Some of the intrigue surrounding Terry Francona’s return to Fenway Park as manager of the Cleveland Indians focused on what interaction, if any, he would have with the executives who dismissed him as Red Sox manager after the 2011 season: owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and president Larry Lucchino.
Part of the answer came Thursday evening, when Francona and Lucchino talked amicably for a minute or two in front of the Cleveland dugout while the Indians took batting practice. The two men smiled. They shook hands. In an interview with FOXSports.com afterward, Lucchino described the conversation as “a very cordial greeting,” but declined to share details.
Lucchino said he doesn’t know if Henry or Werner has plans to speak with Francona during the four-game series.
“He just seemed as he always does — genuine,” Lucchino said. “He asked how we were. He was very complimentary of how we were doing.”
Tension existed between Francona and the team’s hierarchy since before the end of his eight-year tenure with the team. Francona was angered when information about his marital trouble and use of pain medication — presumably leaked by the organization — appeared in the Boston Globe after he was fired.
The conflict continued this year, following the publication of “Francona: The Red Sox Years,” which Francona co-authored with Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy. Werner told WEEI, the team’s flagship radio station, that the book was “a good piece of fiction.” Lucchino has been similarly dismissive of the book when asked about it by the news media on prior occasions.
But Francona and Lucchino have had some contact since Francona’s dismissal. They saw one another at Fenway Park’s centennial celebration last April, and Francona sent Lucchino a text message to congratulate him on hiring John Farrell — a close friend to Francona — last October.
Of Thursday’s conversation, Lucchino said, “He seems well. He seems well. Given the great start they’ve gotten off to, I’m not surprised to see he’s doing well.” Asked if the meeting was emotional or awkward, Lucchino replied, “All of us will always associate him with the successes we’ve had here in 2004 and 2007. He will always be a reminder of that.”
This is hardly the first contentious parting between a sports franchise and figure beloved by the fan base. A reporter mentioned to Lucchino that it took years for the New York Yankees to reestablish a relationship with the legendary Yogi Berra after George Steinbrenner fired him as manager.
“I think it would be a nice thing for all of us,” Lucchino said, of what it would mean for the Red Sox and Francona to be on good terms again. “But we’re talking about Tito Francona. We’re not talking about Dan Shaughnessy. They’re two different people. I approach them differently.”
Lucchino said he does draw a distinction between the co-authors Francona and Shaughnessy. When asked why, he answered, “With one, I have a … uh … I just do. I just do. I don’t want to go into all the reasons.”
Francona was asked about the book project when he met with reporters before the game. “It was actually kind of fun,” Francona said. “We worked really hard. I was really proud of Dan. He worked his ass off, because if we were going to do it, it had to be done in a way I was comfortable with. For that to happen, it was very hard work for him. It kept him up some nights late, when he was doing football. … I was really, actually, proud of him.”
Whether it was a step toward reconciling on a deeper level, the Red Sox made a thoughtful gesture after Thursday’s first inning. They displayed a tribute video on the center field scoreboard to the many former Red Sox currently with the Indians. Francona was last. The crowd rose in a standing ovation, and a visibly moved Francona patted his heart in gratitude as the camera panned to him.
Francona’s tenure included the franchise’s only two World Series titles since 1918 and five postseason berths. His .574 winning percentage is a record among managers with at least 400 games in a Red Sox uniform. Lucchino was asked if Francona’s number 47 might one day join the retired numbers displayed in right field at Fenway Park.
“I’m not going there yet,” he said. “Who knows? With the passage of time, all things are possible.”