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Henry meets with Francona

Sox could be close on a managerial decision

In the strongest sign yet that Terry Francona has seized the inside track in the race to become the 44th manager of the Red Sox, the former Phillies skipper met privately last night in Florida with the team's principal owner, John W. Henry, according to a baseball source familiar with the session. Francona became the first managerial candidate to be interviewed by Henry, a powerful prerequisite in the process to replace Grady Little.

Francona, 44, Oakland's bench coach, received highly favorable reviews earlier this month after he became the second candidate to be interviewed for the vacancy by general manager Theo Epstein. Francona followed Los Angeles Dodgers third base coach Glenn Hoffman, who was seen as less enthusiastic about the opportunity after his interview at Fenway Park.

"He is a serious candidate," Henry said after the meeting. "I was impressed with his forthrightness and knowledge of the game." Efforts to reach Francona for comment last night were unsuccessful.

The television station CN8 last night first reported Francona's meeting with Henry.

The Sox also have interviewed Anaheim Angels bench coach Joe Maddon and plan to conduct an additional preliminary interview as early as this week, perhaps with Texas first base coach DeMarlo Hale, a former manager for several Boston minor league affiliates. Maddon was considered to have interviewed well last week in Phoenix with Epstein and assistant GM Josh Byrnes and has not been ruled out.

Francona's front-runner status has been further enhanced by Sox president Larry Lucchino's assertion that no surprise candidate is hovering on the horizon. The Sox have given no indication they have anyone else high on their wish list, and the only other leading candidate, Anaheim pitching coach Bud Black, withdrew from the process after the Sox received permission from the Angels to interview him. Black said he was reluctant to relocate his family from the West Coast.

Francona managed the Phillies from 1997 to 2000, going 285-363 for a team woefully short on pitching. He acknowledged after his interview at Fenway Park that he was young and inexperienced when he led the Phillies and said he was fully prepared to return to the managerial fray, even in the crucible of the Boston market. He presented himself to reporters after his six-hour interview on Yawkey Way as a players' manager, like Little, who also has a keen appreciation for the power of statistical analysis in preparing for games and managing them.

Francona's meeting with Henry suggests the Sox could be approaching the end of the search process. They initially said they hoped to complete the search by the end of November but later said they hoped to fill the position before the annual winter meetings, which begin Dec. 12 in New Orleans.

Francona, whose father, Tito, played 15 years in the majors from 1956-70, played in the bigs from 1980-90 before he managed four years in the minors for the White Sox, going 296-266. He impressed baseball executives in 1994 with how well he managed the Double A Birmingham Barons for the White Sox amid the circus atmosphere created by basketball legend Michael Jordan's attempt to prove himself on the diamond. "I think they're going to interview a lot of tremendous people," Francona said after his interview at Fenway Park. "But I think I can be an asset to this ball club."

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