Terry Francona, who managed the Boston Red Sox to a pair of World Championships, was among the top attractions at the Leadoff Banquet at the Knoxville Convention Center on Wednesday.
Francona led the Red Sox for eight seasons (2004-11) and compiled a record of 744-552. He managed the Philadelphia Phillies 1997-2000.
While it was a hectic afternoon with the main attractions, including Tennessee coach Dave Serrano and Tennessee Baseball Hall of Fame inductee R.A. Dickey, being tugged in different directions, InsideTennessee was lucky enough to steal Francona away for a quick interview.
IT: You've done some managing with the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League, what are some of your memories of being in east Tennessee?
Francona:They had a team in Memphis when I was a player. It goes back aways.
The ballpark was old. The old stadium was old. I came through as a player, as a manager. It was another stop in the Southern League, but I have good memories. It was good baseball everywhere we went. A lot of bus rides, but a lot of good baseball.
IT: While leading the Barons, you had the opportunity to make out a lineup card with Michael Jordan in the outfield. How did that media frenzy prepare you for life in Boston?
Francona:You get put into a situation where you're with media with arguably the biggest superstar in the world. Just a great learning experience — how to handle people because that's what being a manager is. So, it was a great learning experience.
IT: Do you still have a relationship with Jordan?
Francona:I hear from him from time to time. I try not to bug him. I saw first hand how busy he is, so I try not to bug him. But, I talk to him every once in awhile.
IT: How do the baseball player compare with Jordan athletically-speaking? Anybody you'd put up there in his category?
Francona:Michael Jordan's a pretty special guy. I played with Pete Rose, Dustin Pedroia, played with a lot of Hall of Famers. He's special, and I didn't get to see him on the basketball court, which is where he was truly special. But, the good ones or the great ones are all the same — if you tell them no, they're going to make the answer be yes.
IT: They've changed the bats on a few occasions in the college game, how does that help scouts diagnose what kind of a pro a guy could be?
Francona:I think it's got to be good. I don't understand the technology behind it. It was so difficult to gauge hitters. It was difficult to gauge pitchers. Pitchers didn't learn how to pitch. They were afraid to pitch in because you didn't get rewarded for it. You couldn't break somebody's bat and the ball would still go a long way. I think this will be a lot more fair. You might not see some of the prodigious numbers that you saw in the past, but I think it will make it a lot easier to judge whether a guy can play at the next level.
IT: With conference, regional and College World Series games on television these days, are you surprised at where college baseball is popularity-wise in 2012?
Francona:I think it's great. In Major League clubhouses there's always games on. Everybody's a fan of baseball whether it's college or Little League World Series. If it's televised, it's on in a Major League clubhouse.
IT: You had Tim Wakefiield under you in Boston. Current New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey is being honored. How tough is the knuckleball to develop as a pitch that you can take as your No. 1 pitch to the mound at the highest level?
Francona:You'd have to ask Tim that. There's only two. It's not easy to do. It's not easy to be a manager either because you've got to sit there and know there's going to be wild pitches, know there's going to be stolen bases. The truly great ones find a way to make it work. I'm proud of R.A. He's had arm problems. He was told by some teams he wasn't good enough, but he found a way to make himself a really valuable Major League pitcher.
IT:What are your plans moving forward?
Francona:I'm going to work for ESPN this year. I'm going to jump in with both feet and see how it goes and see where it takes me.
I'll do the Sunday night games with Orel Hersheiser and Dan Shulman.