Right at Home
Terry Francona is taking a curious route to Progressive Field.
The Cleveland Indians manager rides in the back seat of a Honda Civic as it meanders through downtown on a brisk January day. He's just wrapped up a town hall meeting with almost 150 season-ticket holders at PlayhouseSquare, and his 79-year-old father, Tito, is riding in the passenger seat up front.
As they head down Euclid Avenue, the father and son share in Francona's new, old hometown — the city where Tito played in the '60s and where Terry spent the first six years of his life.
They don't get far before Francona spies the Wyndham Hotel and wonders aloud what happened to the Bond Court Hotel on East Ninth Street. In the '70s and '80s, Bond Court was the place to be, hosting rock stars and even a president.
When the car passes East Fourth Street, Francona makes a special effort to lean forward toward his father. He points to the left, past The Corner Alley, Lola and the CLE Clothing Co. store with its T-shirts proclaiming city pride in Browns, Cavs and Indians colors.
"There, Dad — just up there is where I'm living," Francona says. "There's some really nice places up there."
He's the first manager anyone in the Indians front office can remember living downtown.
"I like to be around and get to know people," he explains, well aware his bald head and thin-rimmed glasses make him easily recognizable. "I might want to have a beer or something after a game, and this way I can walk home. Plus, I get to the ballpark so early I can just get up and walk there."
Near Public Square, Francona points out the Higbee Building, former home to one of the city's finest department stores and now adorned with black awnings sporting the gold logo of the new tenant, the Horseshoe Casino. As the ride continues toward the library, someone mentions that old Municipal Stadium was north, on the lake.
"I loved that place," Francona says. "Loved everything about it."
And he means everything: the cavernous feel, the dank locker rooms, the wood-plank seats. Francona played for the Indians in 1988, when he was 29 years old. He was nearing the end of a career short-circuited by injury, playing for another bad Cleveland team in an era of bad Cleveland baseball.
That Indians team had a bunch of guys like him, he recalls, a group thrown together in a tough situation, some hanging on, some growing up, all struggling to win.
"It was great," he says, even though those Indians were in the midst of 12 losing seasons in 14 years. Francona appreciates winning, but he loves baseball in good times and bad.
It's fitting Francona chose to live downtown, where many fans heading to the April 8 home opener will wander through the CLE Clothing shop, housed in a former Woolworth's and a block from the Higbee's-turned-casino. A short walk away, the former Bond Court building is getting a sleek, $64 million makeover into a Westin Hotel.
The Indians and their fans now look to the man living on a reinvented street as the guy who can revitalize the franchise. Francona brings the best hope for an Indians renaissance since the glory years of the '90s. He arrives with two World Series rings and cache unmatched in recent Cleveland sports history.
His hire has already sparked an offseason like few in memory. In the past, players treated Cleveland the way a dog treats a fire hydrant, but this winter they chose the Indians. Former Yankee Nick Swisher and Gold Glove center fielder Michael Bourn signed as free agents, part of a lineup makeover. A few short months after a crushingly disappointing 2012 season, Francona brings new energy and a new vibe.
"He knows what it takes," says Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis. "It's what we need right now."
• • • • •
Earlier in the day, Terry and Tito Francona sit on tall stools on a 90.3 ideastream stage. Tito wears a sport coat and tie, Terry a long-sleeved, gray, crew-neck shirt and jeans. Boom cameras swing around and over him as Francona answers questions from the crowd about baseball strategy.
But now that his father has joined the set, the tone changes and the duo begin swapping stories.
Tito was a line-drive hitter who played for the Indians from 1959 to '64; he hit .363 that first year. Cleveland acquired him in a trade for Larry Doby, the first African-American player in the American League.
The elder Francona tells how he walked into his hotel room after the trade and found someone in the bed. He looked, saw it was Doby, tapped him on the shoulder and said: "Wake up. I was just traded for you."
In 1963, Tito took part in baseball history, as Woodie Held, pitcher Pedro Ramos, Tito and Larry Brown all homered in consecutive at-bats against the Angels. They became the second group ever to accomplish that feat. He asks if anyone knows what the fifth guy tried to do.
When nobody answers, he leans over and says: "He tried to bunt." As the laughter subsides, Tito puts his free hand in a fist and says: "We wanted to kill him."
Terry was born the year his father was traded to Cleveland. He went along on his dad's baseball journey to St. Louis, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Oakland and Milwaukee. When he was 8, he started tagging along to the clubhouse on a daily basis — with one caveat: If he misbehaved at home, he couldn't come.
He only had to stay home once.
"I think it hurt him as much as it hurt me," Terry recalls.
