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Francona thinking big picture

Francona thinking big picture

CLEVELAND -- As the Red Sox finish their stay in Cleveland, hoping that this isn't where the odyssey of 2007 comes to an end, they can look to their manager for steadying thoughts.

At the brink of elimination in the American League Championship Series, thoughts can intensify, the mind can race and pressure can get to the point where it's just too much.

But Terry Francona, who is the only manager in Red Sox history to guide the fabled franchise to postseason appearances in three different seasons, won't allow that to happen.

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He didn't in 2004 -- not even after falling down 3-0 against the Yankees -- and he's not about to now.

Francona's pet phrase when it comes to the daily challenges of his team is to "stay in the moment." The next moment comes Thursday night in Game 5 of the ALCS when the Red Sox, trailing 3-1, send their best pitcher to the mound in Josh Beckett.

"We don't need to have meetings," Francona said. "We know where we are ... there's some guys in there that have been in this situation before. And the best way I think all of us know to go about our business is to play the next game. Put that on our radar and try and take care of the next game. You start trying to look ahead, it can look a little overwhelming. Just play the game that's in front of us, and that's the only thing that matters right now."

What did Francona say moments after the Red Sox had taken a 19-8 loss to the Yankees in Game 3 of the '04 ALCS?

"Well, I think we have to try to keep it simple," Francona said at the time, not knowing he was foreshadowing a historic comeback. "We show up tomorrow and our only, objective, our only goal is to win tomorrow. You start looking ahead -- and it's in anything. I felt the same way in July. It starts looking a little daunting if you start looking at too big of a picture, you show up tomorrow and do everything in our power to win tomorrow and keep it simple, and then we'll go from there."

Everyone knows what happened three years ago. Will it happen again? Nobody can know. But if one thing is sure, it's that managerial panic won't be the undoing of the 2007 Red Sox.

"Tito is a player's manager," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "I think it helps tremendously that he played the game. I think it also helps that he was a role player for a lot of his career. And he deals with [the media]. There's a lot more distractions that come in a big-market situation, and I think he does a great job keeping our guys concentrated on baseball. That sounds easy and it's not always that easy."

Though the Red Sox have struggled to manufacture runs since the middle innings of Game 2, Francona doesn't think now is the time to start making dramatic lineup changes.

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Maybe some would like to see Jacoby Ellsbury play center field instead of Coco Crisp, or even supplant J.D. Drew in right field. Perhaps others would be in favor of bouncing leadoff man Dustin Pedroia down in the order because he's struggled in the postseason. Only time will tell if the second-guessers had a point in saying that Beckett should have pitched Game 4 on three days of rest. Francona has a way of tuning it all out.

"Part of my responsibility is when you think you know what's right, to stay with what's right," Francona said. "That doesn't mean guys are going to get 15 hits every night. But I think if you go away from what got you there, I think I'm somewhat cheating the players a little bit. I don't want to do that."

And before playing it off as blind loyalty, consider that winning is Francona's ultimate objective.

"It's not just the loyalty, because I certainly think they know that that's there," Francona said. "I think what it is is trying to do what you think is right. There's a difference between being loyal and doing what you think is right. I think you can do both. Sometimes the loyalty part is when you tell somebody something they don't want to hear, telling them the truth. And we certainly do that all the time."

Fully entrenched as manager of the Red Sox -- 2008 will be his fifth season in the pressure-cooker that is Boston -- Francona has never seemed so comfortable in his own skin.

Long odds for Red Sox
Sixty-five teams in postseason history have found themselves in a 3-1 hole in a best-of-seven series. Only 10 of those teams have battled back to win the series.
Series
Team up 3-1
Series winner
2004 ALCS
New York
Boston
2003 NLCS
Chicago
Florida
1996 NLCS
St. Louis
Atlanta
1986 ALCS
California
Boston
1985 World Series
St. Louis
Kansas City
1985 ALCS
Toronto
Kansas City
1979 World Series
Baltimore
Pittsburgh
1968 World Series
St. Louis
Detroit
1958 World Series
Milwaukee
New York (AL)
1925 World Series
Washington
Pittsburgh

He has been in the game his entire life, first watching his dad, Tito, play and then starting a career of his own.

Francona was a collegiate star at Arizona and an injury-plagued role player in the Majors, so perhaps that's why he has the perspective to deal equally well with the stars and the reserves. After that, Francona got into managing, and he worked his way up from the Minors, where he managed some guy named Michael Jordan at Double-A Birmingham and then had his Major League initiation with a rebuilding Phillies team.

He spent 2001 in the Indians' front office, serving as a special assistant under general manager Mark Shapiro and giving him a better understanding of the dynamic between front office and manager. Then he was a bench coach for Texas in '02, and for his close friend Ken Macha in Oakland the next year, giving him more insight on what it takes to keep the right balance in the manager's chair.

