CLEVELAND — As Terry Francona hobbled toward the home dugout at Progressive Field, a friendly face asked how he was feeling.
“Like a hundred bucks,” said Cleveland’s manager, nearing the finish line of his 23rd season as a big-league skipper.
He staggered up the dugout steps, shook hands with Taylor Swift’s guitarist and then waddled to right-center field to join the rest of his assembled team. Sitting front and center, Francona sported the navy pullover that has absorbed a season’s worth of sweat, dirt and mangled Dubble Bubble. He was the only coach not donning a white uniform in what will be his final team photo.
His first team photo was captured down the street at a since-demolished stadium, a black-and-white snapshot of a toddler-aged Francona, sitting in a line of kids in front of the dugout, where his father, Tito, and some Indians teammates stood.
In the 60 years between those scenes, Francona has barely taken a breath away from a baseball field.
Francona spent the summer of 2012 at ESPN, desperate for a respite after an ugly end to eight seasons with the Red Sox that had oozed drama and tension and caused daily headaches. He would walk into a clubhouse to prepare for a broadcast and miss the camaraderie, the intensity, the stakes. He craved living and dying with every final score. By August, the itch to be back in uniform resurfaced.
This followed the pattern of his only other break from the sport, two decades prior, in 1991. The Cardinals had released him at the end of spring training. His mother was battling cancer. His father had suffered a heart attack and was headed for bypass surgery. After six weeks as their caretaker, he returned that summer to his home in Tucson, a 32-year-old with nowhere to be and no one to see. He planted himself on the couch and watched Gilligan’s Island. One day, his wife asked: “This is what you’re gonna do?”
Francona took a real estate course. But after two weeks, he got a call from an old friend. Buddy Bell knew Francona better than anyone. Bell has epilepsy and always had a roommate or a teammate with a connecting hotel room door. He and Francona lived together for three years during instructional league and spring camp. They fought over the remote and over sloppiness, with Bell tidying Francona’s room, which often had clothes scattered across the floor, lying atop half-eaten pizzas.
“Why I picked Tito, I have no answer for that,” Bell once said. “He would be the last person I would want to take care of me when I was in dire need of something. He’s a mess.”
Yet, when Bell was overseeing the White Sox farm system and needed somebody to run their hitting operation in the Gulf Coast League, he called his ex-roommate. Francona ditched his real estate books the next morning and flew to Sarasota. It marked the end of a rare pause in baseball activity for a guy with a magnetic attraction to a dugout. It also served as the official launch of a Hall of Fame coaching career.
Next season, Francona, 64, will venture into uncharted territory. He insists he’s looking forward to having no agenda. He hopes to break free of the unrelenting grasp of a 162-game season. Friends have asked if he’s sure about retirement.
But for months in Francona’s mind, it hasn’t been a debate.
His next phase of life will begin in an all-too-familiar setting of late: a hospital bed, as he undergoes another round of surgeries — a couple hernia procedures and a shoulder replacement that stems from an overly eager motion to collect casino winnings. And then? Matt Quatraro, the Royals manager and a former coach under Francona, stressed that no one should dare to envision what the scene might look like. Grease-stained pizza boxes. A graveyard of dirty laundry. Gilligan reruns.
This is a manager whose world has orbited around baseball since the ‘60s. He’s ready to step away, but unsure of what lies on the other side. What happens when you take baseball away from a baseball lifer?
“I think he’s gonna miss it,” Quatraro said. “And it’s gonna miss him.”
Baseball was, is and has always been his life.
The son of a big leaguer, Francona starred at New Brighton High School in western Pennsylvania, batting .769 as a junior before battling a shoulder injury as a senior. He won the Golden Spikes Award at Arizona and led the Wildcats to a College World Series triumph. He went straight from Tucson to Memphis, the Expos’ Double-A affiliate, after they drafted him in the first round in 1980. He reached the majors the following year and played for a decade. He spent winters in Venezuela or Puerto Rico, any destination with at-bats to offer.
When the at-bats disappeared, Bell called and Francona followed, the beginning of a steady coaching ascent. With the White Sox organization, Francona spent one year in rookie ball, one year as an A-ball manager and three as Double-A manager in Birmingham, where he spent a summer in charge of Michael Jordan.
The lessons learned paved the way for managerial stops with Philadelphia, Boston and Cleveland, where Francona earned a reputation for his ability to connect. Whatever the moment demanded, Francona developed a knack for knowing exactly how to respond. Not that he’d admit to it.
Always preferring to sidestep all credit, Francona would rather laugh at his perceived missteps, such as his call to action last season that preceded a four-game skid. Of course, the Guardians quickly recovered and surged to a division title. It wasn’t the first time he presided over a turnaround.
