On the bench, management in good standing
Francona, Mills form 1-2 combination for Sox
Long before he recruited him to play at the University of Arizona, Jerry Kindall knew Terry Francona, not that his first impression was favorable.
Kindall and Francona's father, Tito, were teammates on the Cleveland Indians. "We were in spring training in 1962," Kindall said, "and my daughter, who was 4 at the time, was playing in the sandbox outside of the bungalow where we were staying. She comes in the house, crying, saying some boy had thrown sand in her eyes.
"It was Terry Francona, the little rascal."
Francona was past the sand-throwing stage by the time Brad Mills met him, but Mills wasn't much impressed, either. Mills was a junior college transfer, from California, the College of the Sequoias, Kindall having offered him a scholarship on the spot after seeing him tear up a tournament in which he'd come to scout a couple of other players. Kindall couldn't stop talking about one of his incoming freshmen, Terry Francona. Together, Kindall promised Mills, he and Terry could do great things for the Wildcats.
"I was an older guy, staying in the athletic dorm, which was a little nicer and bigger than the freshman dorm, and we went down there one night to meet everyone," Mills said. "There was a major league game on TV, we're all watching it. I start going around the room, introducing myself. There's this guy lying on the couch. He's wearing blue jean cutoffs and red high-top Chuck Taylors. His hair is well past his shoulders. He's lying there and I say, 'Brad Mills.' He says, 'Terry Francona.'
"I stood back and said, 'You're Terry Francona?' He says, 'Yeah.' I'm saying, 'You're kidding me.' I'm thinking, 'What a disappointment.' "
Terry Francona, a tremendous hitter out of high school in New Brighton, Pa., was a "scared to death freshman who wanted to go home," said Kindall, who had Francona cut his hair the next day.
"All I wanted to do was get Coors Light," Francona said. "I was 18 years old, living in the dorm, typical." One night, teammates grabbed Francona, wearing only his underwear, tied him to a chair, stuck him outside Kindall's hotel room, and knocked. Kindall was not amused. "He could be stern," Francona said, "especially with me."
Their differences stood out. But so did their talent. They both could play the game. Mills led the team in hitting his first year. Francona became the College Player of the Year two years later. "I saw he was really that good," Mills said. "And I think he saw I was pretty good, too. We had respect for one another on the field, and that carried over off the field."
Ronda Mills, Brad's wife, would have Francona over for taco salads. When their daughter, Taylor, was born, Francona said, "I was the first person who got to hold her. She was a day old." When Arizona played in the College World Series, Ronda sat with Francona's parents and became fast friends. When Francona met his future wife, Jacque, he couldn't wait to introduce her to Brad and Ronda.
Over a quarter-century later, it hasn't stopped. These two baseball lifers, finding more common ground than either ever imagined, have forged a lasting relationship, most obviously in the Red Sox dugout, where Francona manages and Mills sits alongside as bench coach. This is how they operate. On the team's recent trip to Oakland, Calif., Francona decides he is going to have Jason Varitek pinch hit for J.D. Drew late in a game, tells Varitek of his plan, then turns to pitching coach John Farrell to discuss his next move in the bullpen. In the meantime, Mills, on his own, goes to Coco Crisp and tells him that if Varitek hits, Crisp should be prepared to run for him. Francona, his discussion with Farrell finished, signals to Mills. "Tell Coco he should be ready to run for 'Tek."
"There was no doubt in my mind if I ever got a job, he would be the first guy I would lean on," Francona said, "and that's what I did."
The touching points have been many over the years. They wound up rooming together at Arizona when the team was on the road. Both were drafted by the Montreal Expos, Mills as a 17th-rounder in 1979, Francona as a first-rounder a year later. Both made it to the big leagues, Mills getting there first, Francona staying longer. Both wound up the same spring with the Cubs, Mills signed as a free agent in the off season, Francona signing after he was released in mid-spring by another club.
Francona had modest success in the big leagues, lasting 10 seasons, mostly as a backup outfielder. Mills became a historical footnote -- when Nolan Ryan broke Walter Johnson's strikeout record, it was Mills who went down on strikes -- and his playing career ended, he said, when he was traded to the Astros and "on the plane ride to Houston I forgot how to hit."
Both tore up their knees, Mills getting hurt the day Francona was called up to the big leagues from Oklahoma City, where they were rooming together.
Here's the weird part of that story. "Before Terry left, I asked him if I could borrow his [game] pants," Mills said. "He goes to San Francisco and gets a couple of hits. I play in Oklahoma City, wear his pants, and tear up my knee."
Funny thing is, Francona said, he always figured Mills would be the one who managed first in the big leagues. He started managing in the Cubs' minor league system in 1987, two years before Francona stopped playing. Mills managed 11 seasons in the minors, the last time in 2002, when he guided the Dodgers' Triple A team in Las Vegas to a club-record 85 wins and the Pacific Coast League's Southern Division title. The next season, he was in Montreal as the Expos' bench coach, then joined Francona when he was hired to manage the Red Sox in 2004. This is their second go-round together in the big leagues; when Francona was first hired to manage, in 1997 by the Phillies, he made Mills his bench coach.
Mills has to live with the murmurs that he has his job because of the buddy system.
"I want you to know," he said, "I tell Terry yearly, 'I don't want to be here because I'm a friend, I want to be here because I'm good.' There is no way I would want this job any other way."
Mills turned 50 this year, two years older than Francona. His son, Beau, was just drafted by the Indians, a first-rounder, and signed a big bonus. Francona's son, Nick, was a pitcher at Penn but has since branched out into more serious endeavors, which have him hanging out with the likes of MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann and Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz.
Francona believes Mills would be a good manager, an opinion shared by Frank Wren, the Braves' assistant general manager who roomed with Mills in the minors.
"There's no question [Terry] is more gregarious, while Brad is more reserved, but Brad is the type of well-respected guy who just oozes with a trust that he'll do things right," said Wren.
Kindall is retired now, but he has remained in contact with both men. Last season, he saw them at a game in Minnesota, but mostly stays in touch by phone.
"Terry says this self-effacing, 'I couldn't do it without Brad,' and Brad won't take any credit, which is typical of him," Kindall said. "Brad is one of the most upright, loyal, godly guys we ever had in the program. Just rock solid, so dependable."
Yes, Mills said, he'd like to manage someday.
"But you know what?" he said. "It's not an issue for me anymore. Would I enjoy the opportunity? Yes. Do I think I could do a good job? Yes. But I'm going to do the best job I can do right here. I want this organization to be successful, the players to be successful, Terry to be successful. Me getting a job is not the issue. The issue is what I do right here."
Besides, everyone knows that any manager can use a guy who will tell him not to throw sand.