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For Francona, The Love Returns

Jeff Jacobs

11:20 PM EDT, May 23, 2013

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BOSTON — He loves the ballpark again. Not Fenway or Yankee Stadium or Progressive Field specifically — Terry Francona loves them all again.

"I get there absurdly early," he said Thursday. "I stay there absurdly late. I have no perspective."

Tito paused for comic effect.

"And I enjoy it."

Francona didn't want to overplay his return to Boston as manager of the Cleveland Indians. He didn't stretch for the controversial or the maudlin. He wanted no screaming headlines and no crying towel. It isn't his way. Francona is an emotional man, but one who does not like to wear those emotions for the world to see. So when a questioner asked him if he had a chance yet to walk the streets of Boston and soak in the love from a place he called home for eight years, Francona wanted none of it.

"Man, you're reaching, when you're jammed in the back of a cab it's not like you're going to roll the window down," said Francona, who arrived on the Indians' chartered flight from Detroit at 5 a.m. Thursday and was up at 8. "You just want to get out."

So as he sat there in the visiting dugout before the Indians 12-3 rout of the Red Sox, surrounded by what seemed like half of New England's sports media, Francona took pains to point out he had sat on this bench plenty of times. He was 4-4 as Phillies manager at Fenway in interleague play, the last time on July 17, 1999. Just because you make a left at the entrance instead of right, Francona insisted, it's still the same people. He met with the clubhouse attendants and traveling secretary Jack McCormick. He joked about how small the Fenway visiting clubhouse is.

When he was asked about this grand return, he shut off the emotional faucet again, pointing out he had been back as an ESPN analyst and returned to the field last April as part of the 100th anniversary of Fenway. Francona, of course, already told the truth about that day in his book he wrote with Dan Shaughnessy. He initially refused to attend. It wasn't until he got a letter from vice chairman Phillip Morse, who's close to Francona, that he relented. Morse wasn't going if Tito didn't. That, Francona wrote, floored him.

He went reluctantly, waiting in a private room in a nearby high school where Larry Lucchino found him. They shook hands. They said little. Among the 200 present and former players, coaches and managers Francona received the loudest ovation. He wrote how he began to cry when he saw Nate Spears, touched by a career minor leaguer who had been called up to the Red Sox. Then he quickly got the hell out of Fenway that day, throwing his jersey to a young girl in the bleachers as he left.

Tito had to stick around for all nine innings on this night. And when a video tribute of Francona was shown on the giant scoreboard after the first inning, the Fenway crowd rose for a thunderous standing ovation. There was Francona hugging Brad Mills after winning the 2007 ALCS. There was Francona greeting Tony La Russa before the 2004 World Series. And there was Tito after the Red Sox clinched their first world title in 86 years.

He might not be big on public displays of emotion, but clearly Francona was touched. How do we know? He waved to the fans and patted his heart for all New England to see. The harder he tried to make this day business as usual the more the night became about him.

"What makes Fenway and Boston special," Francona said, "is the way they treat the game and the people in the game. I'm lucky to be a part of it."

His book, "Francona: The Red Sox Years," about his eight years in Boston, is a best-seller and a must read. Although Tom Werner has called it a work of fiction, there's no denying that Francona extracted his revenge on the ownership. On Thursday, as he spoke to the media, he had not talked to any of the three owners. He later exchanged greetings with Lucchino. "A cordial meeting," Lucchino told FoxSports.com. Francona, too, spoke with Red Sox manager John Farrell, his former pitching coach and his "friend for life."

Francona was pretty funny talking about Shaughnessy, who he praised effusively for his tireless work on the book. He said his initial response to Shaughnessy approaching him about the project was, "No, and not with you." And when he picked Shaughnessy up for the first time, he was tinting his windows.

There's no tinting the September collapse of 2011 and how Francona was run out of town, of course, just as there's no tinting the World Series championships of 2004 and 2007.

"People don't forget what he did," said David Ortiz, who came over during batting practice to hug Francona in the visiting dugout.

Yes the memories were there on the big center field scoreboard after the first inning in that video montage.

"These were some very special years, but sometimes they were tough," Francona said. "I wish the ending would have been different. That's not the way I would have written it. I don't think I'll ever change my feelings about that. But you get through it and move on.

"It's hard because you can't just turn off your emotions with people you've spent eight years with. You can't just cut the cord. But when you go to another organization plus the fact it's a year later, I'm so entrenched here right now. I like that."

Over 20 minutes, Francona kept talking about how he is reinvigorated by his year away and now managing in Cleveland, how coming to the ballpark has become a joy again.

"I interviewed in St. Louis [in 2011] and didn't get the job," Francona said. "I needed to re-evaluate some things. That's not an easy thing to do. I love being in the dugout. That's all I've ever done. But being away, I got to learn a ton at ESPN. They treated me like gold.

"When you are the manager, you feel so responsible for so many people. To not have to be responsible for a while was good for me. I started missing the game which was good. When [Indians GM] Chris Antonetti called I think maybe that surprised people. Chris is the smartest guy in the room that doesn't make you feel dumb. That's a compliment."

He said he felt Cleveland was the right landing spot.

Now he's sure it is.

He talked about how great it was to have his buddy Mills back with him on the bench, so he can be himself. He ran through each of his coaches, proud changes were made without simply throwing everyone out. He raved about Jason Giambi. His team, one of baseball's genuine surprises, leads the league in home runs and has won 22 of the past 31 to lead the AL Central.

"It doesn't necessarily make headlines, but we lost good coaches [in Boston] and that made it harder," he said.

Last year in spring training, he said he wasn't ready for the hugs yet.

"I was trying to stay out of the way," Francona said. "The one time I did go in the clubhouse in New York I got crushed."

Not on this night. There was only love and chants of "Tito!" Yes, this was Tito's night at the ballpark.

"I didn't want to make it harder on our players before the game," Francona said. "I kept my emotions inside. I was honored and also thrilled they showed [other former Red Sox personnel on the Indians as part of the video]. To share that was pretty awesome."

That's why he patted his heart.