Bittersweet reunion as Tito broadcasts Sox

Bittersweet reunion as Tito broadcasts Sox

Bittersweet reunion as Tito broadcasts Sox
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There were playful screams back and forth with Dustin Pedroia. There was an impromptu bear hug from Big Papi. In some ways, Thursday felt like old times for Terry Francona. But in most ways, it felt completely, well, awkward.

The manager who led the Red Sox to their first two World Series championships since 1918 reunited with his former team for the first time since a painful parting five months ago.

Instead of the familiar fleece pullover and Red Sox cap that he'd worn for so long, Francona donned a blue ESPN pullover golf shirt and khaki pants.

He was here on assignment, broadcasting a game involving the team he managed for the last eight seasons. And the man Francona replaced at ESPN -- Bobby Valentine -- is the same person who replaced him as the manager of the Red Sox.

When Francona and Valentine met in the dugout, cameras flocked over to chronicle the changing of the guard.

"A little different," Francona said. "Everything, right now, is a little different. I showed up and did my first two games the other day, and that was obviously different. If I sat here and said, 'Yeah, this is just another day at the office,' that wouldn't be true. I'm excited to do the game, but I'll be a little glad when the day is over. It's a little awkward for me."

Because ESPN always does plenty of Red Sox games, Francona will see his old team quite a bit going forward. In fact, when Boston opens the season in Detroit on April 5, Francona will be there in the broadcast booth.

Francona will do his first Fenway Park game as an analyst on April 22, a Sunday night contest against the Yankees.

If you were driving on I-75 in Fort Myers on Tuesday night and saw a man who looked a little like Francona pushing a car that had run out of gas, well, that was Francona.

"That was vintage 'my life,'" Francona said. "It was me, [ESPN staffer] Claire [Smith] and [play-by-play man] Dan Shulman, and when I said I was out of gas, I think they thought I meant I was tired. We're out of gas. Me and Dan Shulman are pushing Claire Smith down 75. It was not good. She steered. We got to the exit down there right before ours, and finally, we couldn't push any farther."

And then Francona realized that some of his old connections can still do him some good.

"I got out and started walking to a gas station," Francona said. "Some guy rolled down his window -- he had installed my cable at the old ballpark. He gave me a ride."

As much as Francona has moved on, as much as he appreciates the success he had with the Red Sox, the wounds from his departure are still raw.

Two days after the season, when the Red Sox couldn't commit to him for sure as their manager going forward, Francona took the decision out of their hands and announced he wasn't coming back. This, after the worst September collapse in baseball history.

After a humbling period, Francona was frustrated that team owner John Henry wasn't returning his calls. They finally spoke in late February.

Was it therapeutic at all for Francona?

"I don't know -- it was probably five months too late," Francona said. "We talked. It doesn't matter anymore. That's what I kind of told him. I said, 'We should have had this conversation a long time ago, because anything you say now doesn't matter.' But he was good."

On April 20, Fenway Park will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a game against the Yankees. Nearly every person who has anything to do with the history of the Red Sox will likely be welcome for the celebration. But Francona doesn't sound like he's ready to go to something like that at this point.

"I didn't know about that [anniversary]," Francona said. "I didn't know. I wouldn't anticipate, at this point -- I'm not quite ready for the hugs yet. I'm still trying to stop the bleeding."

Later in the conversation, Francona said he was sort of joking about stopping the bleeding. At the same time, however, he was candid about the fact that it's not easy.

After years of permanent residence in Boston -- even in the winter, Francona would go to his Fenway Park office every day -- he recently moved to Arizona. Even before that, he got down to Florida just to get away from it all.

"I got out of town quick, because that was helpful," Francona said. "I didn't want to sit and read everything and hear everything. It was pretty raw at first. When you part ways, whether you're fired or you leave, when you part ways, it hard. That's been eight years of my life.

"I didn't even really have a chance to really go through those emotions, because three days later, all hell broke loose. It was kind of weird. It was difficult. It wasn't just like the normal, 'OK, you're going to pick up and move on'. All of a sudden, there's all kinds of things flying around. It wasn't the normal circumstances."

Once the game started and Francona settled into his analyst chair alongside Shulman and Orel Hershiser, his pregame nerves gave way to clear comfort.

When it came to talking about Pedroia, Francona took turns praising and playfully chastising his former second baseman.

"He's the most special player I've ever been around," Francona said. "With that little beard he's sporting, he looks like a muskrat. He wakes up in the morning to win the game."

"When you part ways, whether you're fired or you leave, when you part ways, it hard. That's been eight years of my life."
-- Former Boston
manager Terry Francona

What were Francona's first impressions of Pedroia when he was trying to work his way up the Minor League ladder?

"He was short and fat and had a long swing," laughed Francona.

But Pedroia had his chance to get a little dig in during an interview with ESPN's Buster Olney that aired just before the game.

"I've been with Tito for a long time -- five years," Pedroia said. "Tito taught me so much about how to be respectful and do things the right way. I'm grateful for that. But he's still not the sharpest knife in the drawer."

Another one of Francona's favorites is David Ortiz, who rumbled from first to third on a single by Ryan Sweeney.

"Sliding is being kind -- it's like a car accident," Francona said. "We're laughing, but that's a good piece of baserunning by David."

But Francona enjoyed talking about Ortiz's increased attention to physical fitness over the last couple of seasons.

"David seems to understand that the older you get, the harder you have to work -- he's done a terrific job," Francona said.

And even if Francona is no longer with the Red Sox, he hopes that Ortiz always is.

"He's the face of the Red Sox, and I think they know that," Francona said. "He's got that smile that just makes everybody feel important."

Francona showed that he won't pull any punches as an analyst. When Red Sox pitcher Aaron Cook was credited with a pickoff of Brett Gardner, Francona said, "I think it's still Spring Training for [first-base umpire] Tim Tschida, too."

When a Red Sox fan sitting right in front of the booth caught a foul ball, he passed it to Francona, who quickly autographed it and handed it back.

"Sir, now it's worth 75 cents," said the self-effacing Francona.

As far as the September collapse is concerned, Francona continues to maintain that chemistry -- or a lack thereof -- was a catalyst.

"It just seemed to me, all the teams we had from '04 on sort of developed a personality at some point," Francona said. "This [2011] team never did. Even though our record was good, our staff still felt all year we were still searching for our personality."

Shulman and Hershiser also gave Francona chances to talk about the glory days, the most special of which came in October 2004.

"If [Dave Roberts] had been out, I would have been in the booth with you guys seven years earlier," Francona said.

Instead, he is just settling into life as an analyst with the thought he could very well get back to managing at some point.

"Just trying to be honest, my passion is being on the field," Francona said. "But I think it will be really healthy for me to step back and look at baseball without so much emotion. That would be good for me. I was pretty worn down by the end of last year."

Ian Browne is a reporter for Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.