CLEVELAND - Terry Francona vowed, after his experience managing in Philadelphia, to go with what he thought was right. That's why, despite the calls from fans and questions from media about, say, using Jacoby Ellsbury instead of Coco Crisp in center field, Francona determined that he had to go with the veteran over the rookie. He had to do what he thought he was supposed to do.
Despite myriad media obligations, despite the hoopla and the harried moments, these are the days Francona waits for with great anticipation. These are the best days, when the things he feels are right are analyzed.
"Actually, for me, this time of the season, I love this time of the season," Francona said. "Part of August and some of September, it's hard not to have some anxiety when you go out to the dugout some nights because you're struggling so hard to get where you want to go and it's not falling the way you want it to all of the time.
"Then I get here, even in '04 when I didn't have experience, I just felt good. I love these games. Believe me, I'd rather win every game. But the feeling is, I feel good when we go out there. You work so hard to get to this point trying to be the best team out there. It's almost like a drug."
These are not days when Francona goes out in public. He keeps to himself, arrives at the ballpark early, devotes his resources to readying his team for playoff baseball. And his players appreciate it.
"He just kind of lets us go out there and play," Josh Beckett said. "He makes decisions when he needs to make decisions. He's great. Like I said, he's always got your back. If you tell him - one of our guys comes in and says, 'Tito, I was safe,' he's going to go argue for you because he believes in us and he believes what we're telling him."
While that might not suggest a major change from the beginning of his managerial career with the Phillies, it does demonstrate a growing understanding of what he can and cannot do. A growing respect for the postseason, and a growing enjoyment of being a regular in the tournament. That has all, in his mind, made him a better manager, better suited to the task, and better able to enjoy it.
Even when the doubters get particularly vociferous.
"When I became a major league manager in Philadelphia, it took me a while to realize that you're not always in complete control," Francona said. "That's why when we go to spring training we spend a lot of time trying to tell guys, 'OK, this is how we feel about the game. This is how we want you guys to play. Now go play.' I want to do the right thing, but I don't want them looking over their shoulder."
They don't seem to. With his reputation as a player's manager, Francona has cultivated a clubhouse full of confident players, guys who are ready and willing to play for him. Though he's more likely to tout his vast cribbage skills - often at the expense of Dustin Pedroia - Francona is well aware of what is going on in his clubhouse. He's well aware of what it has taken to get to this point.
He has been here before. And now he is more than happy to enjoy what his team has wrought. These are the playoffs, and Francona is happy to be back. Happy to be managing, happy to be in the dugout each night. Happy, even amid those who are not happy with him.
"The game itself is awesome," Francona said. "The game is awesome. I can't wait. When I go out there, like 40 minutes before the game, I just love it. Just love it. Just love it. Because you don't feel like you're ever going to lose. Nothing has gone wrong yet."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.