It happened in 1993, when Francona was managing Birmingham. His hitting coach at the time, Mike Barnett, recalled a stretch that season of what he termed “lackadaisical baseball.” Following a loss in Carolina, Francona called a team meeting for the next afternoon, one that wouldn’t involve the coaches. It started at 12:30 p.m. Three hours later, the clubhouse doors remained shut.
“We’re going, ‘Geez, maybe they killed each other,’” Barnett recalled.
Their issues hashed out, Birmingham proceeded to win the Southern League championship, Francona’s first taste of professional baseball nirvana.
Barnett, who followed Francona to Boston and Cleveland, remembers only one other instance in which he witnessed Francona lash out at a team. In 2017, the reigning AL champion Indians were trudging through a first-half slog. Following a lousy swing through Kansas City and Colorado, Francona erupted at his players. That team wound up winning 102 games.
Francona has long been hailed as a player’s manager, a label reflecting his ability to motivate and critique and deliver unpleasant news without a player losing his drive to compete.
“He doesn’t blow smoke,” said Guardians GM Mike Chernoff. “The player walks out feeling, like, ‘Holy s—, they care about me enough to tell the truth.’”
“He’s straight to the point,” Barnett said. “He gets them to understand and they walk out of there feeling like they let their father or their grandfather down. That’s been a trademark of his for as long as I can remember.”
Dave Roberts remembers Francona hosting card games with players and taking a shot of Jack Daniels before ALCS games, anything to boost the belief in the Red Sox dugout. That belief famously came through in 2004.
“He just always had our back,” said Roberts, now the Dodgers’ manager. “Even when we were down 0-3, there was never any panic with Tito. We felt that.”
Of course, in Game 4 of that series, Roberts recalled how Francona winked at him from the opposite end of the dugout. It was a nod for Roberts to pinch run, swipe second and spearhead the greatest comeback in playoff history.
That was the first of Francona’s two titles in Boston, one that ended the franchise’s 86-year championship hex. And in 2016, before the club ran out of gas, he nearly steered Cleveland to the same, long-awaited fate.
Another proprietary Francona trait: bringing levity to a situation that calls for anything but.
Sean Casey once launched a pitch off the Green Monster and was erased trying to stretch the hit into a double. The next day, he belted a ball to the right-center gap. He thought it was a home run, so he settled on a pace between a trot and a dead sprint. As he neared first, the ball bounced off the top of the wall and caromed to Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, who snagged it with his bare hand and threw to second to retire Casey.
Two days, two unforced errors on the basepaths for Boston’s first baseman.
Casey, fuming at himself and fearing what his manager might say, approached Francona.
“Hey, have you been to the doctor lately?” Francona asked.
Casey had no idea where this was going.
“Is there any chance you might have polio?”
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. Is this guy crazy?’” Casey recalled. “I just said, ‘I don’t know, maybe I need to go to the doctor or something.’ But it got a laugh out of me. That’s so him. Just so him.”
Even the most agonizing moments couldn’t dim Francona’s humor. In Game 3 of the 2016 ALCS in Toronto, after Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer’s pinkie dripped blood like a leaky faucet, Francona peered up at the scoreboard. His bullpen needed to stitch together 8 1/3 innings. His rotation was in disarray. His club was burdened by the AL’s longest title drought. And in a moment when many would wilt under such pressure, Francona fixated on the Rogers Centre’s 50/50 raffle.
As he stood on the mound, waiting for Dan Otero to jog in from the bullpen, Francona pointed out to Mike Napoli the $82,000 pot and asked if he’d go in on the raffle with him.
For Casey, that knack in the moment was reminiscent of another former manager of his, Jim Leyland.
“They could work the room better than anybody,” Casey said. “They could work Mardi Gras.”
Defusing a situation is indeed a practical skill for a manager, one Francona has tactfully deployed for decades, just as he did in an incident involving a basketball icon in Birmingham.
Francona was coaching third, with Barnett handling first. Jordan hustled toward second on a ground ball and slid to wipe out the fielder covering the base. Thanks to his NBA-suited wingspan, his hand still grazed the bag as he collided with his opponent. The umpire, though, ruled an automatic double play, accusing Jordan of failing to make an attempt to slide into the base.
Barnett screamed at the umpire until his face resembled a ripe tomato. Francona finally wrangled his unhinged hitting coach from behind.
“If you make me fall down out here,” Francona told him, his arms wrapped around Barnett’s waist, “I’m gonna kick your ass in front of 10,000 people.”
Barnett, almost hoarse from shouting at the ump, could only laugh.
“He has a way of being able to do that,” Barnett said.
Bell noticed it in Francona during the genesis of his coaching career: a genuine care for those on his side and a willingness to absorb blame to protect them.
Quatraro: “I always remember him saying, ‘The only thing I want to do for you guys is brag about you.’”
Second baseman Jason Kipnis: “You could have 12 years in the big leagues or 12 days. He talks you up. He makes you feel confident.”