Tito never pushed his son to play baseball, never even coached him. But he saw what was happening. He tells the story of the day in 1970 when his 11-year-old son was sitting behind the backstop. As a pitcher threw, Terry rested his chin on his hands and watched intently.
"He came to me later and said, 'That pitcher has the best curveball I've ever seen,' " Tito says. "It was [Hall of Famer] Bert Blyleven."
The younger Francona's name is Terry, but he also goes by Tito. Calling him by his father's moniker is reserved for those close to him, as if it's an honor. Francona grew up wanting to be like his dad, to the point of imitating his hitting stance, left-handed, bat at a 45-degree angle on the shoulder, elbow cocked. His recently released book Francona: The Red Sox Years is dedicated to his father.
"He'll always be the person I look up to more than anything," he says. "That'll never change. Just the way he carried himself. He grew up in a major league clubhouse. I grew up in a major league clubhouse.
"And I don't ever remember hearing my dad curse. It was something I always respected. I don't care if he did; I do all the time. He just wouldn't in front of me or my mom. And I think that was pretty cool."
Francona won college baseball's Golden Spikes Award at Arizona in 1980. Drafted in the first round by Montreal, he was hitting .321 for the Expos and playing every day in 1982 when his spike caught in the warning track as he jumped to catch a ball in St. Louis. Francona tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
Two years later, he hurt his other knee running the bases, when he was hitting .346. An injury-plagued career followed.
"I got hurt so early that my goals kind of drastically changed," he says. "I wanted to be a hotshot hitter and lead the league in hitting, [then] suddenly just [wanted to] be good enough to make a team."
His baseball travels took him through the major and minor leagues, from the Memphis Chicks, Denver Bears and Colorado Springs Sky Sox to the Expos, Indians, Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers. He spent his final full season in the minors with the Triple-A Louisville Redbirds. A grizzled manager with a bad arm would show up early to throw extra batting practice to Francona, a guy with bad knees trying to hang on in his 11th year.
"I loved it there," Francona says. "My body was failing me and I wasn't a very good player, but I loved it because I'd show up at the ballpark and I knew I was going to play."
With every stop he discusses, Francona brings up something he loves about the game: the manager in Louisville, the group of guys at rookie camp for Chicago, jumping on the pile in Birmingham after winning a minor league title — an experience he says was just as good as seeing his players in Boston celebrate the World Series.
"I never felt like I was dealt a bad hand," he says.
He now has two artificial knees and a road map of scars. He has to pause when asked about the number of surgeries he's had, then says he's had 22 on his knees alone, six to treat a staph infection in 2002 that put his life in danger and nearly cost him his right leg. Complications from staph led to blood clots and internal bleeding and a pulmonary embolism on each side of his lungs.
"It aged me," he says. "It's not gonna kill me, but what it does is kind of piss me off. It's aggravating."
Because he has to manage his activity carefully, Francona wears extra clothes to help his circulation, including tights on his legs. Blood thinners make him cold all the time, which is why he wears a cover-up over his baseball jersey. He has issues with his hip, and his leg sometimes swells. He swims every day to help his circulation. When he doesn't, he notices.
Asked if playing the game was worth the pain and struggle, Francona pauses, then smiles.
"Yeeeaaaah," he says. "I loved playing."
• • • • •
Francona peers over the green railing in a disbelieving visitor's dugout at Jacobs Field in 2007.
Arms folded, he watches the Red Sox go meekly in the ninth inning of a 7-3 Indians victory in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
To the manager's right, Dustin Pedroia stands, arms hanging limp over the dugout rail. To Francona's left, Julio Lugo slouches on the ground in front of the dugout screen, his helmet upside down like his team.
Outside the dugout, the Cleveland crowd roars at every strike to a Boston hitter, stands when any count gets to strike two and reaches a crescendo at each out. When former Indian Coco Crisp lines out to Victor Martinez to end the game at 11:34 p.m. on Oct. 16, the Indians hold a commanding 3-1 series lead.
For 20 hours before that Game 4, critics and the media in Boston had suggested that Francona juggle his rotation and move his best pitcher, Josh Beckett, up a game to pitch on less rest than normal. But Francona resisted, preferring to stay with the way he'd done things all season and throw knuckleballer Tim Wakefield instead.
"I tried to remind people our goal wasn't to win the next game," Francona says. "Our goal was to win the series."
He understood that a Game 4 loss meant Boston was staring C.C. Sabathia and elimination squarely in the 19-game winner's crooked bill.
"I don't remember walking around thinking we were in trouble," Francona recalls. "During the season is not the best time to be completely realistic."
