CLEVELAND - Terry Francona and John Farrell have been friends since they were teammates with the Cleveland Indians, in what now seems like a lifetime ago.
Later, they crossed paths again when their playing careers were over, and when Francona, managing the Red Sox, needed a pitching coach after the 2006 season, Farrell was his first call.
A few years later, when Francona's time in the Boston dugout came to an end, Farrell was the franchise's first choice as Francona's replacement. When prying Farrell from the Toronto Blue Jays proved impossible, the Red Sox went elsewhere -- only to come back for Farrell a year later.
And last year, when Farrell was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, it just so happened the Indians were in Boston when Farrell began his chemotherapy treatments. Francona, naturally, accompanied his long-time friend to the first couple.
The two have been inextricably linked for decades. During the season, they text each other frequently and find time for the occasional conversation via phone.
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On Thursday evening, for the first time, they will manage against each other in a playoff game, with Farrell and the Red Sox facing off with the A.L. Central champion Cleveland Indians, managed by Francona.
That convergence has left each in a delicate spot. There's the awkwardness of competing against a close friend. But what pains both managers is the fear that their friendship, played out on a national stage, will make them the story, rather than the game itself.
And for two baseball lifers, that's unacceptable.
"The one thing I think I need to be cognizant of," Francona said last weekend when a post-season meeting with Farrell and the Red Sox became assured, "is the players have worked so hard -- both sides -- to get to this. I can't let my personal feelings ever get in the way or take away from what they've done.
"So, whatever my feelings are need to remain my feelings, and let the players [have the spotlight]. They've worked so hard for this. It needs to be about them."
"This game is always going to be about the players,'' echoed Farrell. "How we execute is paramount. Setting aside the additional subplots, this is going to come down to how we play, how we execute. Yes, there is some familiarity across the field because of relationships past and present, but that should really have no impact on how this game is played."
Still, the pair can't deny their history. They can't forget the World Series they shared when in 2007, Farrell's first year with the organization, or the pennant they almost won 12 months later before coming up a run short at Tropicana Field.
And there are years of stories, of common experiences, of victories and disappointment.
As much as they would like to ignore their bond, that's impossible. "It's tough when you're going to compete against one of your best friends," Francona acknowledged. "That's actually kind of hard, but I am so proud of him and happy for him, what he's accomplished. I kind of consider it an honor to actually compete against him."
Dropping his guard some Tuesday, Farrell alluded to their long history.
''We've shared a lot of things," Farrell said. "Teammates, on the same coaching staff, have worked in non-uniform positions, as well. We've shared a lot of experiences here in Boston. I cherish my friendship with him, to the point where you confide in one another, even in the darkest moments during stretches of the season where things aren't going well.
''I can't say enough about the guy I've spent a lot of time with in many different settings. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and the teams he puts together. But we'll have time for friendship later."
Indeed, whatever feelings the two have for one another, they must be suspended for the next week.
There are goals to reach, and only one of them can advance to the American League Championship, and, perhaps, the World Series. By this time next week, one will be preparing for the next post-season series and the other will be headed home for the winter.
In time, the texts and phone calls will resume, and the friendship will re-ignite.
But for as many as the next five games, business on the field will take precedent.