Commentary

In father's shadow, Francona made her own name at North Carolina

Updated: February 28, 2009, 12:42 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- Crouched at the hot corner, glove ready, Alyssa Francona waits for the pitch. The Green Monster is behind her, and a Jimmy Fund billboard is perched just beyond her peripheral vision above the right-field stands.

Sometimes life has a strange sense of humor.

Alyssa Francona
Jeff Camarati/UNC Athletic Communications Senior Alyssa Francona is on the brink of 100 starts at third base for North Carolina.

As a third baseman for the University of North Carolina, Francona has made a name for herself in college softball. At some point in the next week or two, she'll start her 100th career game at third for the Tar Heels. A smooth fielder, she also has some power in her bat and patience at the plate, making her a key component of a team that has the potential to become just the second ACC school other than Florida State to reach the Women's College World Series.

And as a senior journalism major who made the Dean's List last fall and is active in campus organizations such as the Carolina Leadership Academy and Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, Francona is making a name for herself in the Chapel Hill community.

But during the Cathedral City Classic at the Big League Dreams complex, where fields are modeled after famous big-league stadiums, the backdrop behind her offered its own reminder that she also has a name someone else made for her. As you might have guessed at this point, Alyssa -- along with younger sister and North Carolina freshman teammate Leah -- is one of Red Sox manager Terry Francona's four children.

And through sheer scheduling coincidence, North Carolina found itself playing its first two games of the 32-team event at the replica Fenway Park. Maybe because the real-life snow-capped peaks standing in for the Citgo sign behind left field spoiled the illusion, none of Francona's teammates gave her a hard time about the ironic setting.

Or maybe it was because to them, she's simply their third baseman.

"I actually don't get a lot of that kind of stuff, which is nice -- especially being in North Carolina," Francona said. "It's part of the reason I went there; you don't get a lot of Francona stuff there."

The Red Sox skipper may be renowned for his ability to deal affably with seven-figure salaries and even more sizable egos, but it's clear talking to Alyssa that her father doesn't get much extra practice at home. Alyssa is cheerful, punctuating sentences with laughs the way some people punctuate facts with verbal question marks. She's gracious and accommodating, even after spending four hours in the desert sun for a doubleheader.

Their family is a normal family; they're great people. They don't like the attention; they don't want the attention, really. They just want to be like everybody else.

--UNC softball coach Donna Papa, of Alyssa and Leah Francona

But it doesn't take much intuition to sense that there are several dozen other subjects she'd rather talk about than her lineage -- possibly including reminiscing about the line drives off the body that come with playing third base in a sport in which batters use aluminum bats and the pitching rubber is only 43 feet from home plate.

"They're normal kids," North Carolina coach Donna Papa said of Alyssa and Leah. "Their family is a normal family; they're great people. They don't like the attention; they don't want the attention, really. They just want to be like everybody else. And I think their parents have gone a long way, too, to try to keep it that way.

"You know, a lot of people are interested by it, but they're just normal kids. They're great."

That said, playing at the faux Fenway, even if in Carolina colors, was hardly the first omen that Francona's fate might not be entirely in her own hands. To begin with, she was born in Tucson, Ariz., on April 7, 1987, one day after her dad hit an Opening Day home run for the Cincinnati Reds in an 11-5 win against the Montreal Expos.

From there, Alyssa spent large chunks of her childhood summers traversing the ballparks of minor league America as Terry worked his way up the managerial ladder, from Sarasota to South Bend, including a stop in Birmingham, Ala., with a moonlighting basketball star by way of the Chicago Bulls.

And even as Alyssa sought her own direction athletically, on the volleyball and basketball courts, some of the bat-and-ball passion that has been the family trade for half a century (Terry's father, of course, was former major leaguer Tito Francona, and Alyssa's brother, Nick, played baseball at the University of Pennsylvania) seeped in.

"I went to other sports first, but then ultimately decided to play softball," Francona said. "But I think part of it is just you're so inclined to play that, that we were drawn to it."

She wasn't quite as drawn to Boston initially, at least not when her dad was named the Red Sox's manager in 2004 near the end of her junior year of high school. In her own words, she "cried my way out of that one" when it came to changing schools for her senior year. So she remained at Pennsbury High School outside Philadelphia and won a state softball championship in 2005, adding to a family trophy case that had gained notable heft the previous October when the Red Sox won their first championship since 1918.

[+] EnlargeAlyssa Francona
Jeff Camarati/UNC Athletic Communications Playing for a school away from Boston has made life simpler for Francona.

Watching that latter postseason run unfold, even as a relative outsider, was an eye-opening experience in more than one way.

"It was really cool," Francona said. "And at first I was looking at schools up North, and it kind of changed my decision a little bit because everyone is insane up there."

She was laughing when she offered that diagnosis of Red Sox Nation, but it was a reminder that it's never just those in uniform who endure the roller-coaster ride of pro sports. And sometimes it's not necessarily any easier when everyone simply wants to shake your hand rather than kick you out of town.

"It changed a lot of what we do, and I know it was hard for my sisters," said Francona, who also has a 15-year-old sister, Jaime. "But [the fans] are intense to the point that it's cool to be around. … It's a great atmosphere."

When she goes home now, it's not to a celebrity's life -- no hanging with Mike Lowell in the clubhouse for tips on playing third. With her dad, she said, what you see is what you get; the mellow, low-key on-screen persona is the same person the family sees. And that's about the only part of the office he brings home with him.

"We go home and we hit with my dad, and that's nice," Francona said. "It's nice to get some one-on-one time. But … he's the dad in the stands that cheers, not the dad that's coaching you all the time."

The Tar Heels' third baseman has a pretty good coach as it is in Papa, who earned career win No. 900 during the team's stay in Cathedral City. (The Connecticut native is a lifelong Yankees fan.) But as Francona's stay on the softball field comes to a close this season, she's ready to be her own instructor. In part, it's why she came to North Carolina in the first place: to take all that her dad taught her and start putting it to use around people who don't know or don't care who her dad is.

Alyssa said it's hard to be labeled as Terry Francona's daughter, "so it's nice because people here, they're like, 'Oh, your dad's the manager?' And they have no idea. It's awesome; it's great. You kind of make your own name."

And even in the shadow of a fake Green Monster, she was faring fine at just that.

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.