In Game 5, already trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the first, Cleveland put two on with no outs against Beckett. Travis Hafner stepped to the plate, but he hit a weak grounder up the middle. Lugo fielded it, stepped on second and completed a double play. And that was that.
A fully rested Beckett got stronger every inning as the city's deepest fears spread through the muffled ballpark. Boston won 7-1.
The Red Sox outscored the Indians 23-4 the final two games in Fenway, and Francona went on to win his second World Series. The Indians went on to trade two Cy Young winners, Sabathia and Cliff Lee, and suffer 447 losses over five seasons.
Francona says the thing he remembers most about that series is sticking with Beckett. It supports one of his bedrock beliefs about managing: Be consistent.
"Players may not go to Ivy League schools, but they're smart," he says. "They see when you're not being yourself. I try to do what's right and try to do that all the time."
It's a lesson written in scar tissue and back roads. Francona says his injuries helped him become a better manager because he got to watch so many different ones.
In Colorado Springs, Francona's manager was Steve Swisher, the father of the Indians free agent signee. Francona was playing on borrowed time, on knees that would have sidelined others. But Swisher "was relentless," Francona says, "the most intense guy I've ever been around."
Swisher pushed Francona constantly, driving him forward to two more years in the big leagues.
"When Francona played for me, you could tell he was different," Swisher says. "He would never let anything stop him. I knew his knees were bothering him. But I'd say, 'You can do more.' And he did. He never gave up."
When Francona retired, he didn't do much — until his wife asked if he was going to spend the rest of his life watching Gilligan's Island reruns. So he took a real estate class.
Halfway through, Buddy Bell, a friend and former Indians third baseman, called to ask if Francona wanted to get into coaching. It didn't take long to say yes; Francona flew to Sarasota to work with White Sox minor leaguers. He made little money but savored the chance to return to the game.
By 1994, Francona was in his second season managing the Birmingham Barons, when the most famous athlete in the world gave up basketball to try baseball.
Francona first approached Michael Jordan in the outfield during a spring training workout.
"He saw me coming and I could see him thinking, Here's another guy that wants to be my coach," Francona says. "I told him, 'I'm going to be your manager, but for the next four or five days I'm going to leave you alone.' I could see him exhale and relax."
They talked more in Birmingham, and Jordan's first question — Do we fly? — had Francona smiling inwardly at the long bus rides.
"You have to respect what we're doing here for this to work," Francona remembers telling him. "And from day one he did."
Eventually Jordan came to enjoy the bus rides — they helped him get away from the constant media attention on his career change. And Francona came to enjoy and respect Jordan's competitive drive.
The experience led to another of his main beliefs about managing: "You have to have the ability to connect with everybody," he says.
Francona got his first major league job with Philadelphia, where he never won more than he lost. He was let go after four seasons, but resurfaced four years later in Boston. That season he guided the Red Sox to their first World Series title since 1918, erasing a 3-0 deficit to the hated Yankees in the ALCS en route and earning Francona an endorsement deal with Metamucil.
But the 2011 season ended in collapse. On Sept. 3, Francona's Red Sox had an almost insurmountable nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the wild card playoff slot. Yet, Boston gave up two runs in the ninth inning on the final game of the season to complete a 7-19 finish, sinking its postseason hopes.
Two weeks after the season, a Boston Globe report fueled by anonymous quotes blamed Francona. Reports that players were drinking beer and eating fried chicken during games implied the manager had lost control. The story even brought up Francona's ongoing divorce, though he says he did all he could to keep that private to protect his family and the team.
The anonymous newspaper quotes seemed like management's attempt to justify getting rid of a successful and popular manager, and it may have had something to do with Francona writing his book.
"When it ends, it's hard," Francona says. "It was hard when I left Philadelphia when I was fired. I spent eight years in Boston, and when it comes to an end it's hard to understand.
"All of a sudden two days later you're defending things — some that are true, some that aren't true, some that are exaggerated. Regardless, it was still very public and it was hard, and somebody went out of their way to hurt me.
"So yeah, it was tough. Real tough."
• • • • •
It's mid-February in Goodyear, Ariz., and Indians spring training is still young.
Players are lined up for calisthenics as assistant trainer Michael Salazar parades in front of the group wearing a T-shirt, tennis shoes, black fanny pack ... and a crimson Speedo.
Salazar lost a bet on the BCS National Championship game, and as payoff he has to wear the skimpy swimwear all day. Francona does a double take, then yells amid much laughter, "Go put that cottage cheese in," a not-so-subtle reference to Salazar's stocky and untanned legs.
