by TOM WITHERS
---- — CLEVELAND — Indians manager Terry Francona spent part of his off day in — of all places — the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field.
Today, he’ll be back over on the other side. His old team is moving in for three days.
The Red Sox are coming.
Francona, who helped vanquish the Bambino’s Curse and end a World Series title drought in Boston before his tenure as manager ended awkwardly after eight seasons, will face his former team for the first time since 2011 when the Red Sox play a three-game series against the Indians.
Francona is trying not to get caught up in the reunion, unselfishly hoping he won’t be a distraction to his players. However, there are bound to be strong emotions for him when he looks across the diamond and into in the opposing dugout, where faces Francona has come to regard as family will line the padded railing.
The same will be true for the Red Sox, some of whom spent years getting to know the man affectionately called “Tito” by almost everyone.
“It’ll be different because we were so close,” said Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who often played cards in Francona’s office following batting practice at Fenway Park. “It’ll be good to see him. We’re all so happy for him — after him having a year off and getting back into it. They (the Indians) seem like they have a good group of guys, a good team over there. It’ll be fun competing against them.”
Francona promised not to be too sentimental this week, but it was somewhat ironic that he was over in the visitor’s clubhouse yesterday to film a commercial for McDonald’s. Dressed in his Indians uniform, Francona didn’t initially realize the room had been transformed for the commercial shoot to look like Cleveland’s clubhouse.
“I thought it looked a lot different,” he said.
While others may want to reminisce about his days in Boston, Francona made it clear he’s most comfortable talking about the present with Cleveland.
“To be honest, I’m an Indian,” Francona said, dismissing any hype about the series. “I’m aware of the questions and everything. I have a lot of great memories. I don’t think it’s fair to the players. This game’s hard enough to play. They don’t need to be worrying about me having nostalgia week.”
Francona can downplay it all he wants, but the get-together will have meaning.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said Indians infielder Mike Aviles, who also played for Francona in Boston. “He was there for eight years and got two World Series titles. Everyone in Boston knows Terry Francona. I’m sure it’s going to be pretty special to him. I’m sure he’s going to be a little extra excited.
“Knowing Tito he’s probably not going to admit it,” Aviles added.
Francona will be forever endeared to Red Sox Nation. Under his steady leadership, the 86-year World Series jinx ended when the Red Sox won it all in 2004. If that wasn’t enough to make him Boston’s mayor, Francona added another tittle three years later.
His teams were always in contention and he was viewed as one of the game’s best minds.
That all came crashing down in 2011, when the Red Sox went 7-20 in September and the team decided not to renew his contract. His unceremonious exit was followed by stories of a chaotic clubhouse, where beer flowed during games.
Francona stepped away from the game for a year and worked as an ESPN analyst before he was hired by the Indians last October.
His first home games as Cleveland’s manager were against the New York Yankees, Boston’s arch enemies. Those surely dredged up recollections about classic games and past Octobers, but the visit by the Red Sox will make other emotions surface for Francona, who won 744 games in Boston and never fewer than 86 in any season.
“He’s a huge piece of that winning puzzle over there when they won two world championships,” said Indians DH Jason Giambi, who battled Francona’s team for years while with the Yankees. “Of course, there’s going to be a lot of hoopla. He’s the guy that got them over the hump.”
Aviles was with Boston in 2011, which ended with the club’s stunning collapse. As far as Aviles is concerned, any blame for the breakdown should be with the players.
“It was an unfortunate situation at the end,” Aviles said. “We didn’t get to the playoffs and it ended in a bad situation. I was there. We just didn’t play well as a team in that last month. It had nothing to do with Tito. He did everything that he did the whole year.
“Sometimes the manager takes the hit.”
Red Sox manager John Farrell had already received a text message from Francona before the team left Boston yesterday. Farrell credits Francona’s natural ability to connect with those around him as one of the reasons the club had so much success.
Francona united the Red Sox.
“He had such a knack to be able to communicate with the players that were here,” he said. “He had such a way of communicating with everyone that was here. He treated us great (coaches). We wanted to make sure we did as good a job as possible. He’s just got such a way with people.”
It hasn’t taken Francona long to become an adored fixture in Cleveland. He has embraced the community and Indians fans have quickly adopted Francona, whose arrival triggered owner Paul Dolan to sign free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds.
Except for getting lost while making the two-block walk from his apartment to the ballpark before the opener, Francona has settled into his new home.
“He’s fantastic,” said Bill Stern, whose advertising agency was eager to work with Francona for the McDonald’s campaign. “It’s obvious Cleveland has embraced him already. He has all of us believing.”