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Francona embraces rival Torre

Now that Joe Torre is with the Dodgers, Terry Francona will have no reservations about showing his admiration in public. Now that Joe Torre is with the Dodgers, Terry Francona will have no reservations about showing his admiration in public. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Email|Print| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - When Terry Francona sees Joe Torre here this afternoon in Dodger Blue, he's likely to do something he couldn't have imagined when Torre still wore pinstripes.

"I'm glad he's in the National League," Francona said. "I feel like I can put my arm around him. He'll probably start yelling at me."

Such a fraternal gesture would have been out of place, Francona said, in the crucible of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.

"I never went out there to the batting cage," Francona said. "I just didn't want to put him in that position. People don't want to see that."

For fans inflamed by provincial loyalties, it may be hard to fathom the personal bonds forged in an environment seemingly more suited for enmity than affection. But this winter, the general managers, Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman, made public appearances together, Cashman at Epstein's charity event in Boston, Epstein at a speaking engagement at a New Jersey university, one that Cashman jokingly likened to an Obama-Clinton debate. The friendship is genuine.

"We've known each other and been friendly for a long time," Epstein said yesterday.

Francona, meanwhile, shares a connection with the new Dodgers manager that began four decades ago, when Torre was playing with Francona's father, Tito, and Francona was 8.

"He was a really good hitter," Francona said. "Really slow, but a really good hitter."

Mirabelli slow? Francona looked dubious.

"He was slow, kind of heavy-legged," Francona said. "But I always listened to guys that my dad liked. He said [Torre] was a player's player, and that was good enough for me."

Last October, during the American League Championship Series, Francona held up his media conference so he could watch television coverage of Torre's resignation from the Yankees. "It's almost like you're watching 'The Bronx is Burning,' " Francona said at the time, referring to the cable TV miniseries about a turbulent Yankee team from an earlier generation. "You're watching something unfold that's unbelievable."

He said yesterday that over the winter he and Torre exchanged multiple voice mails, but haven't talked about the circumstances that led Torre to leave the Yankees as manager after a dozen seasons, six AL pennants, and four World Series titles. Francona mentioned that in 1999, when he was managing the Phillies, he bought tickets, took three of his kids to Yankee Stadium, and sat in the upper deck, "above the French's mustard" sign, to watch Roger Clemens pitch the clinching game of the Series against the Braves, one of three straight world championships won by the Yankees.

"I just want him to be happy," Francona said. "What he's done for the game, I felt bad that he was kind of living through it. Everything was so out there."

In the past, Francona said, he and Torre have talked about the sideshows that compete with the games any time the Sox and Yankees get together.

"It just gets so out of whack, the whole thing," he said. "The games are good enough. That game in '04 when [Derek] Jeter went into the stands? It's hard to find games better than that, [although] I wish we'd won. The game they came into our place and Billy Mueller hit a walkoff home run? That's pretty good baseball."

But for Yankees-Sox, it seldom begins and ends with just baseball.

Last season, after the newspapers were filled with stories that beanballs might be in the offing, umpires summoned Torre and Francona for a private meeting in which both sides were warned not to let that happen.

"In a normal situation, you just move on," Francona said, "but that stuff takes on a life of its own. I get tired of that sometimes."

Francona recalled a visit to New York a couple of years ago on which he'd taken his son, Nick, and was accosted at the team's hotel by a dentist who was a rabid Yankees fan, to the point where he had to summon security. How did he know the fan was a dentist?

"I asked him, 'What do you do for a living?' " Francona said. "He said, 'I'm a dentist.' I was just getting crushed by the guy."

But it has not gotten to the point, Francona said, where he wants out of the rivalry.

"You can try to downplay this stuff all you want," he said, "but you can't. It's real. It's great. The games are so great."

And that is likely to continue, he said, even with the Yankees replacing one Joe (Torre) with another (Girardi) in the dugout.

Torre, who turns 68 July 18, has nearly two decades on Francona, who will be 49 April 22. Could the Sox manager envision managing as long as Torre, whose first big league job came in 1977 with the Mets, when he was 36?

"I don't know," Francona said. "If somebody wanted me . . . The thing I worry about is losing energy. I don't know how you do this job without energy for the day."

It might help if Francona paid more attention to his medication, especially the blood thinners he takes since suffering a pulmonary embolism in 2002. In January, he took his daughter to a softball tournament in Anaheim, Calif. "I'd stepped on a pin at home and got an infection in my toe," he said. "Great. Then I bit my tongue, and the blood was off the charts."

He wound up in the hospital for transfusions. Meanwhile, he told his daughter she'd have to check out of the hotel on her own, and suggested she ask a bellman for help. "She explained her dad had had a little accident," he said. "An hour and a half later, they had two Hazmats up there. They needed seven towels for the blood."

Even by the standards of Yankees-Red Sox, that's a bit much. Better he give Joe a hug.

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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