By: Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
Tagging along with her mother Adeline from smalltown Nova Scotia on a trip to Philadelphia in September, 1981, Lisa Nicolle Burns was told they were going to a Phillies’ game. That much she knew.
Then she got the surprise of her life. Who should she see playing first base for the Expos: the person who has become her all-time favourite baseball personality: Terry Francona, who had made his major-league debut on Aug. 19 of that year.
“My mother was a very successful nurse and she went to Philadelphia on business,’’ Burns recalled. “We were at the Warwick Hotel. We went and got tickets to a game. We go to the game and it blows your mind. We didn’t know the Phillies were playing the Expos.
“I nearly died. Terry was playing first base and Tim Wallach was at third. How unbelievable is that? I was crying. I liked Terry and Wallach, who had the nickname Fifi, when they arrived in majors with the Expos. Terry was in left field I think before he went to first base.’’
Burns even remembers that the Expos lost the game, one of the very few losses for them that month as they won a berth in the playoffs for the only time in franchise history. In the late 1970s, Burns first heard about Francona, who was a highly touted baseball player at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Later when she was a public-relations student at St. Vincent University in Halifax, a short hop away from where she resides in Brooklyn, N.S., her fascination with Francona grew and grew. It’s a baseball love story of the first degree.
“Terry was pretty darn cute and he was pretty darn talented,’’ said Burns, who is 51.
Of course, Francona, currently the Cleveland Indians’ manager, had that long hair which he doesn’t have anymore. That hair added to the lore. When she was about 16, Burns sat down at a table at her home and hand-wrote Francona a letter, c/o the Expos at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. She figures it was two months later when she got a postcard photograph from Francona with his autograph on it. She was ecstatic.
“I don’t remember what I wrote in the letter,’’ Burns said. “It was a special request. It was hand-written. Snail mail-fan mail will beat out technology any day. What are even better words than nice when he sent that photo back? Sweet, kind, special. It’s one of my prized possessions and to this day, as much as the economy is killing us, I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it.
“I’m teary-eyed looking at it and talking about it. I’ve built a shrine to him and most things and people connected with him. I’m so darned proud of him. Youppi the mascot was really somebody I loved before Terry. A way back, it was a big race between Terry and Bucky Dent. I even liked Mike Palmateer, the Leafs’ goalie, but Francona has been the guy for a long time.’’
Burns just kept adding more and more to her Francona collection. She picked up an Indians’ jersey that had his autograph signed over his No. 17. Her parents have helped her out financially.
“I’m buying stuff I can’t afford,’’ she said, laughing.
Along the way, she has collected umpteen baseball cards of Francona, including his Expos’ rookie edition. She has cards from when he played in Arizona, the Venezuelan Winter League, all of his minor-league teams and all of his major-league stops as a player and manager. Topps, DonRuss, you name it.
There is even one she snapped up online that had a misspelling of his surname in his days with the Reds: Franconia. There’s a card of him posing with basketball great Michael Jordan, who played under Francona with the Birmingham Bears. Then there’s the Red Sox lightweight red and blue bomber jacket. It has Francona’s autograph through his No. 17.
“I have a Phillies’ cap that has a red and white, thick, embroidered P and the bill is blue. It’s signed by Terry and whoever No. 2 was,’’ she said. And she has an autographed 8x10 of him with his father, Tito.
Then she purchased through the Indians’ memorabilia shop an authenic, personalized jersey with Francona 17 on the back, an item that cost her about $215 U.S., including shipping.
And how about those Francona cards she collected through a 1982-only series distributed by the now defunct Canadian department store chain Zellers? Those cards – three in a strip -- see Francona offering fielding tips. Yet, another strip shows him talking about Contact Hitting. The other strip deals with Fielding at First Base.
“There were three sets and they may have been the only ones. I have all three cards. I’m not sure if only these three exist,’’ Burns said.
To boot, she has signed copies of Francona’s autobiography Francona: The Red Sox Years.
“I did manage to get the book personalized where he said, ‘Lisa. Terry Francona.’ I have some unbelievabIe mementoes.’’
Should we forget the red-wooded, authentic Indians’ bat she acquired bearing the name of Francona?
Somewhat melancholy, Burns says, “Nothing was handed directly to me from Terry.’’
But it’s something she would like to change because it’s a goal of her to meet Francona some day.
“I was so proud of what he did in Boston and so proud of what he’s doing with the Indians,’’ Burns said. “I’m behind that man in everything. He’s just amazing, the way he carries himself. He likes to give the boys their space. He’s careful, observant, doesn’t want to step on toes, shows so much respect. He’s got an incredible eye and rapport. He’s a great manager. He manages without micromanaging.’’
Burns also has a big spot in her heart for Brad Mills, who was an Expos’ teammate/roommate of Francona’s and who has been a coach under Francona with the Phillies, Red Sox and Indians.
To this day, Burns can’t for the life of her look at photos of Francona getting carried off on a stretcher when he hurt his knee with the Expos back in the 1980s.
“I could’ve owned a copy of the article and the picture but I just couldn’t,’’ she said. “I don’t want it to be in my collection. That screwed up his career, that knee injury. It broke my heart that his knees failed him.’’
And try not to mention Francona’s heart problems of the past to her.
“If something happens to him, I don’t want to go there,’’ she said. “I wish he would stop chewing tobacco. I have many smiles and laughs as well as heartaches these days when it comes to him.
Of course, she would love to see the Expos return to Montreal. She chuckles about the Expos garbage can/laundry basket she has in her collection.
“It’s a cylinder, about a yard high and a foot across with the Expos logo on it,’’ she said.