Dose of reality hits home for Red Sox

The Red Sox knew this year would be different expectations were bound to change after they won their first World Series in 86 years. They knew there would be challenges as defending champions and knew, too, that teams would come after them harder than ever before.

They understood they would have to listen to some suggestions that they were distracted by their success, that participating in a taping of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" would bring charges that they had lost focus.

But the Red Sox didn't prepare themselves for this: their manager, rushed by ambulance to a New York hospital, 3 hours before the third game of the season, felled by chest pains.

That, quite simply, wasn't in the handbook.

Most of the players arrived at Yankee Stadium last Wednesday morning about an hour after Terry Francona had complained to bench coach Brad Mills that he "wasn't feeling too good.'' They were stunned when general manager Theo Epstein cleared the clubhouse and told the players of the news.

It helped that they then went out and got their first win of the season, a cathartic comeback against Mariano Rivera and the Yankees. But when they left the Bronx for Toronto that night, most of the players were unsure about when Francona would rejoin them.

"We don't know know very much about Terry's situation,'' Kevin Millar said. "But obviously, we're concerned.''

That was with the full knowledge that Francona, 45, already had some health issues. Three years ago, while preparing to interview for the Seattle managerial vacancy, Francona suffered a pulmonary embolism in both lungs. Thanks to a botched knee surgery, Francona suffers from circulatory problems and takes blood thinners. He sometimes experiences a burning sensation in his legs.

So this was nothing to shrug off.

A day later, though, a battery of tests revealed that Francona had not experienced a heart attack of any kind. There was no evidence that he was suffering from any blockages. Further tests and examinations revealed that the episode was most likely the result of a previous viral infection.

In his absence, Mills steered the club through the remainder of the road trip, with the Sox dropping two of three games in Toronto. The transition was seamless Mills and Francona have known each other since the two were roommates at the University of Arizona.

Later, they were teammates with the Montreal Expos for three seasons, and when Francona got his first managerial job in Philadelphia, he hired Mills to serve as one of his base coaches. Mills joined him once again when Francona was hired to manage the Red Sox.

If Francona couldn't be in the dugout, having Mills there was the next best thing. Mills is Francona's closest friend in the game and they share the same basic baseball philosophies.

Ever respectful of his longtime friend and of his position, Mills dressed in the coaches' room in Toronto, entering the manager's office only to address the media before and after the games. Even then, he moved out from behind the desk to answer questions, not wanting to appear too familiar.

"Terry's done a great job preparing the players and the staff to function if he's not around,'' said Mills, who managed in the minor leagues for 11 years. "Sitting next to him last year, talking to him so much, everything kind of evolved together.''

Once Francona was medically cleared to engage again, he and Mills spoke several times daily, discussing the makeup of lineups, scheduled days off for players and other issues. Francona joked that he looked forward to "second-guessing Millsie'' from his couch.

The Red Sox haven't come apart in Francona's absence, but he has been missed.

"Things that go on with people's bodies. ... That's serious,'' said reliever Mike Timlin. "This is just baseball. It's not life and death. This is just something we do, with a special gift, to entertain people.''

In his first year as Red Sox manager, Francona was castigated for being too much of a player's manager. He staunchly defended his players publicly, sometimes to the point of absurdity. But behind closed doors, away from the media and fans, Francona was far tougher, confronting and disciplining Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and others for infractions or lapses in judgment.

Francona isn't an enabler, though his detractors still view him that way. He's fair, communicative and tough when he has to be. His methods were vindicated some when the Sox took off after the trading deadline last season and played the best baseball in the American League over the final seven weeks. And it didn't hurt that last October, he won series against Mike Scioscia, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa arguably the three most respected managers in the game.

With Francona sidelined, the Red Sox have gone 2-2, closing out their first road trip of the season. On Friday night, when Keith Foulke nearly squandered a three-run lead, allowing two runs and loading the bases before getting the final out, Mills looked like he and not Francona had been the one poked and prodded by doctors all week.

"Terry, hurry up,'' he muttered with a wan smile.

On Monday, the Red Sox return for their first home stand of the season. They'll be rewarded with their World Series rings and will watch the championship banner raised over Fenway Park, something few alive have ever witnessed.

And there will be another welcome sight: that of their manager, back in the dugout and back on the job.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.