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ON BASEBALL

Francona manages the day OK

Her father had missed her 18th birthday last Thursday because he was in Massachusetts General Hospital while doctors prodded and probed to find the reason for the chest pain that had an ambulance hustling him out of Yankee Stadium the day before, an IV stuck in his arm while paramedics checked to make sure he hadn't had a heart attack.

Alyssa Francona decided that even if it meant missing school --and last October, her mom and dad had ruled that not even the World Series was an acceptable excuse for skipping -- she and her two younger sisters, Leah and Jamie, and her older brother, Nick, were all coming to Opening Day.

"They called Sunday night," Terry Francona said in his office after the Sox had beaten the Yankees, 8-1, yesterday afternoon. "My wife said, `No.' I said, `C'mon.' I overrode her. I never do that to my wife, but the boss was not the boss for once.

"So they all came up this morning and they're all going back tomorrow morning. They have to be back. At $42,000 a year, Nick's getting back to school, and the girls have softball games. They wanted to be here, and you know what, I wanted them to be here. We're going to this banquet tonight and Ben Affleck's going to be there, and they'll be as happy as hell. They'll be happy to see him more than me."

For maybe the only time all day, Terry Francona was mistaken about something. No matter how starstruck their kids might be, they were there first and foremost to see for themselves that their dad was OK. For that, you have the word of their mother, Jacque Francona.

"It was good for them," she said, "to see that he was fine."

Jacque Francona had been out playing tennis near their home in Philadelphia last Wednesday morning when her husband had called to say he was en route to the hospital. Barely an hour passed before she retrieved his message, but by that time, her sister-in-law in Arizona had called. "She said, `What's wrong with Terry?' " Jacque Francona said. "I said, `How do you know?' She said she'd just heard the news on ESPN."

The Sox opened the season in New York a week ago Sunday night. The next day, Terry Francona went home to see his son, a freshman pitcher at the University of Pennsylvania, play. Jacque Francona, a registered nurse, sensed there was something wrong.

"Terry was very quiet, unusually quiet," she said, "but I also knew he was exhausted. That last week of spring training was crazy, with all the travel, the trip to Arizona. He said, `I'm really tired.' But I guess I didn't realize how badly he felt."

Two mornings later, Francona boarded an 8 o'clock bus bound for the ballpark from the team's New York hotel. "I just broke out in a sweat and didn't feel good," he said. "I must have fallen asleep because they woke me up at the ballpark, which is a rarity. I just didn't feel well. I didn't want to talk."

When he felt pain in his chest, he said, he told Jim Rowe, the team's trainer, and an ambulance was summoned.

It was only 2 1/2 years ago when Francona had flown to Seattle to be interviewed for the Mariners' managerial job, thought he was having a heart attack, and discovered he had blood clots in both lungs. More trials followed. He had staph infections in both knees, but doctors couldn't operate because he was on blood thinners.

Just before he was due to be discharged from the hospital, doctors discovered massive bleeding in his thigh. All of those episodes were life-threatening, Francona has said.

"That's no exaggeration," Jacque Francona said.

Francona made a remarkable recovery, was back coaching for the Athletics by spring training, and by November he'd gotten full medical clearance from the Sox to succeed Grady Little as manager.

But there was also this: Francona's family history. "His father [Tito] had bypass surgery twice, has had two heart attacks, and has a pacemaker," Jacque Francona said. "His father's brother died of a heart attack at 47, and all his father's cousins died of heart attacks, too."

Yes, Terry Francona said, he was anxious on that ambulance ride. "They're giving me that IV and they're plugging it in and they're doing it at a pretty quick pace," he said yesterday. "I was a little nervous."

Jacque Francona stayed in telephone contact with her husband.

"I don't think I was panicked about this," she said, "because I spoke with him several times during the day and he sounded great. They said immediately that he did not have a heart attack, and there had not been [heart] damage."

Terry Francona missed four games, the last game of the Yankee series and the three-game set in Toronto, while doctors ran him through a battery of tests. "I think I got more than the 50,000-mile checkup," he said. "I got parts of my body checked I didn't even know I had."

He was discharged from the hospital Friday, when doctors attributed his condition to a viral infection. His heart was fine.

"I'm glad it wasn't a heart condition," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who had kept vigil with Francona that long Wednesday afternoon in New York. "I think this is all good news."

There was some blockage in his arteries, but no more, his wife said, than you would find in an average man his age (46). "They called me and told me to go for a walk," Francona said of his medical team, headed by Dr. Thomas Gill, "but it was right after a loss, and I kept thinking, `That's all I need, to go for a walk in Boston after a loss.' "

On Sunday morning, with the team still in Toronto, Francona went to Fenway Park and sat in his office. It was a good feeling. Yesterday morning, he sat on a podium in the team's spacious new media interview room and eloquently spoke about how much it meant to be back.

"The one thing that sticks out more than anything," he said, "is I need to be doing my job, to get in the dugout and do what I'm supposed to do. I've got a responsibility to this organization and I need to do that. So if it takes being a little smarter with my diet or whatever, I need to do it."

During batting practice, Francona roamed the field, clusters of his players gathering around him to embrace and talk.

"They seemed a little happy to see me," he joked. "You get so used to being around these guys. Even when times aren't perfect, you get close to them and you care about them, even when it's not good, and I missed being out there this weekend like you can't believe."

Doctors told him to try to cut down on the stress, and apparently kept a straight face in doing so.

"I can't care anything less about what I'm doing here," Francona said, "and I think that became obvious to me right away. I don't want to cut back on how I feel about the Red Sox. I understand. I'm trying to keep things in order, but what I do for a living is much more than just a job. I'm sure it's hard for people to understand why this job is stressful, because it's only a game, but it goes way past that.

"This is our passion. This is what we care about, and it's going to be hard for this not to be stressful because as manager you're supposed to care about everything. It's not just wins and losses. It's the players, it's the trainers, it's the clubhouse people. Everybody comes to you and that will never change, and it's not supposed to.

"I don't want to get too philosophical . . . but I don't want this job to be getting less important. If it becomes less important, then they got the wrong guy, and I don't want that to be the case."

Jacque Francona and her kids were sitting in the stands when Terry Francona caught a ceremonial first pitch from Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, with whom Francona shared a University of Arizona connection. They watched as he greeted Joe Torre, the manager of the Yankees, and commended Torre on the great class the Yankees showed by being in their dugout during the pregame ceremony.

"I was happy to see him because what happened last week in the Bronx was a little scary," said Torre, whose brother, Frank, had a heart transplant. "I've known him and his father for a long time. I was happy to see him back today."

The best part of yesterday's pregame ceremonies, Epstein said, was when Francona emerged from the Sox dugout to receive his World Series ring.

"Maybe it was because he was the first guy," Epstein said, "but it was when Terry walked out there. I knew what he had been through. We've spent a lot of time together, low moments and bad times as well as the good times. I was really happy for him."

You know what? Francona said he didn't feel all that great when he got up yesterday morning, either. But it was OK, because he knew the reason. And besides, his kids were on their way.

"Yes, I'm beat," he said at the end of the day. "I'm still getting strong, but Wake [Tim Wakefield] helped me a little bit. That game started too quick for me. I've been here since 8 o'clock, but I wasn't ready for the game. When it started, I went, `Holy [expletive].'

"But it was a good day. A good day."

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