I was scared s**tless the first time I met Terry Francona.
The day was Thursday, January 14, 2010. I had just moved to Boston that past November and this was my first Red Sox event; several players and coaches held a media session in the conference room at the Westin Waterfront Hotel a few hours before the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association Of America held its annual awards dinner. It was the first legitimate media availability of the off season, a few weeks before spring training was to begin in Fort Myers, Florida.
Since arriving in New England, all I had heard about the Sox from my new media buddies was how difficult the team was to cover as a reporter. How volatile particular personalities were in the clubhouse.
Another theme remained consistent. I had been fairly warned by many; do NOT piss off Tito. Ask Francona a dumb question, and he’ll make you pay. When he smells new blood, he’ll test the waters to see how tough you are.
There I was, a few months on the job, and terrified of what should have been a cushy, hobnobbing, handshaking, fun and lighthearted assignment. But damn, was I nervous.
The day before the event, I was talking to someone at my office about my Francona fear. At some point in the conversation, I mentioned that Tito and I are both University of Arizona alumni. He said, “Use that! That’s you’re in. You’ll be fine.” I thought, it can’t be that easy, but hey, it’s worth a shot.
It couldn’t have been more than 40 degrees the next day as the wind coming off the water hit me right in the face when I stepped out of the news van at the hotel. Wearing a dress didn’t help my cause either. I wore a red dress. Red for the Sox, red for Arizona (I know, that is such a girly thing to do).
The room was filled with media from every outlet in Boston and everyone was working the room, catching up with old pals. Casey Kelly, a pitcher in the farm system fielded questions, as did new acquisitions Jeremy Hermida and John Lackey, both grinning from ear to ear, excited to call Fenway Park their new home (my my, how things have changed, right?).
As guys gave interviews in different spots around the room, in walked Terry Francona donning a full length tan coat, probably wool (it was quite sheik, I must admit) and wearing his signature round spectacles. He had a Don Corleone vibe working in full force.
I walked over and joined the large group of reporters huddled around him with microphones, cameras, tape recorders and iphones. I stuck my little arm in between necks and shoulders to get my mic as close to the Red Sox manager as possible.
In a great mood, Tito answered every question thrown his way, sprinkling in some fun anecdotes, joking around with different reporters and talking baseball. That’s where I would stay for the next hour; looking, listening, taking notes and keeping my mouth shut. I went from covering the KC Royals’ rookie ball team, the Idaho Falls Chukars, to the freakin’ Boston Red Sox in one fell swoop, therefor, my confidence was shaky. I wouldn’t be made an example of on day one. I wasn’t going to ask any questions of the man who led the Sox to two World Series titles after an 86 year drought until I was properly informed and knew exactly what the heck I was talking about.
After a while, my videographer took my mic and the camera and went elsewhere. I stayed put, making eye contact and scribbling info in my notepad, getting an impromptu lesson on the Red Sox from the best professor in school and hoping that he noticed my effort. Eventually, as everyone had their questions answered, it was just the two of us standing there. Me and Tito.
Anxious and shaky, I stuck out my hand, and spat out, “Hi Terry, I’m Jackie Pepper, I’m new. I work for Comcast Sports Net. I went to the University of Arizona. So did you.” So smooth, so smooth.
He shook my hand, introduced himself and told me that he heard there was a new Wildcat in town and that he was glad we got to meet. We chatted, but of course, it’s all a blur now. I know we discussed sports, Tucson, where we used to live, but that’s about all I remembered after the fact. You know how that goes, when your mind turns to mush after being in such a neurotic state. Vague topics, devoid of details.
We wrapped up our conversation after a few minutes and Tito said he was happy that I introduced myself. So was I. Walking away with a s***-eating grin on my face, a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. In an instant I went from a scared rookie reporter to knowing that I belonged in the big leagues.