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli: “The second you walk in the door, he’s ripping on you about something. You’re like, ‘What the f—? What is going on right now?’ But he does it in such a productive way.”
Catcher Austin Hedges: “He knows how to look someone in the eye and you can feel that he cares about you. He doesn’t care what your background is, where you came from, how old you are, how much time you have. He’s like, ‘I care about you as a person. How are we going to get the best out of you?’”
Last winter, Tom Wiedenbauer’s dad sent him a copy of the Aug. 20, 1981 Arizona Daily Star. The sports page contains a box score for Tucson, at the time the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate. There’s a three in the hits column for Wiedenbauer, so his mom saved the newspaper.
“That didn’t happen very often,” said Wiedenbauer, now a special assistant in Cleveland’s front office.
On the front of the section is an article detailing Francona’s promotion to the big leagues with the Expos. He received a call at 8 a.m. from the team trainer, who told him he would debut at the Astrodome that night against Nolan Ryan. Thanks to an air traffic controller strike, Francona didn’t arrive in Houston until the middle innings, when Ryan was working on a no-hitter.
“I’m like, ‘F— this, man,’” Francona joked.
He finally reached the dugout and Montreal manager Dick Williams skipped a formal greeting, instead telling him he was leading off the ensuing inning. Francona said he was “geared for God,” ready to hack away at a 110-mph heater. Instead, Dave Smith, who relieved Ryan, tossed him changeups and induced a harmless groundout.
Francona was the nation’s top player at Arizona, a first-round pick and, when healthy, a threat to win a big-league batting crown. When he recounts his career, though, he describes an overmatched hitter, the last guy on every roster. He takes the same approach with his coaching feats.
Barnett remembers Francona in the early ‘90s meticulously plotting bullpen strategies in the minors. Yet, Francona squirmed in his seat when anyone praised his bullpen usage during the 2016 postseason, when he squeezed every drop of production out of a tattered pitching staff.
He would rather volunteer that he had his tires slashed on Fan Appreciation Day in Philadelphia, where he endured four miserable years which had him questioning whether he even wanted a second chance at managing. He can still hear the expletive-filled shouts from Phillies fans fed up with another sub-.500 season.
He would rather remark that he has the lowest IQ in any room he enters, or regale listeners with tales about sprinting across campus to take an exam because he had just finished a tutoring session and didn’t want to forget the material.
He was asked last week if he planned to further his education once he retires.
“And, what,” Francona said, “be 102 when I graduate?”
Every player who joins Cleveland’s roster knows who he is and the credentials he has compiled, but he disarms them with self-deprecation.
“It’s how he doesn’t come off as larger-than-life. Because, he is,” Hedges said. “He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s The Guy. But that can be intimidating to a lot of people. That’s Terry Francona. He’s willing to laugh at himself and keep things light.”
After a rough road trip, Francona will sneak up behind Barnett on the team plane or in a coaches’ conference room and buzz a chunk out of his hair. The act became the Guardians’ playoff ritual last season, with players borrowing Francona’s clippers to participate.
Where other managers might stew and spread their discontent throughout a clubhouse, Francona searches for ways to ease the tension. He once ordered a pop-a-shot machine to the Indians’ clubhouse; a few days later, the club started its record-setting 22-game win streak. He has mastered the art of flushing the previous day’s result, even if it requires a pep talk to himself on his scooter ride to the ballpark.
“These guys don’t deserve to see me with my tail between my legs,” he said.
That was one of the tenets he detailed in the 17-page thesis — all-caps, bold, printed on card stock — that he submitted to the front office when he interviewed for the Cleveland opening in 2012. He outlined his core beliefs as a manager, from leadership principles to handling of the media to baserunning practices. His vow to value everyone’s voice during decision-making processes helped to facilitate the construction of the organization’s envied pitching factory. It’s why the Guardians plan to extend Francona an open invitation to contribute to the organization in some capacity.
His managerial standards have been replicated across the league. Francona grows uncomfortable when it’s mentioned how many of his former pupils have become managers: Baldelli in Minnesota, Alex Cora in Boston, Kevin Cash in Tampa, Mark Kotsay in Oakland, David Ross in Chicago, Dave Roberts in Los Angeles, Gabe Kapler in San Francisco. Bud Black played with Francona in Cleveland and recommended him for the advisor role he accepted with the club in 2001, a decision that paved the way for his return as manager more than a decade later.
“He’s one of the reasons I’m actually managing,” Baldelli said. “I mean that. He showed me that you’re allowed to really enjoy coming to the field every day. There’s a way to play hard and play tough and play competitively and also have a good time. Like truly have a good time. Every team thinks that and says that. But there’s only one Tito and there’s only one guy that really shows you how to do it the way he does. Every single person that’s ever played for him leaves wanting more time around him.”
