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In heavy duty, a light touch

Humor helps Francona manage the Red Sox

DETROIT -- Terry Francona, at the podium to announce the starting lineup for the American League All-Star team yesterday, gestured toward Bill Giles, the former president of the Phillies who was serving as the honorary captain of the National League team.

''One more thing," Francona said. ''They talked about 1918 [and the Red Sox winning the World Series]. I think the only person up here that might have actually sat through that was Bill Giles."

After the laughter died down, Giles had his chance to fire back. Noting that the National League has yet to win while he has held his ceremonial position, Giles said, ''I feel good this year because we're going to outmanage the other guy [Francona]. He worked for me for three years."

It's easier to take a joke when your resume lists you not only as the failed manager of the Phillies but as skipper of the defending World Series winners. But humor always has been an important component of Francona's approach to his job. In the anything-goes culture that exists in the Red Sox clubhouse, it's also a survival mechanism.

Imagine how a less-secure person might have reacted when David McCarty, the former Sox infielder who had returned to Boston for a weekend broadcasting gig for NESN, strolled into Francona's office on a recent afternoon, hours before the Sox were to play the Toronto Blue Jays.

''You must have pulled names out of a hat to get that lineup with [Doug] Mirabelli hitting third," McCarty said.

''You know what?" Francona said. ''I knew you were coming in today, I wanted to give you something to [expletive] talk about."

A few minutes later, Bill Mueller, the soft-spoken third baseman, poked his head inside the door.

''Did you know there's a lineup card out there that says Mirabelli is hitting third tonight?" Mueller asked.

''They called me and said it was an exhibition game," Francona retorted.

''I love the fact we have a pretty special thing going here," Francona said after Mueller left. ''And it's everybody. [Curt] Schilling comes over here, and these [expletives], they hammer him. It's great, and he loves it. It works. It just works. Once you step through the door, the gloves come off -- with me, with the coaches, everybody. You better not have thin skin. But they care, as soon as something happens. It's a pretty good situation."

Finding a way to strike a light note in the midst of what can be a deadly serious business, Francona said, is something he learned while doing his apprenticeship as a minor league manager. He was a huge admirer of Jim Leyland, the former Pirates and Rockies manager who won a World Series ring with Florida in 1997.

''I became close to one of Leyland's coaches, Rich Donnelly," Francona said, ''and he'd tell me all these stories how when things were going bad, Leyland would go in the clubhouse and play Nerf basketball. When they're winning, he doesn't need to be out there. It just made sense.

''When we're going good, they don't need me in the dugout [expletive] around, but there's a day when we got our butts kicked I made sure I was out there, [expletive] around with [Matt] Clement, having some energy, because that's when we need it. They don't need me to tell them they're good when we're running off 10 wins in a row. But when Foulkie [Keith Foulke] got his butt handed to him the other night, I needed to be out there the next day, be visible, have some energy."

But don't confuse Francona's ability to laugh, and to laugh at himself, with him taking an overly casual approach to his job. That lineup, the one with backup catcher Mirabelli hitting in the No. 3 hole? Francona had checked the numbers that showed Mirabelli had had great success against that night's pitcher, Ted Lilly, while David Ortiz, who was given the night off, had struggled against Lilly. But even more important, in maintaining that delicate balance between cold data and raw emotion, Francona had gone a step further.

''I called David and I said, 'Look, here's what I think we ought to do today and here's why,' " Francona said. ''But if David Ortiz tells me he's got to play today, I'm playing him. He ended up saying, 'I understand your point.' So then there is no situation, like there might have been if I had just put the lineup up.

''You communicate, you have conversations, and you be truthful. Not truthful to the point where you hurt somebody's feelings, but truthful. And you establish relationships. When you do that, you can tell people some things they don't want to hear necessarily. David and I have a great relationship. He was disappointed. He wants to play. I know he does. But he understood."

Old school? Not a chance, not in this instance.

''I went through the minor leagues and I learned," Francona said. ''I know sometimes people think the inmates run the asylum. I don't think that's the proper way to say it. Do I give them a lot of responsibility? Yeah, if they didn't deserve it, I wouldn't give it to them.

''Like Johnny Damon's hair is flying all around? So what? He goes out there every day, he busts his [butt] every day, hurt or healthy. That's good enough for me."

By his count, Francona called two team meetings all of last season.

''And they lasted a total of about a minute," he said. ''The first was in Cleveland. We'd gone into Texas and got swept, then we went into Cleveland and lost the first two. I think they thought I was going to yell. I said, 'I think you guys are really good and I don't want you to forget that.' They were trying too hard. It was very obvious that they were trying too hard. I appreciated it, but it wasn't working.

''A couple of weeks later, things hadn't really turned around. I don't remember the exact situation, but it was a similar thing. I said, 'Hey, pay attention to detail, bust your butt, and we're going to be fine.' I don't remember where we were, but that was it.

