Jan. 19, 2012
BY BRIAN RICE
KNOXVILLE — The challenge of taking over a new team that Dave Serrano faces this season at Tennessee is one Terry Francona knows well.
The former Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies manager was in town Wednesday night as the keynote speaker for the 2012 Tennessee Baseball Leadoff Banquet, presented by Coca-Cola. Francona says the first season, while a challenge, can be the most important in a coach's tenure.
"Your first year in, it's your biggest chance to put your stamp on a program or a team," he said. "Dave comes from a good program and he's coming to a good program. They're in one of the toughest conferences, if not the toughest conference in the country, so they've got their work cut out for them, but this is a good place to make your mark."
Making a mark early on in a stint is something Francona has experience with. In 2004, he took over a Red Sox team that had finished a game shy of the World Series a year earlier and turned it into Boston's first World Series Champion in 86 years.
En route to the title, the team pulled off one of the most famous comebacks in Major League Baseball history, rallying from a three-game deficit to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series to win eight straight games, defeating the Yankees and sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
In 2007, Francona again led the Sox to a World Series crown, claiming the title against the Colorado Rockies, also in four games. Francona has never lost a World Series game as a manager.
Sharing a division with the Yankees, in addition to managing in the National League East with the Phillies from 1997-2000, has Francona in the unique position of understanding the challenge Serrano faces entering the SEC, a conference that features the back-to-back national champions and that sent three teams to the College World Series last season.
"If you're going to be the best, then you might as well play the best," Francona said. "We were in the American League East, and I know the SEC and how good it is. If you really want to reach your goals, whether the goal is the College World Series or the Major League World Series, you might as well play the best."
Most fans know Francona for his decorated managerial career, but the college game is still dear to the former Arizona Wildcat. As a player, Francona twice reached the College World Series and won a national title in 1980, the year in which he was also named the CWS Most Outstanding Player. The NCAA named Francona to its All-Time College World Series Team in 1995.
"We went in 1979 and lost, then came back in 1980 and won," Francona said. "I don't care where you are, from Double-A to the College World Series or the Major Leagues, when you win and you can say your team is the best, it's the most gratifying feeling in the world. The feeling is no different when you jump on the pile in the major leagues, the money is a little better, but the feeling is the same."
Following the 1980 season, Francona embarked on a Major League playing career that would span 10 seasons and five teams, including five seasons with the Montreal Expos. With time spent on both sides of the chalk lines at all levels of baseball, Francona says the game is ultimately a very simple one.
"Players are players," he said. "When you get inside that clubhouse, it doesn't matter who you are, you better have some thick skin, because you're a family, and the best teams are a close family."