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May 24. 2013 1:33AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Francona can't look back


Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona signs autographs before Thursday's game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

BOSTON -- AFTER his late-night flight from Cleveland arrived in town around 5 a.m., affording him only about three hours of sleep, Terry Francona was all smiles when he stepped out of a cab and walked into Fenway Park just after noon on Thursday.

He passed through an entrance near Gate D on Yawkey Way, and it was just a few feet before Francona reached an unfamiliar crossroads. The home clubhouse, his office for eight years, was to the right; the visitors’ clubhouse, largely foreign territory, was to the left.

He went left — and didn’t bother to look back. Not when asked about what failed during his final month in Boston. Not when asked whether the moment had revealed some sort of closure for him. And not really even when asked to reflect on all those days he’d gone to the right.

Instead, as he returned to Fenway as manager of the Indians, the former Red Sox field boss made clear he was focused far more on his future than on his past — not out of bitterness or bad feelings, but rather because that’s simply what you do in baseball, and because he’s excited about what the future might hold for him in Cleveland.

“I think that’s how you earn your credibility,” Francona said while sitting in the third-base dugout before the opener of a four-game series between the Sox and his Tribe. “Not what you did, but what you’re doing. That’s very important.”

Francona’s time in Boston was obviously very important, too, considering its two championships made him one of 23 managers ever to win multiple World Series, and so established him as one of this era’s best that he has a decent chance of making baseball’s Hall of Fame someday.

That candidacy is likely to hinge on how his teams perform in Cleveland — and Francona said Thursday that part of the reason his return came easy, and part of the reason he’s so excited about the next chapter in what is truly a baseball life, is because of the high hopes he has for it.

After the Red Sox chose not to renew his contract following the club’s epic collapse in September 2011, and he was passed over for the managerial position in St. Louis, Francona went to work in television. But part way through last season he began to miss the game.

The time away was enough that he had a chance to reevaluate some things – saying he’d grown impatient and stubborn in his final days with the Sox – and last fall he excitedly took a call from Chris Antonetti. The Indians’ general manager presented a chance for Francona to work in an organization that had employed him before, and with a front office he knew was a good fit.

Bringing a first-place team to Fenway Thursday, it’s proven to be even a better fit than he expected.

“I feel better about it today than when I took the job,” he said. “I like where I’m at. I’m really comfortable with where I’m working, who I’m working with, and it doesn’t mean we’re not going to have challenges — but I like the idea of tackling them.”

The goal, Francona emphasized, remains the same as ever: “Win the game we’re playing.” For that reason he says there’s not any less pressure in Cleveland than in Boston, and while he didn’t dismiss a suggestion that he looked more relaxed, he said that wasn’t because he was approaching the task any differently. It was merely because, at age 54, he was refreshed.

And because he was back in the dugout. Where he belongs.

“I like waking up and coming to the ballpark,” Francona said. “I get there absurdly early. I stay probably absurdly late. I have no perspective. And I enjoy it.”

It’s apparent that he enjoys his coaching staff, which includes best friend and Boston bench coach Brad Mills. And it’s just as apparent that he enjoys his players, particularly Jason Giambi, who Francona gushed about for far longer than he chatted with David Ortiz when Boston’s designated hitter came over before the game.

One thing Francona has never really enjoyed is turning the spotlight on himself, and that held true Thursday. Before the contest, he sent bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. to home plate to deliver the lineup card. Then, between the first and second innings, the big screen in Fenway played a video tribute to him, Mills, and five former Sox players who were part of Cleveland’s contingent.

Set to Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend,” it was full of highlights from Francona’s eight seasons. When it ended, the camera trained on him in the dugout, and stayed there, Fenway beckoning him to step out and take a curtain call. He didn’t. He smiled. He waved. He patted his heart. But he didn’t leave his stoop — preferring to let the game carry on, and move forward.

Just like he wants to.

Nevertheless, it moved him another step closer to reaching peace with the way things ended here — as did a moment Francona experienced a couple hours earlier, when he headed to the clubhouse after watching batting practice. Near the dugout stairs, a gray-haired man was being updated by a security guard on the new TVs that had been installed for first-row fans — but as Francona approached, the man stepped onto the warning track, and extended his hand. The manager reciprocated.

“Hey Larry,” Francona said, “good to see you.”

It was Larry Lucchino, the Sox president and CEO who is part of the ownership triumvirate Francona didn’t treat kindly in a book about his years in Boston. Back at Fenway Thursday, however, they chatted cordially. They smiled. It looked like little more than seeing a familiar face in a familiar place.

“Whether you come in the ballpark and make a right or a left,” he said, “the people are still the same.”

Even if the view is a little bit different.

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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