As expected, Terry Francona received a tremendous welcome back from Red Sox fans and players at Fenway Park this past weekend. I was among those cheering, but Tito's return also reminded me of the one thing that drove me crazy about the best manager in team history.
Here's a hint: It rhymes with brew.
Francona's bulging cheeks made it clear that his love of chewing has not subsided with his move from Boston to Cleveland. It seemed like nearly every time the Fenway cameras panned to the visitor's dugout during the Red Sox-Indians series, Tito was either leaning over to spit or reaching behind the far left wall to grab something else to stuff in his mouth. On those rare occasions he was doing neither, his face resembled a cross between Popeye and Don Zimmer.
I'm not 100 percent sure what it is Francona is chewing, smokeless tobacco, bubble gum or a combination of both (I know that sounds gross, but a lot of guys do it). I recall that years ago, while with the Red Sox, Tito expressed an interest in quitting tobacco and even made a bet that he'd give a big check to the Jimmy Fund if he couldn't kick the habit. I'm not sure how that came out, but he's clearly still putting something in there at a rapid rate.
Why does this disturb me so much? First off, it's just plain gross. I remember when my brother chewed and carried a Dixie cup everywhere to spit in. He's since quit the habit, thank goodness, but I've never forgotten the vile smell or the look of his half-filled cups. Seeing Francona in action reminds me of those days.
Then, of course, there is the bad impression it makes. Since it's unclear at quick glance whether Francona is chewing tobacco, there are countless kids across New England (and now Ohio) who have undoubtedly emulated their favorite manager by getting in the dipping habit with the real thing. My eight-year-old daughter prefers a generous wad of Big League Chew bubble gum when she's playing softball, but teenagers (especially boys) will likely opt for the "real stuff" found in smoke shops and many pharmacies.
If you don't know about the health concerns of chewing tobacco, let's put it this way: If you are a fan of your jaw, tongue and cheeks, you shouldn't be dipping. Bill Tuttle, a big league outfielder who usually looked like he had baseballs in his cheeks, died at age 69 after oral cancer had claimed a big chunk of his face. He devoted his last years to preaching on the ills of tobacco, and hopefully lots of kids got the message.
Recently, USA TODAY baseball writer Paul White mentioned in a column that Francona is once again trying to quit. To check his progress, I situated myself directly across the diamond from the visitor's dugout at Fenway last Saturday and looked in at Francona through a pair of trusty WWII-era binoculars. My reconnaissance mission did not determine the source of Tito's bulging cheeks, just that he is spitting and stuffing as much as ever.
All of us who loved the guy for the joy he brought Boston (and now Cleveland) can only hope that it's Big League Chew he's reaching for more than the bad stuff.