Bell marveled at how Francona crafted relationships with every soul he encountered. With Detroit in 1996, Bell was the manager and Francona was the third-base coach who seemed to connect with everyone, from ushers to security guards to clubhouse attendants. He maintained that charm over the years. On Saturday afternoon, Orioles clubhouse manager Fred Tyler popped into Francona’s office one final time. Those bonds are what the manager said he’ll miss most.
Later that night, Francona tacked his bulletin board of statistics to the wall beneath the dugout railing. For him, it has always been a cherished time, exactly 45 minutes before first pitch.
It was during that time in Boston when he would gather with Cora and Dustin Pedroia for uninterrupted chats about baseball strategy. It was during that time in 2016 when he and Napoli had a standing date to do the same. It’s what Hedges will remember most about his former manager: Francona, alone in the dugout before the game, with fans still wandering the concourse and the grounds crew putting the final touches on the infield dirt. Hedges would pass through the dugout to warm up the starting pitcher, and Francona was already there, visualizing, planning, manifesting.
“Each day I wasn’t necessarily feeling it,” Hedges said, “I’d see him in the dugout before me and I’m like, ‘All right. He’s ready, I’m ready.’”
Aside from when he completes his stationary laps in the SwimX machine before daybreak, 45 minutes before first pitch is when he’s most peaceful — no media obligations, no rotation juggling to sort out, no pressing pinch-hitting decisions.
For 45 minutes, during those calm, eerily quiet moments before the storm, he can breathe.
Then, for three hours, he has his stomach in his throat. And he treasures every nanosecond of it.
“Being nervous,” he said, “ooh boy, that’s a good feeling.”
Nothing fuels him like nine innings of competition, whether in early April or late October. Nothing, he says, compares to the thrill or the torment experienced from this padded chair on the second step in the Guardians’ home dugout.
When he was bench coach in Oakland in 2003, he’d stick his head in manager Ken Macha’s office to supply a few words of encouragement after painful losses. He’d feel the sting, too, but he knew how personally Macha took each defeat. That same anguish consumed Francona in Philadelphia. That tendency had Theo Epstein checking on him after particularly brutal losses in Boston. Even in his 23rd season as a big-league manager, at the helm of a team out of the race, when the Guardians collapsed in the eighth inning in Kansas City last week, Francona retreated to his hotel room and tossed and turned all night.
“It goes home with you,” he said.
Francona’s greatest fear was being irrelevant in August and September as pennant races took shape. He and Brad Mills, his longtime coaching colleague, would talk themselves into the joy of spoiling the opponent’s playoff bid, but after a win, Francona would say, “We’re acting like we’re having fun. I’d rather be over there being miserable.”
In Boston and in Cleveland, those stakes-deprived games were rare.
Francona’s 1,948 wins rank 13th in major-league history. Ten of the managers ranked ahead of him wound up in Cooperstown. Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy figure to join them upon retirement. Francona will be eligible in three years, when the Contemporary Baseball Era committee holds court.
First, he must officially reveal his intention to retire, instead of uttering everything but that one line. He would rather execute an Irish exit than attract one extra iota of attention. He will remain player-first until his final managerial breath.
Seconds after initiating the first toast upon Cleveland’s clinch of the division last season, Francona hurried back to his office in his squeaky flip-flops. That was their moment, not his.
Francona never imagined he’d manage for 23 seasons.
“I’m guessing there’s a lot of people in Philadelphia who probably didn’t think so, either,” he said.
He certainly wouldn’t have forecasted such a fate one month into his tenure when he went toe to toe with 6-foot-7 pitcher Bobby Muñoz. In a postgame interview following a 14-7 loss to St. Louis, Muñoz criticized catcher Mike Lieberthal. Francona shouted at the hurler in the clubhouse for publicly griping about a teammate. He returned to his office, where veterans Rex Hudler and Darren Daulton commended him for taking a stand.
“Well,” Francona told them, “don’t go far, ‘cause he might be coming in.”
Francona said that’s the only time he ever challenged a player in front of the team, 31 games into a managing career that spanned nearly a quarter-century.
Hedges crowned him “the pinnacle” of managing, and said his name should serve as the definition of “leader” in the dictionary.
“He is baseball,” Otero said.
And here he is, 60 years after his first visit to a major-league dugout. He has taken his final team photo. Now he’s ready to take down the first one, that black-and-white photo that has hung on the wall behind the desk in his office throughout his 11 years in Cleveland.
He’s a baseball lifer ready for life after baseball.
“Since I could crawl,” he said, “that’s really all I’ve ever done.”
— The Athletic’s Dan Hayes, Brendan Kuty and Fabian Ardaya contributed to this story.
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(Top photo of Terry Francona in 2016, when he guided Cleveland to the pennant, and in 1982 as a young big leaguer with the Expos: Rob Tringali, Bruce Bennett Studios / Getty Images)