''My ego is not so big that I have to close the doors and have a clubhouse meeting. If you keep this door open and you communicate enough, you don't need to have a bunch of meetings."

There are core values Francona inherited in part from his father, former major leaguer Tito Francona, that he tries to bring to the culture of the Sox. Respecting the game, respecting your teammates, enjoying the competition. He is not breaking new territory here, nor would he want you to think he is. There were times last season, he said, when those values were challenged. He did not single out Pedro Martinez, but in the course of the afternoon, he tells this story:

''We had a workout, I don't remember now if it was during the playoffs or the World Series, and I'm the last guy to leave, it's around 5:30, and in walks Pedro," Francona said. ''He's smiling, happy, and he says, 'Where is everybody?' I said, 'It was a 1 o'clock workout.' Petey says, 'I thought it was 4 o'clock.' It was 5:30."

There never will be a tell-all book from Francona.

''I tease about it, but I would never, ever [write one]," Francona said. ''Like when Pedro left, I thought he said a couple of things that weren't horrible, but if I didn't [say anything about it] when he was here I didn't want to [say anything] after he left. I think that's too easy to do. If [he] had something to say, for example, I wish he'd said it to me.

''When I came here I knew we were supposed to win. I tried to make some adjustments last year, and sometimes it was harder than it was other times. Thankfully, it worked out for us, but it was hard at times. The things I believed in a lot, it tested me sometimes.

''That's the best way I can put it. We've got a good team. If we don't play well, every team goes through that, but these guys last year, for as nutty as they can be, in a place like Boston it can be divisive. You've got 10 papers writing [expletive] about people. But these guys handle it, and when new guys come in, you saw how they came to Edgar [Renteria's] defense. It's legit. Whether it's right, wrong, or in-between, they circle each other. Whether it's right or wrong, I don't care. In my opinion, it's right they circle the wagons. That's good."

The sense of humor speaks for itself, the ego appears in check. Those are not the things that cause the Sox, or Francona's family, to worry about him. His health remains their primary concern. Francona's playing career was never the same after he slid into a brick wall at Wrigley Field, and neither were his knees. He has had 18 knee operations, nine on each knee, and replacement surgery is a when, not an if. In the fall of 2002, shortly after he flew to Seattle and got off the plane thinking he was having a heart attack, Francona nearly died after blood clots were discovered in his lungs, triggering a series of life-threatening events.

Then, three games into this season, Francona was rushed to the hospital from Yankee Stadium in an ambulance with chest pains. The fear again was that he was having a heart attack. It was not a misplaced fear. His father had two heart attacks, bypass surgery, and has a pacemaker. His uncle died of a heart attack at age 47. All of his father's cousins died of heart attacks.

Doctors determined after exhaustive testing that a viral infection, not a heart attack, was responsible for the chest pains. Find a way to reduce the stress, he was advised. His response: Are you kidding me?

''If I want to reduce stress, I'll have to go back to Double A," he said.

But he could do a better job of taking care of himself. Because of his knees, he can't jog on a treadmill, or ride an exercise bike. What he can do, he said, is swim. He tries to set aside a half hour each day to do so. Does it stave off exhaustion? Not always. He admitted that on a recent night, when TV cameras showed him with his head down on the bench, that he was ''out of gas."

When the team was in Philadelphia, he and his wife, Jacque, threw a high school graduation party for their daughter, Alyssa.

''It wasn't perfect for her, because it was three weeks after she graduated, but it was the only way we could do it," he said. ''My wife knew I was going to be exhausted. We played that day in Philly, it was 100 degrees. I stopped at the store, got 20 bags of ice, went home, and I was excited that I could be there.

''I actually fell asleep right at the end of the party. I was snoring so loud, my wife didn't have the nerve to wake me up. She knew I was trying.

''I was thrilled I could be there. On the flip side, I was beat, but how can I look at my children and not have enough energy for them? That's not right. Saying that, they know how I feel about this [managing], so there are times I just collapse at home, and fall asleep at 7 at night. But because they know how I feel about doing this, they understand.

''I'm smarter than I used to be. When you're young, you think you're so resilient, almost bulletproof, and I know I'm not that way anymore. If I've got a problem, I'll tell the trainer or talk to the doctor because I want to be healthy enough to do this job. I don't want to run myself into the ground where I can't do this job, but I have specific feelings about how I'm supposed to do this job, and I can't back away from that."

So he cracks wise, and he swims, and some days he even posts a lineup card with Doug Mirabelli hitting third. Terry Francona can't imagine having a better life.

''Here the passion is just off the charts," he said. ''I'm glad. I get second-guessed more than anybody in the world, but I don't ever want to get to a position where I complain about how people care here. Because I know there will be someday where I'm not here anymore where I'll say, 'Damn, I had the best situation in the world.' "

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