Yankees-Indians not the same without Terry Francona in dugout

We should start here: Oct. 18, 2004, Fenway Park, top of the sixth inning. It is a fundamental part of telling the Red Sox-Yankees story to reference a year earlier, when the Boston manager famously refused to remove Pedro Martinez even as his pitch count crept over 100, even as he began leaking oil, even as it was clear he was exhausted.

We know what happened: Pedro was allowed to stay in by Grady Little, the Yankees scored three times as Boston’s relievers warmed up fruitlessly, Aaron Boone happened not long after that, and Little wasn’t so much fired as made to vanish not too long after that.

Amazingly, on Oct. 18, 2004, it was happening again. Again!

The Sox entered the sixth inning up 2-1, Martinez looking fine. The Yankees loaded the bases with two outs. The Sox somehow had survived elimination the night before when they’d rallied against Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning, but they were still down three games to one in the ALCS, they were still tiptoeing against the abyss.

Then, in a classic showdown, Jeter nudged a soft liner just inside the right-field line. Three runs scored. Fenway Park was a mausoleum. Jeter rejoiced on third, Pedro slumped his shoulders, everyone waited for the Red Sox manager to do what needed to be done and take him out of the game, probably for the last time in Boston in a Red Sox uniform.

The manager, however, sat still. Again! Pedro hit Alex Rodriguez with a pitch. The manager stayed in the dugout. Pedro walked Gary Sheffield. The manager still stayed in the dugout. The bases were loaded, Hideki Matsui was up, and the Yankees were one hit away from ending whatever fantasies the Sox had of extending the series another day.

“I could feel what people were thinking,” Terry Francona said with a chuckle the next spring, behind the batting cage in Fort Myers, Fla. “More to the point, I could hear very clearly what they were saying to me. Screaming at me, actually. Quite colorfully.”

Martinez, gassed beyond belief, threw his 111th pitch of the night and Matsui hit it well, a sinking line drive to right that looked, off the bat, like two sure runs, maybe more. Except it stayed up just long enough for Trot Nixon — never to be confused with Roberto Clemente as a fielder — to catch it.

“Two feet left or right,” Francona said. “Two feet in front or behind.”

He shook his head.

“That ball drops, I’m probably tending bar somewhere right now.”

It didn’t drop. And there’s no need to remind anyone what happened from there. What is important to remember is that night, and in the weeks and years to follow, Terry Francona became one of the most worthy foils in Yankees history. The Red Sox won that year, then three years after that. The Indians, Francona’s team since 2013, were up 3-1 in the 2016 World Series before the Cubs came back, then 2-0 up on the Yankees a year later.

The Indians were 68-94 the year before they hired Francona. They went 92-70 his first year, have made five postseasons since, and entered Wednesday hoping to figure out a way to beat the Yankees in their best-of-three wild-card series, extend the season at least another night.

Francona wasn’t managing, though. He has been dealing with gastrointestinal issues all year. He had a blood-clotting issue in August. He has dealt with heart issues in the past. Sandy Alomar is the man in charge now for Cleveland, and he will be for as long as the Indians survive.

Francona has given no indication whether he plans to make this a permanent sabbatical, and his record surely dictates that he’ll be the one who gets final say on whether it is or not. There is only one way to root, of course: The game is a far more interesting place with Francona and his razor-sharp tongue and even sharper strategic acumen in it. And that was true even at his first stop, Philadelphia, where he had bad teams and only won 44 percent of his games.

Always, the Yankees knew they were up against a full deck when Francona was in the dugout, and not just because he happened to be at the helm when the Sox ended 86 years of misery.

“There are certain managers, you manage against them and you know you can’t miss a single detail because they’ll be all over it and will exploit you,” former Yankees manager Joe Girardi said prior to the 2017 ALCS. “I just so admire how prepared and how professional his teams always are. And it’s clear his players love playing for him. Great to see.”

Better will be seeing him in a dugout again next spring. He should have more chess games lined up against the Yankees. The games have always been just a little more fun when the man nicknamed Tito has been a part of them.

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