THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Demanding routine for Francona

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 23, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - His mind is racing. His fingers fiddle with the radio dial, trying to find the night's scores, without the sometimes endless breakdowns of the games. He doesn't need to hear it; he already knows what he did wrong or, he hopes, what he did right.

"Sometimes I can't even remember," Terry Francona said. "Sometimes it's going 100 miles an hour. I'm either pissed, frustrated, something I should have done I didn't do. Somebody I know I'd better talk to. But it's just kind of a ritual. It's not like I make myself. It just happens. It's not like I can just, after a win, turn on music. Or after a loss."

It's nearing midnight. Francona has been on the job for at least 13 hours. He faces the drive home to Brookline, a chance to talk with his wife, Jacque, for perhaps the first time all day, and a head stuffed with so many thoughts - Should Alex Cora have played? Did I put that fielder in the best position on that play? Whom do I need to make sure I speak with tomorrow? - that he won't fall asleep for another two hours, his time filled with politics and war on MSNBC and the History Channel. Sometimes the night stretches even later.

It's been a long day. They're all long days.

But that hardly matters at 6:30 p.m., in that precious half-hour before the national anthem and the start of the cycle. Those are the moments when the pressure and the second-guessers and the medical reports and the notion that being the manager of the Red Sox means you are open to any and all criticism, melt away - when all that faces you is a field of grass, when your players mill around the dugout, bask in your eternal optimism. Before you seek out Jason Varitek, or he seeks you out, for your only superstition of the day.

Just before you tap the helmet of that day's catcher, a sign that he leads your team, you sit on your perch in the dugout. It's approaching game time, and really, anything can happen.

"I love that part," Francona said. "That's funny because in Philadelphia I got to the point where I wasn't feeling well at that point. Almost like my stomach was upset. That's not good. No, I never feel like that here. The intensity to win is there, and some days probably more than others. But I like it. It's hard to explain, but it's almost like you crave it. Some nights you need to win so bad it's going to kill you - but it's good."

But before he gets to that point, there are the 7 a.m. wakeups that often represent the only time he'll see his two younger kids all day. The morning ritual at Starbucks, where he sleepwalks past the occasional autograph seekers to his tall coffee and egg salad sandwich. The matchups and reports that wait on his desk, where he left them the night before. The calls from players, detailing this injury or that problem. The trainers visits that don't always bring good news.

The endless games of cribbage with Dustin Pedroia and Mike Lowell and, on the days he pitches, Tim Wakefield.

"Probably two or three [games]," Pedroia said, of each day's competition. "They go pretty quick. He shuffles pretty fast and tries to rig the deck, so I try to slow him down. You've got to slow the game down. If the game speeds up on you, you're going to stink.

"I'm up, probably 30 or 40 games. He'll say he's up. But that's just to tell you guys that he's good. He stinks."

But it's at 4:20 p.m., after his first daily session with the media, that Francona can see game time nearing. That's the point in the day when he gets to leave the difficult duties behind and simply manage. That's when he catches up with the pitchers, out behind the second base screen during batting practice, when he heads back, an hour later, to his office to change into his uniform top and ready himself for the game.

"There's usually kids by the dugout and I'll usually sign till somebody hits me with a ball," Francona said. "It never fails. It's about five minutes, some parent throws one. The guards tell them, 'As soon as you throw it he's going to leave.' Somebody always does it. If I'm getting tired, I can make eye contact and somebody will flip one. I can kind of deke them into flipping one, and I can go."

So he can go and, if it's a normal day, take a seat for a minute or two. Other than the rare occurrences (the late scratches or family crises), just about everything is ready for that 7:05 p.m. (or so) first pitch.

"That's the best time ever," bench coach Brad Mills said. "Because we're able to go out and sit down and it's all taken care of. The preparation is all done. We can just kind of talk about things going on with the team we're playing or what's happening in baseball or talk to our players. If we're hustling around trying to do things then, that makes it too hectic for game time. So that's the time when we can kind of take a breath and get ready for a ballgame."

There are few breaths after that, just the constant conversation between Francona and Mills during the game, about baseball and hitting and how one player fares against one particular pitcher. How this defensive alignment might work. How this guy's swing has changed. The game, for him, is a series of adjustments.

Then it's over.

One more media session. One more set of questions. Then Francona returns to his office. Often Mills is sitting there, sometimes with a couple of beers. He knows, usually, when Francona needs an ear.

When Francona looks up, finally, there's often no one left. Just him and the clubhouse attendants. He wonders where the time has gone, as he heads for his car, as he tunes the radio on XM, finding the station with a maximum of scores and a minimum of talk.

It's nearing midnight.

"Some days are probably harder than others," Francona said. "There are some days it's hard to let go, something happened. But you try to let it go. You try to think about what can make you better, then at some points you've got to try to let it go. Some days are harder than others. I think the better you do that, the better you are."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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