The days after February 24 became uncomfortable for Terry Francona.
The Red Sox manager had been presented a three-year, $12 million extension, with the two team option years that could potentially add $8.75 million more. For Francona, the initial feeling was “this is pretty cool.” Then came the uneasiness.
“The first time I signed that contract I thought it would go away because I was very excited about that, but in spring training I felt like I was shouldering more responsibility,” Francona remembered on Tuesday afternoon while sitting in his Fenway Park office. “I didn’t handle the Japan trip very well. I was out of my routine, and I felt more responsibility because the organization had shown me this trust. Actually, I had to try and figure it out a little bit.”
Nearly seven months later, Francona has found his peace of mind. Through the aches, pains, and anxiety that accompanies marching through September, it isn’t hard to figure out that this time of year is tailor-made for this manager.
It is a reality that was most recently put on display early Thursday morning, moments after the Red Sox’ 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay, putting Francona’s team 2 ½ games in back of the American League East Division-leading Rays.
The elevator that typically delivers the media to Francona’s press conference wasn’t running, forcing that night’s losing manager to wait idly by while a substantial collection of reporters hurried to meet up with what they figured would at be an antsy interviewee. Francona had engaged in three on-field arguments leading up to the extra-inning defeat.
But what the writers were greeted with was a picture of security.
The affects of what could have been one of the pivotal losses of the season were nowhere to be found, with Francona amiably and coolly breaking down the 5-hour, 2-minute, 14-inning affair.
Whatever uneasiness Francona wore in those first few months of becoming a much wealthier man was long gone.
“I remember that day it got done, I thought, ‘This is pretty cool.’ But then I just felt a huge responsibility,” he said. “Then you get to a certain part of the season where those things go away and all that matters is winning, and that’s a fun time for me. And that’s right where we are. I love it.”
Four out of the five years he has been with the Red Sox Francona has managed in the regular season’s final month with a pretty good idea he would be hanging around in October.
Each season has added a different lesson, perhaps none more powerful than that one year the Red Sox didn’t find themselves in the thick of things, 2006, during which Francona believes a foundation was born for the World Series win the following year.
But even with the experience and education, a fact remains the same: this is where a manager’s physical and mental resolve are put to the test. Francona’s left arm is in constant pain, the hours of sleep the schedule has taken away are starting to pile up, and games like Wednesday night are doing nothing to help forget the stark reminder that there is a price to pay for any pennant race.
Still, coming to the ballpark hasn’t been tough. With the new acquisitions, Francona has truly come to love the makeup of this team, and the wins it has accumulated haven’t hurt, either.
For him, crunch-time is fun time. It is Tito’s time.
“I am enjoying our team right now a lot,” Francona said. “I’m going to have back surgery as soon as the season is over, and I hope it’s November. But that doesn’t matter. Nothing matters right now. The season doesn’t wind down, it comes to a crashing halt. It’s hard to understand because you don’t wind down. It’s like you have a button on and all of a sudden you turn that button off and exhaustion sets in.
“I know it’s the way it is, and I don’t think about it. I actually try and work in the offseason to put gas in the tank because I know I’m going to get beat down. It’s just the way it is. You can’t do this job and not get beat down. But I love it.”