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May 22. 2013 9:44PM

Proper homecoming

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: It’s all baseball now for Tito


Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, seen with Cleveland right fielder Nick Swisher after a game in Chicago last month, has been dispensing quite a few congraulatory handshakes in his new role as manager of the Indians this season. He brings his team to Fenway Park for a four-game series starting Thursday night. (USA TODAY SPORTS)

BEFORE THE bitterness bubbled, before the Boston Globe detailed the dysfunction of his final days in the corner office of Fenway Park’s home clubhouse, before he collaborated on a book to tell his side of the story, Terry Francona sat at the podium and explained that he was leaving his post as Red Sox manager because in the calamitous last month of an eight-year reign it became clear to him that his voice was no longer effective enough to lead.

“I always said when I came here, if I thought it was time to go, I would go. And I think it’s time,” Francona said on Sept. 30, 2011. “I know it’s not easy, and I know it’s going to hurt me a lot, but I think it’s the right time.”

If that was in fact the right time for Francona to leave, today is the right time for him to return. Sure, he’s been at the ballpark since that say-goodbye press conference, both as a broadcaster and as an honoree at a couple of Fenway anniversary events last season. But today he returns for the first time in another uniform, on the field, as manager of the Cleveland Indians — and the timing is right because both the Red Sox and their former field boss are in a place where the moment can be received properly by fans and the franchise alike.

It couldn’t have happened a year ago. The wounds were still too fresh for Francona, who fans wildly applauded when he appeared at the park’s centennial celebration, but tossed his jersey into the stands before he left the field, then hurried for the exit. And with Bobby Valentine occupying his old stoop, the comparisons between managers past and present would’ve made things painfully awkward for all. Especially when Valentine, that self-aggrandizing goober, tried to make it all about himself.

It would’ve spoiled a moment that deserves to befit the man who is arguably Boston’s best manager in the last half-century — and inarguably steered the franchise to its only two world titles in the past 95 years.

But tonight the stage is set in such a way that the moment can be appropriately embraced. Managerially the Sox seem to be in good hands again, with John Farrell holding the reins, and with comparisons between he and Francona made mostly because of stylistic similarities born from the four years the former spent as the latter’s pitching coach in Boston.

It helps, too, that the Sox enter a four-game set with Tito’s Tribe as one of the four best teams in the American League. They struggled some in Chicago, but still bring home more wins than losses from their nine-game road trip.

The club is competitive again. If they aren’t already there, the Sox are at least on their way back to the way things were under Francona. Fans are finally starting to again feel confident in the organization’s direction — and thus they can cheer Francona tonight without wishing their whooping would woo him into changing dugouts.

“The Red Sox are in a really good place right now,” Francona said Wednesday on Boston’s WEEI radio. “They’ve got a very good manager, they’ve got to feel good about things. (And) I’m thrilled with where I’m at.”

Indeed, the return is made easier for Francona because as well as the Sox have played, his Indians have been every bit as good. Inheriting a team that went 68-94 last season, then starting 11-13 this April, Cleveland comes to Boston as leaders of the AL Central after winning 15 of 19 to open May.

Though lacking a star beyond catcher Carlos Santana, Francona’s lineup entered Wednesday as the second-highest scoring in the AL (4.98 per game). He’s managed his bullpen so effectively that its 3.15 earned run average was the league’s third-best. And he’s figured out how to maximize his starting staff, which had the AL’s third-best rotation ERA this month (3.56).

He’s well on his way to validating the resume he built in Boston, and answering critics hesitant to give him credit for winning with a big payroll and the considerable talent it bought. But, for a lifer like Francona, the best thing about these first six weeks in Cleveland probably isn’t the chance to salvage his reputation; it’s the chance to focus on baseball again.

Not back-room drama. Not chicken. Not beer.

Just baseball.

“There’s less on the periphery here,” he told WEEI, “and you can concentrate on baseball more.”

This weekend he’ll be forced to face the periphery again, particularly because not all his business here has been settled, and not everything has been smoothed. He said Wednesday he still hasn’t gotten the answers from Red Sox ownership about some questions he’s now been asking for a year and a half. There’s still some resentment there. A few of the saltier revelations in his book probably have something to do with that.

But this isn’t the time to focus on what’s been tarnished. Rather, it’s time to focus on those two shiny rings Francona helped earn. On the fact he won a franchise-record 192 more games than he lost over eight seasons. On his deft handling of personalities ranging from Pedro Martinez to Manny Ramirez to J.D. Drew.

“The job in Boston is one of the most difficult jobs, and it’s one of the most awesome jobs,” Francona told WEEI. “But it entails a lot.”

That’s why, though it’s a job 46 have held, only one has held it longer, and only a handful have held it anywhere near as effectively. By the end, Francona had paid the toll of its toughness both physically and mentally, and ultimately with his unceremonious exit. But, as he returns, he’s in a better place than when he left. Arguably, so are the Sox.

The time is right to celebrate.

.

Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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