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03/16/10 7:07 PM ET

Francona, Mills share special bond

Best friends reunite before Red Sox face off vs. Astros

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- You couldn't help but feel that Tuesday's Grapefruit League tilt between the Red Sox and Astros carried more than just your typical Spring Training essence.

During a time of year consumed by preparation, internal competitions and simply getting a feel for baseball again, this contest at Osceola County Stadium seemed to center on pride, admiration and love.

Those are three feelings shared between Red Sox manager Terry Francona and new Astros skipper Brad Mills -- two former college roommates, Major League teammates, longtime co-workers and still best friends.

After spending 10 years as a coach under Francona with the Phillies and Red Sox, the 53-year-old Mills finally has his chance to manage with the Astros this season.

Considering the team he was going up against and the skipper on the other side, Mills had just one thing on his mind when he walked into Houston's Spring Training facility Tuesday morning.

"Any game all spring long we'd like to win," Mills said, "I'd like it to be this one."

Mills got his wish, as Roy Oswalt threw a four-inning gem and the Astros squeezed out just enough runs to edge out a 3-0 victory.

But the memories of this one occurred before any pitch was even thrown.

Like the loud yell Francona gave when he saw Mills chatting with Kevin Youkilis along the right-field line. And the big bear hug that followed.

Or the talk the two shared together right after, as Francona continues to beam with pride at seeing his longtime lieutenant lead his own troops.

Or the tiny locker and old steel toolbox Mills lightheartedly left for Dustin Pedroia in front of his real locker in the visitor's clubhouse.

"He looks good," Francona said. "He looks happy."

Mills is all about the Astros now and trying to make them a winner in the National League Central. But he'll never forget the time he spent in a Red Sox uniform or the relationships he's built along the way.

The Red Sox were scheduled for a split-squad day-night doubleheader against the Astros and Rays on Tuesday. But instead of making the shorter 45-minute drive from Fort Myers, Fla., to Port Charlotte, Fla., Youkilis and Pedroia instead opted to take a three-hour bus ride to Kissimmee early in the morning.

They wanted to see Mills. And Mills was happy to see them.

"They're not only good players, they're quality people," Mills said. "And it's nice to be able to stay in touch with those type of guys. They're quality individuals, and they've got a lot of them in that clubhouse. That's one of the reasons they've done so well the last few years."

"It's good to see him getting the opportunity to run his own ship," Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek added.

Considering Mills was Francona's roommate at the University of Arizona, his teammate with the Montreal Expos from 1981-83, his first-base coach from 1997-2000 in Philadelphia -- before they were both dismissed by current Astros general manager Ed Wade -- then his bench coach from 2004-09 with the Red Sox, many have been wondering whether Mills would take on Francona's personality.

But the Boston skipper wanted to point out that it's he and the Red Sox that have learned a lot from Mills.

"I think what gets lost in this is we probably did as many things around here because of Millsie as opposed to everybody saying, 'Oh, he's going to be just like me,'" Francona said. "There's a lot of things we did here because of him -- his view, his opinion."

In Francona's opinion, the Astros got the right man.

"He's got a lot of strengths; I think that's why he has this job," Francona said about Mills, who's been replaced as bench coach by DeMarlo Hale and replaced as Spring Training coordinator by Rob Leary. "He knows how to treat players. He knows how he feels about players He cares about them. At the same time, he knows you have to get the work done and be prepared to play the game correctly.

"He's a good baseball guy, [and] he's an even better person. ... He's going to give them everything he has."

It's no question Francona loves Mills. So it was probably his recommendation that won Wade over and got Mills the job, right?

Not at all.

Francona knows what it's like to get recommendations from friends about guys he should hire, and he knows Wade is aware that Francona would be pretty biased towards Mills. So when the Astros had a managerial opening, after dismissing Cecil Cooper with 13 games left in the 2009 regular season, Francona called up Wade and simply told him to have a talk with Mills.

Francona was confident that would be enough.

"The conversation was something like, 'I just want to call you to mention Millsie's name. I think you would enjoy sitting and talking to him,'" Wade recalled. "That was the message. I said, 'OK.' So I added him to the list. We had 10 real good candidates. We brought Millsie in, we talked to him and the interview was great.

"[Francona] said, 'I just knew that if you had a chance to sit with Millsie and talk to him, you'd see the same things that we see all the time.' And he was right."

Francona didn't just have a hug for Mills. He had a warm embrace for Wade near home plate during batting practice, too.

Ten years ago, after a dreadful 65-97 season with the Phillies in 2000, Wade was forced to dismiss Francona. But to this day, there are no grudges on either side.

"I would have fired me, too," Francona said. "And Eddie's very nice about the way he handles it, but sometimes you have to do things. I understand that. At the time, it's not a fun time. But me and Eddie are actually pretty good friends. And I have a lot of respect for him."

Wade, who was let go himself as Phillies GM after the 2005 season, recalls five years ago, when he spotted Francona at a hotel gym during the Winter Meetings. He took that opportunity to set the record straight with him.

"I said, 'I just want you to know that the most regrettable decision that I ever had to make was firing you,'" Wade said. "And I think he knew that, that I felt that way, but I thought it was important for me to articulate it to him, that I really felt badly about it."

Now, they both have something to feel really good about -- Mills and the opportunity he has with the Astros.

Mills is excited, too, and he's shown throughout the course of Spring Training that he's the type of guy who likes to hit the ground running.

But the bond he and Francona share will never go away, and neither will his admiration for the Red Sox.

"It's tough to pick up a paper," said Mills, who is known mainly for how meticulous he is. "You see all the little capsules about each ballclub, you look at us, and maybe our division maybe and look at the National League. And then, of course, you got to find out exactly what's going on with those guys.

"Being there and [seeing] what they've been able to accomplish these last six years, the whole culture and how they've gone about those things, is pretty special."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.