Francona keeps Tucson roots

By Monty Phan

Arizona Daily Wildcat

SCOTTSDALE In 1977, Terry Francona came to the University of Arizona like any kid fresh out of high school, full of all the reservations of life away from home and all the dreams of a high school ballplayer hoping to make it to the big leagues.

Seventeen years, a wife, and four kids later, he's still here in Tucson, having turned his dreams into something much more important a career.

"My dad had played with (UA baseball head coach) Jerry Kindall in Cleveland," Francona said. "My dad, realizing I was a normal 18 year-old kid, said he better send me somewhere where someone was going to keep an eye on me. The U of A, they just won a national championship (in 1976), and I wanted to be a professional ballplayer. I wasn't thrilled about leaving home and going that far away, but I knew that my best chance was to go to a school like that."

Nowadays Francona is the manager of the Birmingham Barons, a Chicago White Sox farm team, and this offseason he manages the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League. In his youth, Francona played outfield for Arizona from 1977-80, and was a member of the 1980 championship team, a memory he still cherishes to this day.

"In 1980 when we won the national championship, that was obviously very dear to me," Francona said. "But the semifinals, when we played California, we had played them all year, because they were in our conference. We beat them, I think it was 11-10. That was almost the championship game, even though we had to play Hawaii. It was real exciting. I mean, to this day, I look back and it was really neat."

In addition to and perhaps, more importantly than winning championships, Francona established life-long personal relationships at Arizona. He met his wife, a Tucson native, while in college, and befriended Kindall, who he is still close to today.

"I'm awful proud to tell people where I went to school," Francona said. "I think when people hear

you play at the U of A, I think they realize you probably got some pretty good fundamentals because of Coach Kindall. He's got such a good reputation, not just for baseball, but because Coach Kindall's such a quality guy that people realize that if you come out of there you'll be OK."

The feeling is mutual, to say the least. Kindall expressed true respect for Francona, saying that in the years after his graduation, Francona and Kindall's player-coach relationship grew to a friend-friend relationship, and finally to family friend status.

"All my players over this many years have been good guys," Kindall said. "I've had a lot of affection for virtually all of them. But Terry's one of those happy-go-lucky great guys that I've had on the team. Not only a good guy, but he was a terrific player. I count him as one of the two best players I've ever had in 23 years. He could do it all. He could run, throw, hit, and field, and he was a clutch player besides."

Apparently, whatever Kindall has been doing right all these years must have rubbed off on Francona. As a former player himself for so many years, Francona has earned respect from his team, both through his knowledge of the game and his style of coaching.

"(He's a) great guy, fun to play for, easy to play for," Scorpion pitcher Bart Evans said. "He's real laid-back, easy-going. (He) makes it fun to come out to the park every day. He's got so much talent that it's easy for him to make decisions. He acts like he's having a good time and he makes it fun for us too."

The respect Francona has gained from his team included the Scorpions' most famous player, a certain outfielder named Michael Jordan. In a press conference held Oct. 6, Jordan discussed how much Francona has helped his game.

"He's a player-coach that's played the game and he knows about a lot of the agonies and frustrations you go through as a player," Jordan said. "He really helped me at one point during the season (with the Barons) that I was at my lowest. I went and asked his opinions and he identified what I was going through. His comments made me stick to what I was trying to do. His encouraging words helped me keep focus. I've always respected people in charge, he knows a lot more than I do about this game, and I respect him for that."

Taking into account the fact that Francona's starting outfielder is a bit more publically visible than the normal minor leaguer, the Scorpions' manager has taken this in stride, something that can once again be attributed to his easy-going nature.

"Michael handles it really well," Francona said. "I think people think it's going to be kind of hectic I don't want to use the word 'circus' because it isn't, just because the way he handles everything. I make sure I get into the ballpark a little earlier than usual, so if a surprise does go off, I'll have time to handle it. But it hasn't been a problem really."

The best aspect about his current job, however, is that even if life gets too frantic, home is only two hours away. And when it comes right down to it, Francona said, home is the most important thing.

"I have a lot of good memories (at Arizona)," Francona said. "I met my wife there. My best friends today are people I went to school with. For me, the best thing is it's home."

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