True grit

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

DENVER – He offered only one morsel of advice, the dad who played 15 years in the major leagues talking to the son who would manage in them. Tito Francona spent his words like a miser, and to inundate Terry Francona with mind-numbing minutiae would have gone so against type.

"I'll always remember it," Tito said Friday night from his home in New Brighton, Pa. "When he became a manager, I said one thing: Don't ever lie to your players. When you lie to them, they don't trust you anymore."

And with that, 10 years ago, Tito Francona sent his boy off to see the world of managing, cruel, unusual and, more often than not, punishing. First to Philadelphia, where he would find failure, and then to Boston, where he would find redemption through the vexing of an 86-year-old curse, through Idiots and a bloody sock, cups of Metamucil and shots of Jack Daniel's, through a gaudy trophy and gold band the size of a napkin ring, and now, as his Red Sox carry a 2-0 lead into Game 3 of this season's World Series against the Colorado Rockies, through the realization that the Red Sox sit on the cusp of their second championship in four seasons because he never did lie, neither to his players nor himself.

Surely Francona could have changed, or at least bowed to the circumstances conspiring to change him. He could have turned sour, turned spiteful, turned on slumping players. Francona likes to tell the story of an MIT professor who emails him almost every day asking what drives him to do this and what compels him to do that. Even if he responds, he can't win. It's an MIT professor, Francona reasons, and he's only the Red Sox manager.

On his way to being the most successful in the team's history, no less.

"The biggest characteristic is you have to be true to yourself," Francona said. "You can't be somebody that you're not. I think I believe in what I believe in, and if you do, just do what you think is right every day. It's not always right, but if you try hard, do the best you can, then you answer the questions. And again, you have really, really good players like we're blessed with, I think they're supposed to have our backing.

"It's easy during the good times, but when things aren't going so well, I think that's when it's important to show your faith and your belief in them."

Faith and belief play the hero and heroine in Francona's ascent from also-ran – or, more accurately, run-outta-Philly – to the calming force behind a Red Sox clubhouse filled with alpha males in need of coddling.

Francona played 10 non-descript seasons, his bat always there, his knees never willing to cooperate. He retired in 1990. He was 31.

"I never thought he'd be a manager," Tito said. "He was down and out after he got hurt playing. I didn't think he wanted anything to do with baseball."

Baseball wanted Francona. He was sharp and personable, his knack for teaching enforced on his climb up the Chicago White Sox's minor-league managing ladder, his patience tested all season when he managed the Michael Jordan experiment at Double-A Birmingham.

Philadelphia, enamored of Francona, offered him the job as a 37-year-old and watched him slog through four seasons of bad baseball. When Boston hired him to replace Grady Little following the 2003 season, Francona shook off the catcalls that he was a retread and united the entire Northeast with one magical month.

The Red Sox tunneled through the 2004 postseason and, saving a three-game lapse against Cleveland in the American League championship series, have done the same this year. Francona's 20-9 playoff record translates to nearly a .690 winning percentage, the second highest for a manager with that many games. He could move ahead of the Yankees' Joe McCarthy with another victory tonight.

Two more will complete the reformation of the Red Sox following last season's down-the-stretch debacle. The 2007 season started with questions aplenty, from the team's closer (not Joel Piñeiro) to Jonathan Papelbon's role (yep – closer) to actively trying to trade Manny Ramirez (nope) to second base.

There, 5-foot-9 rookie Dustin Pedroia won the Opening Day job. Only he stunk, and it kept going for a month, the moldy mess in the Red Sox's refrigerator. Fans clamored for Alex Cora. Francona stuck with Pedroia anyway.

"I remember saying you may not see the player in April that you'll see at the end of the year because that happens so often with young players," Francona said. "And that's really the way it came about, started off very slow. Fortunately our team didn't. …

"And then the organization had said, 'Hey, this kid can play, so stick with him.' I thought it would have been doing the organization a disservice by not sticking with him. And he has more than rewarded our patience."

Pedroia hit .317 and finished the season with more RBI (50) and walks (47) than strikeouts (42). Boston won a major-league-best 96 games, even though Francona stuck with slumping outfielder J.D. Drew and shortstop Julio Lugo as well.

That loyalty – that unbending need to stick with what got 'em here – led to Drew's game-changing grand slam in Game 6 of the ALCS and Lugo's three hits in Game 1 of the World Series.

"You'd hope all managers have that confidence in their guys," Pedroia said. "But they don't. So as much faith as he has in us, we have that faith in him."

After Francona's most harrowing decision of the season – bench David Ortiz, Mike Lowell or Kevin Youkilis for Game 3 at Coors Field in Denver, which doesn't feature the designated hitter – he needs it. He decided to start Ortiz at first base and sit Youkilis, and just like with every other big decision he makes, Francona stood behind it with conviction.

He couldn't take Ortiz's bat out of the lineup.

He wouldn't miss Lowell's glove at third base.

He shouldn't be questioned, not anymore.

Because with a franchise run by Theo Epstein, a general manager who treats the Red Sox as though they're malleable clay on the pottery wheel, Francona has earned his voice. His $1.65 million salary lags behind his peers, though a contract extension expected to be signed after the World Series should address that. He suffers through the sleep deprivation and pain of a 162-game regular season and does so with four kids and wonders what they're thinking late at night and tries to reconcile his professional and personal lives because this job is more than just something.

It's a responsibility, to the Red Sox's fans, to the Red Sox's owners, to his players and to himself, and decisions such as the Ortiz-Lowell-Youkilis ones cause him worry.

"It doesn't always work perfect," Francona said, "but we'll do the best we can."

And that's no lie.