Before he managed the Boston Red Sox to two World Series championships, before he managed the Philadelphia Phillies, before he coached up Michael Jordan in the minor leagues, before an injury-plagued major league career, Terry Francona was one splendid outfielder for the University of Arizona.
He was an All-American. The 1980 national player of the year. The MVP of the 1980 College World Series after leading the Wildcats to the national title.
With all he has accomplished with the Red Sox in the past seven seasons, deftly handling the media cauldron and some of the game’s most eccentric characters, it’s sometimes easy to forget all that Francona accomplished at Arizona more than 30 years ago.
Now, those achievements will have a permanent home in the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
Francona and six others will be inducted this summer into the Hall, located in Lubbock, Texas.
“When you look at his college career at the University of Arizona, there are few people who achieved more,” said former Wildcats coach Jerry Kindall.
Kindall was a member of the College Baseball Hall of the Fame’s second class in 2007. He also is on the Hall’s selection committee and has known about Francona’s honor for about a week, but couldn’t tell him before Monday’s announcement.
“The Hall is picking up traction and prestige in the baseball world,” Kindall said. “Terry is in a very august group, and he richly deserves that. Many people nominated him for the first class, including myself.”
Unfailingly over the years, Francona credits his father, Tito — a 15-year major leaguer — and his Arizona coaching staff of Kindall, Jerry Stitt and Jim Wing for making him the player that he became.
“What do those guys mean to me? How much time do you have?” Francona asked in a 2003 interview with Tucson Citizen columnist Corky Simpson. …
“My dad and those coaches taught me to respect the game of baseball, and to respect people. I’ve been lucky to be around them.”
It’s somewhat hard to imagine now how popular Arizona baseball was in Tucson back in 1980. This is from a column by Simpson in 2000:
Fans loved the team. The Cats once drew nearly 26,000 to a three-game series here against Arizona State.
Some of the nuttiest used to climb the pine trees behind the leftfield fence to watch a game. Some brothers who owned a construction company always parked their flatbed truck behind the fence and rigged a homemade signboard with light bulbs.
They called themselves “Terry’s Pirates,” for their favorite player, Francona, the left fielder.
The night before a playoff game one year, two pine trees were mysterious cut down. Nobody ever knew who did it, but it sure didn’t hurt the brothers’ view of the ballgame.
After batting .401 for Arizona in 1980, Francona left after his junior season and was a first-round pick of the Montreal Expos, debuting in the majors in August 1981.
“He was a great hitter in high school in Pennsylvania, but Jerry Stitt worked tirelessly with him,” Kindall said. “Jerry molded the rough edges and made him into an accomplished hitter. He went right into pro ball and continued to hit.”
Francona suffered his first knee injury in June 1982, and we’ll never know how good of a major-leaguer he could have been. He ended up bouncing around with five teams in 10 years.
“I think he would have been, and you have to permit me some bias here, an All-Star in the big leagues if not for the knee injuries,” Kindall said.
Francona will be inducted into the college hall along with:
Southern University catcher Danny Goodwin, Duke shortstop Dick Groat, Grambling State coach Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, Arizona State outfielder Oddibe McDowell, Cal State Fullerton first baseman Tim Wallach and Clemson coach Bill Wilhelm.
Kindall said he is “delighted” Francona will have a place in the Hall, but the coach doesn’t so much cherish his former player’s skill with the bat and glove as he does Francona’s people skills.
“He is an absolute genuine person,” Kindall said.
“There is no deceit, no pretension, no ego, in Terry Francona. The best way I can say it is he is one of the most genuine people I have ever met. I am lucky to call him a good friend, as well as his coach.”