Terry Francona had an interest in baseball from a very young age. But that passion blossomed in 1970, when he was able to go on a 10-game road trip with his father, Tito, then rounding out his 15-year major league career in Milwaukee.
"Probably the best 11 days of my life," Francona said.
There were many great days back then for a boy who loved the game and who had a father who loved having him around. Taking time out on Father’s Day at Fenway Park on Sunday, Francona reflected on his good fortune.
"I had, and still do have, a great dad," he said. "I was lucky. He played the game that I loved, but he didn’t put any pressure on me. He handled it about as good as you ever could, so I was always grateful for that."
Tito Francona played with nine teams in his major league career, giving his eager son a chance to see the inside of several clubhouses and get to know many different ballplayers.
When his dad had business to tend to, young Terry was left on his own to seek out a playmate. Often he found it in another player, one of those "willing to let a 10-year-old get in the way."
Al Downing, who was 2-10 in the elder Francona’s last year in Milwaukee, was one who would grab the boy and play catch. Outfielder Rick Monday, who was with Oakland with Tito Francona, was another who still ranks high on Terry’s list.
"I always picked a guy," the Sox skipper said.
But the one guy who was always No. 1 was the original Tito, who began his career three years before Terry was born.
"After the game, that ride home with him, I think I was the only 9-year-old who knew you pitch up and in, down and away," Francona added. "I'd just sit in the back and listen to the conversations and be as happy as can be."
It wasn’t all good times, of course. There was the instance in 1967 when Gene Mauch, then managing the Phillies, angrily kicked the future first-round pick, then just seven or eight, out of the clubhouse after a tough loss. There were the occasions when his dad would hand him a dollar and Terry would need to choose between getting a snack without a drink, or a drink and no snack.
The boy also once found himself in hot water for selling team bats — unbroken ones — out of the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse when he was six. The batboys had been making money off the broken ones, but Tito Francona’s son saw an opportunity.
"I was an enterprising young man and I made a lot of money," he said. "I also got in a lot of trouble."
Through it all, while tagging along with pops, Francona learned some lessons. One was how important family is in the game of baseball, which is why he is happy to see his current players’ kids roaming around the clubhouse, despite major league rules telling him to restrict such access.
"When you think about it, we’re away from our families so much and these guys are a lot," he said, referring to his players. "I think you can see how healthy it is when the kids are around. I think it’s good."
Who knows? Maybe one of those kids will be a big league manager someday, and rave about the time they spent with their fathers at the park.