A four-minute pregame video tribute with shots of his late father brought a nervous Terry Francona close to tears and prompted two curtain calls.
One man held a “Win For Tito” sign. “Francona Forever” was plastered above the home-run railing in center field.
A photo of Francona tipping his cap 2 1/2 hours before was distributed as the crowd of 28,915 left Progressive Field.
Players circled Francona and blocked the entrance to the clubhouse, forcing him to listen to the postgame ovation.
All went against everything Francona believes in. He’s always stuck to the premise that he belongs in the shadows, not the spotlight.
But that was not the case Wednesday night as the winningest manager in Cleveland baseball history received a rousing sendoff in the Guardians’ 4-3 triumph over the Cincinnati Reds in the season home finale.
“Believe me, down deep, I was really touched,” Francona says. “The 11 years here are what is the best part. It’s not like the last day, it’s everything that I lived through here with the people that I was with. That’s what I care about.”
Guardians left-fielder Steven Kwan described the atmosphere as “bone-chilling.”
“That ninth inning, heard the ‘Thank You Tito’ chants, that was louder than any chant we’ve had all year, which was super exciting,” Kwan says.
“He doesn’t like that kind of limelight, but he deserves every kind of accolade and praise that he gets. I think that’s what makes him so lovable. He’s so humble; he just goes about his day. But today was a day to celebrate him ...”
Continuing health issues will force Francona, 64, to step away after 11 seasons with the Guardians and 23 years as a major-league skipper after the finale Sunday in Detroit. A right shoulder replacement and two hernia operations have already been scheduled, but he still has not uttered the word retirement.
“When you become a coach and a manager, it’s always about everybody else, as it’s supposed to be,” he says before the game. “So all of a sudden when it’s about you, it’s a little uncomfortable.
“The most frustrating part about today is I can’t wear the T-shirt because it’s me. It’s a nice T-shirt. I love it when we get free stuff, but I can’t wear it.”
Bound for the Hall of Fame after winning two World Series in Boston and compiling a 1,949-1,670 career record, 920-755 in Cleveland, baseball lifer Francona made no predictions on his future.
“I’m going to go get my body patched up again for about the 80th time and I’m going to try to go get healthy,” he says. “I’m in no rush to see, just to see. I don’t need to know tomorrow. See what happens.”
Among those in attendance was Brad Mills, Francona’s former teammate at the University of Arizona who served as an assistant coach under Francona in Philadelphia, Boston and Cleveland (2013-19). Francona’s current coaches tried to treat the day like any other, although the significance was hard to ignore.
“The one thing about Tito, he never wants it to be about him and that’s how he wants it to finish,” third base coach Mike Sarbaugh says. “Tito doesn’t want us to be sad. Out of respect for him, we just want to make it a normal day, as close as we can.
“You look back at the 11 years and what’s happened here, there’s been a lot of good things that have gone on. You can sit back and feel fortunate to have even been a part of it. He’s been the main reason why we’ve done this, the winning environment he’s brought here, it just permeates throughout the building. It’s been a pleasure.”
Asked what he was most proud of accomplishing, Francona didn’t point to the 2016 World Series run that ended with a Chicago Cubs’ victory in Game 7 or the Guardians’ six playoff appearances on his watch.
“I don’t do that. I really enjoy the day-to-day,” he says. “It got harder. That’s why I’m going to shut it down. But living through stuff is what I really enjoy. Even just the tougher times when you do it with people you respect and enjoy.”
Despite the festivities that were announced early this week, Francona says he didn’t have problems sleeping Tuesday night.
“About the same as usual until I roll over on my shoulder, then I wake up,” Francona says.
The young Guardians (75-84) will not follow up a storybook 92-70 season in 2022 with another postseason berth. But Francona urged fans to be patient.
Asked about his message to them, Francona says, “I think tonight it would just be thank you. I have tried to do my best all the time. Sometimes it’s been better than others. But I appreciate my time here very much and I hope that they support these guys moving forward because there’s a lot to like. We didn’t get things accomplished this year like we wanted. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”
In a light-hearted 15-minute pregame news conference, Francona revealed that his precious scooter has been retired even as he held off on that pronouncement.
Used to reach his apartment two blocks away, the vehicle was stolen about 10 days ago. When it was found, he said it had been stripped and was heavily damaged. It now sits covered by a blanket in the clubhouse.
“Looks like they took a baseball bat to it and the worst part was they defecated on it,” Francona says.
Francona acknowledged that living downtown during his Cleveland tenure “has been the greatest setup ever.” He says the farthest he had to go was about half a mile when he resided at the Hilton hotel.
“I don’t know too many places where after games, the police are either high-fiving or telling me, ‘Hey, just hang in there’ or ‘Cut around this car,’” Francona says. “I mean it, it’s nice.”
During those short commutes, his biggest issue has been the inability to acknowledge well-wishers as he drives home.
“I hate to be rude, but people yell. I can’t take a hand off there to wave,” Francona says. “And I know people are like, ‘Oh, man, he thinks he’s hot s—t. I can’t do it.”
The backup scooter doesn’t have nearly the same power or handling and Francona says he recently had an accident when he veered for two men walking down East Fourth Street. He said he hit a hole left by a missing cobblestone and went over the handlebars.
“It’s amazing how much you can see of your life in that moment,” he says. “And it hit hard, man, and my flip flops, one’s over there and naturally the guy’s running up to me. He goes, ‘Coach, coach.’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s not me.’ And he said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry. My dinner’s laying on the (street). See if my dinner’s OK.’ But it hurt.”
There was a bit of a full-circle moment to the demise of Francona’s beloved ride and the upcoming end of his 23 years as a manager.
When he was fired from his first job in Philadelphia, where he went 285-363 from 1997-2000, the tires on his car were slashed. This time, thieves took his “hog.”
“I know, man. There’s some injustices in this world,” Francona says.