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Back surgery for Francona

Health will be Terry Francona's No. 1 priority during the offseason. Health will be Terry Francona's No. 1 priority during the offseason. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / October 22, 2008
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Terry Francona's long season had ended, three runs away from the World Series, not even 48 hours before he walked back into Fenway Park yesterday. There are always more things to be done, more questions to answer. Thick salt-and-pepper stubble covered his face. Someone asked him how he felt.

"Terrible," he said.

The 2008 Red Sox season grinded on Francona maybe more than any before. Francona knew in May that he would need back surgery. He had numbness in his arms for nearly five months. Yesterday, he planned to meet with a doctor to determine when he will undergo the surgery and precisely what kind of operation his condition requires.

"So I can stand a little straighter," Francona said. "I'll go in the next couple days and get it figured out so I can feel a little bit better. I need it."

The constant ache of his back only added to the year's difficulties, which come with the perpetual viper pit that is managing the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox flew 6,000 miles for their season-opening series in Japan. He had a malcontent superstar to handle in Manny Ramírez, an impossibly delicate situation. Waves of injuries forced him to invent new lineups. By Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, a stomach bug hit Francona. He vomited in the clubhouse between the late innings.

Yesterday, while he still fought the flu-like symptoms and the wounds of Game 7 remained fresh, was not the most opportune time to evaluate his future. But he acknowledged that he has previously asked himself how much more of this he can take, and he has considered when he should walk away.

"Have I given it some thought? Yeah," Francona said. "If there comes a time when I don't feel like I can do my job appropriately, I won't do it. This job, sometimes it almost sucks the life out of you. You need to be careful the day after a season is over, especially when you're sick and you don't feel good.

"I try real hard every winter to make sure when I come to spring training I can do my job. I owe that to the players and the organization. Because it does take it out of you, this place more than any place I've ever seen. And I do have health issues. There's no getting around it. If there is ever a day where I don't feel like I can do my job, I wouldn't do it."

The Ramírez saga at the trade deadline was particularly hard on Francona; the stress affected him physically. Play Ramírez, and he risked alienating a clubhouse full of players tired of Ramírez's behavior; sit Ramírez, and he risked playing without his best hitter. Say nothing publicly, risk being considered an enabler. Rebuke Ramírez publicly, risk more outlandish behavior.

Francona could not win.

"It was tough at times," he said. "When we have problems, we like to be consistent in how we view it. So when a guy leaves, for me to start saying things that I didn't say when they were here, I think it's wrong. But there were portions of this year that were very difficult for me. I think that's a fair assessment."

Francona intends to have his surgery as quickly as he can, "so you can have a little bit of an offseason, where you're not rehabbing," he said. He wants to spend time with family. He wants to see the Celtics play a few times. ("No hockey games," Francona said. "Just so we're clear on that.")

Francona will stop in to see Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who sent Francona a stream of messages during the playoffs. Afterward, they won't see each other.

"I don't think I hang out," Francona said. "I go home."

Wouldn't it be fun, he was asked, to have a steak with Rivers?

"It'd be a mess," Francona said. "It would be me, Doc, and the whole town. Can't do that here."

Once his back heals - or, more likely, as it is healing - Francona will delve into his offseason managerial duties. He never pauses to take stock as the season churns, the chore of winning games too urgent for appraisal. Between now and spring training, he will tend to that.

"I don't know that I want to get away," Francona said. "This game is kind of crazy. I laugh when people say it winds down. No. It comes to a crashing halt. You go 100 miles an hour, and then it's over. You either won or you lost. It's hard to understand.

"You regroup, and you go about it looking at a different side of baseball. During a season is really not a good time to evaluate. Too emotional. It's almost like a used-car salesman - figure it out, and sell it, and then when it's time to evaluate, we will. Now that time is beginning.

"I thought we battled a lot of adversity and still found a way to win 95 games. There were a lot of frustrations, but we found ways to be a pretty good team. Just not a great team."

And now, finally, there may be time to spare. He will heal his back, meet with his coaches, prepare for next season. First he might even take in the World Series.

Maybe.

"Oh, I don't know," Francona said, leaning back in his chair, cracking a thin smile. "Depends if 'Prison Break' is on."

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com

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