Terry Francona knows better than to get comfortable.
He may have been sitting on top of the world, just one win away from bringing the World Series trophy back to a town that has waited 86 torturous years to throw itself a party, but the Red Sox manager hardly needed reminding how precarious that perch can be. He might be the last man in baseball, in fact, who needs to hear how this can be a fickle game.
His predecessor in Boston was fired after getting within a game of the World Series, so there was never any doubt how the job description read the day Francona signed a contract.
In Philadelphia, during his only previous stop as a big-league manager, Francona left the ballpark one day to find somebody had slashed his tires on Fan Appreciation Day, no less.
But that wasn't the only reason why, even after his Red Sox pulled steadily away to a 3-0 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the best-of-seven series, Francona fidgeted in the dugout and nervously shifted the plug of chewing gum in his mouth from cheek to cheek.
''Anybody ever seen me play when I was a player?'' Francona asked reporters after Boston's 4-1 win Tuesday night. ''You can understand why I never get too confident.''
Self-deprecation is a lost art in the major leagues, but Francona could be the man to revive it. With one more victory, he becomes living proof that nice guys don't always finish last.
That was the rap against him in Philly, where Francona strung together an unimpressive 285-363 mark before being chased out of town in 2000 amid talk that his own players ran him over.
But that was the strange thing about his rebirth in Boston. The very same qualities that made him a patsy in one clubhouse made him a hero in another.
Bald as a cue ball himself, Francona did nothing but chuckle when a handful of his Red Sox began sporting hairstyles and beards that even with Halloween just around the corner would stand out in any crowd of trick-or-treaters. He still insists on taking the heat in public for his players' mistakes, but instead of laughing at Francona behind his back, this bunch loves him for it.
''Grounded'' is the way third baseman Bill Mueller describes Francona. ''I'm just very happy I had a chance to play for him.''
For a while, though, Francona must have wondered whether anybody at the big-league level would ever get that chance.
The son of major leaguer Tito Francona, he hung on through 12 pro seasons more because of his head and heart than his talent. The best thing that can be said about his playing days is that they made the segue into managing an easy one. Francona attracted attention by taking a Double-A Birmingham club to a championship in 1993, but it was nothing compared to what happened the next season. That's when a basketball player named Michael Jordan tried baseball as a second career.
But neither that stint nor his tumultuous tenure in Philadelphia could have prepared Francona for Boston. He got off to a good start when Curt Schilling cited the friendship from their days in Philly as the clincher in his own decision to join the Red Sox in the offseason, but the goodwill evaporated in a hurry. The Red Sox lost on opening day in Baltimore, and by the time Francona got back to Boston, the town's talk-radio mavens were calling for his head.
For most of the next six months, Francona needed earmuffs to do his job at least as much as solid hitting and pitching. But even those wouldn't have done him much good when the Red Sox slid into a 3-0 hole against the Yankees in the American League championship series. Instead of panicking, Francona repeated his one-game-at-a-time mantra, knowing that the next slip likely would be his last one.
Which is why, when someone asked whether Francona would have any trouble repeating it one more time, he just laughed.
''I like to think I had perspective the whole way,'' he said. ''Believe me, it wasn't fun being down 0-3. We thought the only way to comeback was to approach it the way we did. I think that's how we'll continue to be successful.''
It was a lesson Francona picked up during a rough patch in the middle of the season, when the Red Sox were skidding and most of the talk outside the clubhouse already had several of the team's nine free agents packing their bags for somewhere else. What Francona noticed was how quickly a few wins quieted things down. So all he asked his ballplayers to do was to get through one game, and then another. It's now up to seven wins in a row and his timing couldn't have been better.
''Winning,'' he said, trying not to get ahead of himself one last time, ''takes care of a lot of things.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.
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