the job, whether it's physically or I'm not all in, I would never stick around," he said. "I have too much respect, hopefully, for the game and the people I work for."

With Torre stepping down, Don Mattingly will take the reins in Los Angeles without ever having been a manager at any level. Sure, "Donnie Baseball" was one of the best during his playing career, but whether he'll be able to manage in the big leagues without prior managerial experience remains to be seen.

Having experience as a minor league manager can be important.

"For me it was," Francona said. "I would have never been able to do it, but different people have different circumstances."

Since becoming manager of the Red Sox prior to the 2004 season, Francona has dealt with his share of different circumstances in Boston. It's safe to say it hasn't been easy for him despite winning two World Series titles.

He has the daunting task of dealing with different personalities on and off the field, and there have been plenty of nights during his tenure here that he has spent on the couch in his office because he works late and arrives at the ballpark early.

This season, especially, has been a challenging one for him because of the plethora of injuries to key players this summer, including Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron and Josh Beckett.

"I think he's done a pretty good job," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. "He's dealing with a lot of crap this year, all the injuries and things. Other than that, he knows what to do."

Even Ortiz and Francona haven't agreed at times this season. Earlier in the year when Ortiz was struggling, Red Sox management decided to replace him at the DH position with Mike Lowell against left-handed pitchers. Twice this season Francona sent in a hitter for Ortiz, which did not make the slugger a happy man.

Even though he still disagrees with both decisions, Ortiz has put it in the past.

"I didn't understand and I disagree," Ortiz said. "Everything is back in its place and whatever. Other than that he's always done a pretty good job. At one point we all have to understand he's getting pressure from people [upper management and ownership], too, and not all the time are they going to make the right decision, the right move. It's in the past and I have a very good relationship with Tito."

Ortiz was asked what he thought of the overall job Francona has done as a manager throughout his career.

"He's done great. No question," Ortiz said. "He's won two World Series and it's not like things just fall into place; you have to put them together."

Francona has one season remaining on a three-year deal worth $12 million. The Red Sox hold club options to retain him in 2012 and 2013. Beyond that point, who knows how long Francona will remain in the game.

"As long as he's healthy, I think he will," Ortiz said.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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