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MICHAEL HOLLEY

90s forecast puts heat on Francona

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A 78-win season would be a career high for Terry Francona, but he realizes what a year like that will get him in Boston. If the first-year Red Sox manager wins 78 games, his bags will be packed, his office locks will be changed, and his one-way ticket to Philadelphia will be waiting for him at South Station.

Eighty-two wins would represent Francona's first winning season, and that kind of finish is good enough for a baseball parade -- in Tampa.

Ninety is respectable. Ninety-two is what Dick Williams had when the Sox went to the World Series in 1967. Grady Little had 93 and 95, and you still have to activate the seven-second delay when mentioning his name in New England.

Francona was hired to reach the 90s, and he was hired to take the Sox where they couldn't go last season. Or (depending on your perspective) where the manager wouldn't let them go in 2003.

Of all the people associated with the Sox -- and I'm talking ownership, management, players, coaches, trainers, members of the PR staff, and clubhouse man Pookie Jackson -- no one has more expected of him in 2004 than Terry Francona. No one is a better leading-man candidate for this version of "Great Expectations."

There can be no honeymoon, no grace period, no three-year plan. Francona probably has more expected of him than anyone in baseball.

Curt Schilling is being counted on as the best No. 2 starter in the game, and that shouldn't be a problem since he has the stuff and sensibility of a No. 1. Keith Foulke was signed to prevent wins from escaping out the bullpen's backdoor. Pokey Reese is here for defense up the middle. Ellis Burks was added to further stabilize the clubhouse and bench.

All of the new additions have already done in some other city what they're being asked to do in Boston. With Francona, he is being asked to accomplish what some Hall of Fame managers couldn't. He is being asked to at least get to the Series in his first Sox season. He is being asked to be a lot better than the last guy.

That sounds hilarious to the people who wanted Grady gone long before his episode in the Bronx. But it's not that comical when you're the one taking over a team that was constructed with late October in mind. It's like the owner of a custom-made Lamborghini handing you the keys and saying, "This thing will run beautifully -- if you don't screw it up."

Francona is the designated driver, and this trip will be a little different than the one he took in October '03. He was the bench coach for the Athletics then, and his team had lost a five-game series to the Sox. He packed his car and decided to drive from Oakland to Philadelphia.

"It seemed like a good idea when the trip started," he said yesterday. "But by the second day, I didn't think it was too smart. My ass fell asleep somewhere in Iowa and it took about two weeks to recover."

The smarts of Francona are evident when you talk to him, so he has to know this is one of the toughest assignments of his athletic life. Managing in Boston right now is tougher than sitting among Flyers fans (which Francona did) and listening to them boo your image on the overhead scoreboard.

"Scott Rolen was sitting next to me, and he inched his way out of the camera shot," Francona said. "He didn't want to be near me on that one. We still laugh about it today. When I took the job here, he said, `Don't go to any hockey games, OK?' "

There isn't anything outside of Fenway that can prepare a manager for the culture there, but Philly isn't a bad start. Francona knows he's going to be booed when the team doesn't do well. He knows some people are going to exhaust their vocabularies until they can find some colorful way to get his attention. He knows Sox-Yankees is America's answer to a European soccer rivalry. (What's going to have more passion this summer? The Democratic Convention in Boston or Sox-Yankees in Boston?)

What he doesn't know is how his magnetic personality and devotion to preparation will show in the American League East standings. Williams was able to win a pennant in his first full Boston season in '67, and Kevin Kennedy won the division in '95. Ed Barrow -- if you remember him, God bless you -- was the last first-year Sox manager to win the Series.

Winning big in a new town is not easy. Connie Mack and Joe McCarthy didn't do it, but Earl Weaver (109 wins in 1969) and Sparky Anderson (102 in '70) did. Joe Altobelli won 98 games and the Series in his first year, '83, with the Orioles. The great Walter Alston didn't finish first with the Dodgers in '54, but Casey Stengel finished on top in 10 of his first 12 seasons with the Yankees.

Now we have Francona. He said he is an agreeable person, but that's not a euphemism for a pushover.

"If I'm handling things the right way, [the media] will never hear about the problem," he said.

He said peripheral things don't bother him, that's why it's cool if you call him Tito, which is his father's name. He said he's at the Sox minor league complex by 6 a.m. because he doesn't ever want to see his team lose because it wasn't prepared.

He reads the local papers. He runs. He meets with his coaches and scouts. He checks on University of Arizona basketball (he's been a season-ticket-holder for 21 years). He talks often with Theo Epstein, the general manager who made him the first offseason acquisition of the '04 season.

Francona's new division is the busiest place in baseball. If it weren't for the AL East, baseball would have hibernated in the fall and winter. This is the division that delivered Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Schilling, Foulke, and Javy Lopez. It's where owners try to take each other down with verbal stunts and slams. It's where Lou Piniella guarantees his team won't be last, and where Joe Torre has watched his team finish first seven of the past eight seasons.

Welcome to the AL East, Terry. And welcome to Boston. All you have to do is win more games than you ever have in your life.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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