He was the dumbest guy in New England. Terry Fran-coma. Gomer Pyle in the dugout. Chewing that giant wad of stuff, making it look like he had a golf ball in his cheek. Not bunting. Not playing smallball. And taking the blame for every mistake his players made.
It wasn't going well for Terry Francona in those middle months of his first season as manager of the Red Sox. The talk shows were killing him, and as for the mail, well, as he said himself, "The stuff they're asking me to do is physically impossible. I mean, you can only shove that lineup card so far up your [he did not say nose]."
Now he's smarter. The Red Sox are rolling. They're taking care of the baseball. They're occasionally manufacturing a run. The starters are studs every time out and the bullpen is doing the job. The Red Sox beat the Tigers, 5-1, last night, Boston's 11th win in 12 games.
Was Francona ever worried about his employment? Sure, he's on the first year of a three-year deal, and he was handpicked by John Henry, Young Theo, and the minions. But some of us think he might be threatened if he doesn't make the playoffs in this "fire-all-your-guns-at-once" Red Sox season.
"My security is not a concern of mine," he said before last night's game. "If they think they can get somebody better here, they need to do it. That is not only their right, it's their obligation. Whether it's tomorrow, next year, or 10 years from now. When I was in the minor leagues, I said, `If I put the players first, my situation will always take care of itself.' And I still believe that."
OK, a little follow-up on that, Tito. Some of us think you put the players first too much. We fear you take too many bullets for the fellows.
Not enough tough love. Certainly nothing public.
"I don't care," he said. "I know what I think is important. And I know what my job is and what we need to do is win. That's what we need to do. If we win, I'll be smart. So we need to win."
And they are winning. The Sox have won five straight, 14 of 17, and 17 of 21. They are a season-high 22 games over .500, and own baseball's best record in August (19-7). They are two games ahead of last year's pace.
They are 19-8 since trading Nomar Garciaparra and bringing in three guys who are fundamentally sound.
Francona doesn't expect his mail to reflect the upswing. It'll take a few more weeks; plus, happy fans are less likely to write. He remembers this from his days of managing the Phillies.
"When people take the time to write, it's usually not good," he said. "They're venting. I would say the mail here is pretty similar to Philly. I mean, there's only so many ways you can say [expletive] or [expletive]. That's the way it is. But in Philadelphia, I got one of those nasty ones from a priest, and that hasn't happened here. So, I guess it's worse there.
"I got a letter today from a 13-year-old girl. Very well thought out and conscientious. She was really serious and said, `Please think this over.' She took a lot of time to write it, so I read it."
But don't expect him to listen to nitwit radio.
"I think I have a pretty good perspective on that," he said. "I think it's great for what we're doing because it creates interest. But I also know that the guys that do it are experts on football, basketball, hockey. I just want to be good at baseball. From what I've heard in the past -- and I'm a big basketball and football fan -- and I've turned 'em on in the past by accident and I've heard what they're saying about baseball? And I tell myself, `[Expletive], if that's how they're talking about football, why would I listen to it?' 'Cause they don't understand about baseball. I know they need to make the phones light up. That's OK. So really I don't listen to it that much."
He's not going to knock any players, even those who have departed. But he likes what he's working with since the trading deadline deals were made. It's even affected a previously stagnant strategy.
"Our bench is strong," he said. "We have a lot of ways to move people. You can defense different positions, which is what we're supposed to do. Players may not always like it, but that gives us our best team for nine innings. Plus I think it's good when you get everyone involved."
Regarding the sloppy defense of the early months, he said, "We weren't trying to make mistakes. We weren't built the way some of us were comfortable. I thought we'd be better defensively. I care about defense a lot. Yeah, it was bothersome. The way we were wasn't perfect. We were hoping to get the matchups, but some nights we didn't.
"You want to play to your players' strengths. We don't necessarily want guys that can't bunt to try to bunt. If there's a guy on second base you're not sure can get to third on a bunt, why do it? You might make 30,000 people think you're trying to do the right thing, but it doesn't work. If you have guys that are hitting that aren't necessarily going to hit into a double play, let 'em hit.
"We are better suited to play a little more aggressive baseball right now. The philosophy I don't think has changed. I don't think we want to give outs away. You only get 27, you want to use 'em. But we're a little quicker and a little better defensively."
And the much-maligned manager is suddenly smarter.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.