Every day in the game has been an experience, and Francona has learned from it all, making him the confident manager he is.

It wasn't that way in Philadelphia, where Francona -- the Phillies' manager for four disappointing years (1997-2000) -- and his young team suffered growing pains together. He was dismissed from that job seven years ago, but he still remembers what he learned.

"I kind of promised myself if I ever did this again, I would do what I thought was right," said Francona. "I just feel strongly about doing things a certain way."

Francona has a unique way with his players. His door is always open and players will come in to joke with him about something, have a heart-to-heart, or try to beat him in cribbage.

Yes, he is friendly with his players, yet they still respect his command. It is a fine line that Francona is able to walk with grace.

Red Sox right-hander Curt Schilling knows Francona better than any other player on the Red Sox. They were together for the down years in Philly, now they've been part of a run of success in Boston.

"He really is, I think, a highly underrated manager," Schilling said. "We play a season here where everybody dissects every game as if it's a football game -- pitch by pitch, inning by inning, move by move -- and everybody wants him to manage every game of the season like it's a playoff game, and he understands he can't. He understands his players, he understands his people and he understands the long-term implications of all of that. He never wavers from who he is.


"I know if we don't win a World Series, it's considered a disappointment around here, which is OK. Our goals are high. But if we can go out there every year and have a chance, maybe we can win. Maybe we don't. But maybe we can. A lot of things have to happen. I think we talked about it after '04. You've got to have some good fortune. And you have to be good after some of that good fortune. I think that's part of it."
-- Terry Francona

"He said something to me a long time ago after the Philadelphia job had gone away, and he said, 'You're fired the day you're hired, they just don't put that date on your contract. If you stay true to yourself the entire time you wear the uniform, when that day comes, you go to sleep at night.' And he's always stayed true to himself and to his players."

Truth of the matter is, Francona loves managing games this time of year. He has been around the game long enough to know that being one of the final four teams in baseball doesn't come around every year.

"For me, I love this time of the season," Francona said before Game 4. "Part of August and some of September, it's hard not to have some anxiety when you go out to the dugout some nights. You struggle so hard to get where you want to go and it's not falling the way you want it to all the time. Then I get here, and even in '04, I didn't have any experience, but I just felt good. I love these games. Believe me, I'd rather win every game."

Because Francona is a preparation freak -- he often arrives to the ballpark by mid- to late-morning for night games -- he knows full well what he will do by a time a certain game situation arises. He's at peace with those decisions, knowing that there's a reason for whatever move he makes.

He also knows that in Boston, that reason might not be good enough. For the fans have the gift of hindsight, something that isn't in his contract.

Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who might be a manager-in-waiting himself, has learned a great deal working with Francona this season.

"There has not been a game situation this year that has really ever caught him or us by surprise, and that goes to not only the work that he does prior to games but the conversations that we have both before, during and after games to prepare for the next game," said Farrell. "I think the biggest thing that I've seen from him is that when he believes in his players, and he believes in every one in this room, he doesn't come off them quick, regardless of a downturn in performance of a short run of maybe some expectations. That's the greatest thing we can all learn from him is that he doesn't get off of players when he believes in them.

"That's a testament to not just looking at the numbers, but looking underneath the surface and getting a feel for each of the guys in uniform here. He's got a tremendous feel for people and he applies that to the way he manages games."

Expectations in Boston? They are enormous, particularly after 2004. But Francona is at peace with that also.

"I know if we don't win a World Series, it's considered a disappointment around here, which is OK," Francona said. "Our goals are high. But if we can go out there every year and have a chance, maybe we can win. Maybe we don't. But maybe we can. A lot of things have to happen. I think we talked about it after '04. You've got to have some good fortune. And you have to be good after some of that good fortune. I think that's part of it."

In an age where some managers seem to crunch numbers and others favor the human side, Francona has a way of blending both.

"He has a lot of strengths," said Beckett. "Obviously he manages when he needs to manage, but when he doesn't need to manage, he doesn't try to overthink things, and just lets us go out there and let our abilities take over and lets us play."

It wasn't always exactly like that with Francona.

"When I became a Major League manager in Philadelphia, it took me a while to realize that you're not always in complete control," Francona said. "That's why when we go to Spring Training, we spend a lot of time trying to tell guys, 'OK, this is how we feel about the game. This is how we want to play. Now go play.' I don't really want our guys looking over their shoulder going from point A to point B. We have good players. I want them to play. [I want them to] be heads up and know what to expect, but go play the game of baseball."

And that's what the Red Sox will do again Thursday night, for what they hope is not the final time of 2007. But they won't look at the big picture. They'll think of only of trying to play nine better innings than the Indians. For that is the way the manager's mentality has rubbed off on his team.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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