CWS mark just the start for Francona
Record lasted only a season, but other feats lasted lifetimes
While in college, Terry Francona the player set an NCAA baseball mark that has since been passed on two occasions and is all but forgotten. While in the pros, Terry Francona the manager accomplished a feat that may never be forgotten, especially by the baseball fans in Boston.
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Francona grew up in New Brighton, Pa., and played for Jerry Kindall at the University of Arizona, where he roamed left field from 1978 to 1980. Left-handed-hitting Francona gained numerous accolades, including the Golden Spikes Award and Most Outstanding Player honors in the 1980 College World Series. He was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.
Francona set an NCAA record at the CWS when he got hits in seven consecutive official at bats on June 4 and 5, 1980. A few years later, both Dave Magadan (Alabama, 1983) and Barry Bonds (Arizona State, 1984) had surpassed the mark with eight consecutive hits each.
“What I remember about that streak was that it was mostly against left-handed pitchers,” Francona recalled. “I went 5-for-5 against the lefties from Cal. It was kind of vindication for me since earlier in the season Coach Kindall had benched me when we played at Cal because their left-handers had been so tough on me.”
Francona is the son of Tito Francona, who played 15 years in the majors and hit .363 for the Cleveland Indians in 1959. Terry Francona has special memories of Omaha because of his family and extended family.
“You know the coaches and guys on the team are like family to you, so it was special to go through all that with them,” Francona said. “The other thing I remember most about Omaha is that my mom and dad made it out there to see me. My dad took out his pension so they could afford to go. My mom was sick and died soon after that of cancer.”
Francona left Arizona after his junior season when he was drafted in the first round of the 1980 Major League draft by the Montreal Expos. He and Cal Ripken Jr. were singled out by Sports Illustrated as the best prospects coming into the majors. By August 1981, Francona was playing with the big club. The next season he was hitting .321, which was second in the National League at the time, when he went back to catch a fly ball at the wall in Busch Stadium in St. Louis. It was a very hot day and his cleats sank into the soft, rubbery warning track. When he jumped, his shoes didn’t and he tore ligaments in both his knees. His season was over and his career was never the same, but he lasted 10 years as a player on five different ball clubs before retiring and turning his energy toward coaching.
“My coaching was influenced by every manager and coach I ever played for,” Francona said. “I guess that was the advantage of being a well-traveled player. I didn’t plan on being a manager. I just wanted to be a good player. All the coaches I played for had different styles. So you never stop learning, but you also just have to be yourself.”
Francona coached five years in the minor leagues, including being the only professional baseball manager for which basketball great Michael Jordan ever played, first with the Birmingham Barons and then with the Scottsdale Scorpions. Francona made it back to the big leagues as the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997. His teams won 285 games in four seasons before he was let go by the Phillies at the end of the 2000 season.
After three years, Francona returned as a Major League manager, this time with the Boston Red Sox in 2004. Before that season, the Sox had last won a World Series championship in 1918. But in his first year as the Red Sox skipper, Francona led Boston to an unprecedented comeback in the playoffs against the New York Yankees and a sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the Series to give the long-waiting Boston fans their first title in 86 years.
“I didn’t grow up in Boston and I didn’t know what it meant to the people there,” Francona remembered. “It wasn’t until afterward with all the cards and letters I got that I understood. There were incredible letters of how people felt about it. One said how this family took the scorecard and placed it on their father’s grave.”
Three years later, Boston swept the Colorado Rockies in four games to add another championship, making Francona the only manager in Major League history to win his first eight World Series games.
Francona left the Sox after the 2011 season with 1,029 big league wins and two championship rings. He is now a TV analyst on ESPN and can be seen regularly on Sunday Night Baseball and Baseball Tonight.