Francona clearly is back in his element — uniform on, a glove hanging off the bat in his hands, smiling as he revels in the give and take with the guys. Francona spent the 2012 season away from managing with ESPN and had no intention of leaving the network until he heard from Indians general manager Chris Antonetti and president Mark Shapiro.
Francona had worked for the Indians as a special front office assistant in 2001, and his friendship with Shapiro and Antonetti never wavered.
He joins a team with a far different set of financial circumstances than he had in Boston. The Red Sox reside in The Ritz of the baseball world. Cleveland has a Motel 6 budget.
"I understand what's involved," he says. "I'm not arrogant enough to think there's not going to be challenges, but I'm new enough and have enough energy to want to tackle those challenges."
Lower budgets provide no soft landings, he says.
"You can't cover mistakes," he adds. "Soooo, let's not make them."
But this offseason the Indians shocked baseball by spending, almost freely. Buoyed by new national and local TV deals, the Indians invested in players who took notice of Francona's hiring. Swisher, the Ohio native and Buckeye grad, brings his enthusiasm and 20-plus home runs in each of the past eight years. Former Oriole first baseman Mark Reynolds is a needed right-handed power hitter but prone to strikeouts. Pitcher Brett Myers, a first round pick of Philadelphia when Francona was manager, signed a one-year deal.
The Indians even gave spring training looks to familiar-but-aging names Daisuke Matzusaka, Jason Giambi and Scott Kazmir. (Giambi took a personal call from Francona, and Kazmir said he joined Cleveland because of the manager.) Trades brought outfielder Drew Stubbs and up-and-coming pitcher Trevor Bauer.
Bourn's signing just before spring shocked Indians fans and baseball experts alike.
"The Indians suddenly are a must-see team," wrote national pundit Ken Rosenthal. The fans responded by selling out the home opener against the Yankees in six minutes.
The team joined in the fun, dropping prices of hot dogs to $3 and beer to $4. Despite a ticket price increase, sales are up. Fans who have suffered through three 90-loss seasons in the past four are ... well ... actually excited about what's to come starting April 2 in Toronto.
"We're supposed to win," Francona says. "That's our goal. And I don't care about the rest."
Yet he is well aware of recent Cleveland history. "I'm not happy [fans are] frustrated," he says, "but I understand the passion." He's no different. As a longtime basketball season-ticket holder at Arizona, his alma mater, Francona's done his share of screaming at games, even at the Wildcats' legendary former coach Lute Olsen. "I'm a fan, man," Francona says. "That's just the way it is."
Francona says his goal is to develop a "we" attitude where everybody cares more about winning than about their stats. He knows what it meant to him when managers helped him, so he says it's important to treat everyone like they're special.
He consulted with Swisher after he signed to see where he was comfortable hitting. When Bourn signed, Francona spoke with Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs — both center fielders as well — and explained why Bourn would be in center, Brantley in left and Stubbs in right.
He says he'll communicate directly with players and never make a decision about a guy's place in the lineup before talking to him.
"To be a great manager there are some things you have to do," Steve Swisher says. "You have to communicate, you have to educate, you have to motivate. When I was a kid they'd tell you to run through a wall and you'd get off your butt and do it. Now they have to give you a reason to get on the other side.
"[Francona] can do all that."
• • • • •
Back on that cold January day, after the Honda finally finishes its circuitous trip through downtown and pulls into the players lot at Progressive Field, Francona greets the security guard by his first name and heads down the concrete steps to the field-level concourse.
Maintenance carts line the halls, with signs pointing to the locker rooms and interview room.
Francona heads past the Indians clubhouse and into his office, where the wood desk is bare. The tan walls are empty.
He explains that the team plans to decorate it for him while he's at spring training.
"Pictures of me and my dad," he says.
He admits he choked back tears when he called his father to tell him he had been hired by Cleveland, the team his father calls his "home team."
Tito never went to a game in Boston, but promises he'll make the 100-mile trek to Cleveland from New Brighton, Pa.
Down the hall from the manager's office, the clubhouse is silent, uniforms hanging in yet-to-be-used lockers. The fact that Francona has yet to meet his players is the stone in his shoe. He texts and calls; does anything he can in the offseason to be in touch.
But it's not the same.
When the first official day of spring training finally rolls around in early February, Francona is like that 8-year-old kid in the clubhouse again.
"I love doing this," he says after that first full-squad practice. And he means all of it: The three-hour meeting the night before, the day spent chatting with the players, and especially the moment he put on his No. 17 Indians uniform for the first time.
12:00 AM EST
March 22, 2013