As Francona prepares to say goodbye, a tribute to his humor and humanity

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During spring training in 2012, Terry Francona was working with ESPN. It was the year after he was fired as manager of the Boston Red Sox, a year before he was hired to manage Cleveland. Tito has a terrible sense of direction, so that spring, ESPN placed him in my care. My sense of direction is also horrible, but next to Tito, I am Vasco da Gama. Our first night in Florida, we were assigned to stay at a Disney property called Fort Wilderness. It wasn’t a hotel, but individual log cabins in the woods — complete with bunk beds, as if we were Cub Scouts.

“I thought it was a joke,” Francona remembers, laughing. “I thought when I walked in, a bunch of people were going to jump out from behind a curtain, say Surprise! then move us to a real hotel. It didn’t happen. I called room service. The lady at the front desk said, ‘Sir, at Camp Wilderness, room service is the Coke machine you saw when you checked in.'”

Ten minutes after we arrived, Tito called me.

“Do you want to come over to my cabin and make some s’mores?” he asked.

That is Tito Francona. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he always finds himself in the middle of something and he always emerges unscathed, usually with a laugh, often directed at himself. That’s what makes him the funniest, most generous, most grounded, most beloved person that I’ve ever met in baseball. And it is sad for the game, and bad for the game, that this is expected to be Francona’s last week as a major league manager.

Today, the Guardians are honoring Francona with a video tribute, “Thank You, Tito” T-shirts and ticket deals for their last home game of the season. Francona is “expected to step away” after the season, and his self-deprecating sense of humor, vast baseball knowledge and incredible ability to connect with people of all kinds are just three reasons that he will go into the Hall of Fame as a manager as soon as he is eligible. Francona has won 1,948 games over 23 years managing the Philadelphia Phillies, Red Sox and Indians/Guardians. In 2004, he won Boston’s first world championship since 1918. His Red Sox won another World Series in 2007. In 2016, then in Cleveland, Francona nearly led another team to its first World Series since 1948.

His approach to managing is simple: Treat all his players with respect, make them all feel important, talk to them, relate to them. Ask them for their best and you will get their best. Francona’s preparation and observant nature are unmatched, and his preparation for every game, and every day, began with a game of cribbage. He often played with his players, which is highly unusual.

“You can learn a lot about a guy watching a guy play something other than baseball, even cribbage,” Francona said. “You see how someone takes a risk and wins, and you think, ‘I might be able to trust him in the ninth inning.’ I played for fun, but I also learned about my players.”

Dustin Pedroia and Josh Tomlin were among his regulars, and at one point in Boston, closer Jonathan Papelbon, who had never played, asked to play for money.

With his winnings, Francona said, “Pap built me a finished basement in my house.”

Francona had a unique relationship with his players. He poked fun at them, and vice versa. Francona and Pedroia were especially close. Francona thought that ESPN’s John Clayton, the late, great Hall of Fame football writer, looked like Pedroia — because they were both thin and balding. So, Tito arranged to have Clayton, pretending to be Pedroia, videotape a pep talk to the team before a big game. The whole team, including Pedroia, exploded in laughter.

There were so many laughs, and victories, in eight years in Boston. And yet if anything did go wrong with his team or one of his players, Francona was the first to confront the problem. No one could take a tense, stressful situation and smooth it over better than Francona. One night, a Japanese reporter, in a packed interview room after a difficult loss at Fenway, tried to ask a question in English about Daisuke Matsuzaka but struggled to find the right words.

When he was done, Francona said, “You’re from Western Pennsylvania, aren’t you?”

As, of course, is Francona. Everyone in the room howled — including the reporter.

Francona’s touch and feel for people was never more apparent than when he managed the Birmingham Barons in 1994 — the year Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, played baseball. It was a difficult task for everyone, including Francona. Jordan was a diligent worker and a great teammate, but he hadn’t played baseball since high school. Francona taught him to play the game, to respect the game. They were great friends then; they are great friends today.

“So, one night, we get off the bus after a game, our apartment complex was right next to a basketball court,” Francona said. “The guys start chirping at Michael. So he grabs four of us, manager, coaches, trainers, and says ‘We’re playing!’ I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t listen. First time down the court, I set a pick for Michael at the top of the key. He screamed at me, ‘Get out of my way, I don’t need any damn pick!’ The game got chippy, and I’m in charge of Michael, I have to make sure he doesn’t get hurt. He dunked on some guy, nearly tore down the rim, then stood over the guy, screaming at him! I said, ‘That’s it, the game is over!'”

Francona played Yahtzee with Jordan on every bus trip — for money.

“Here I am making $29,000 a year as a Double-A manager,” Francona said, laughing. “Michael is the greatest basketball player, and the richest man in America. And he cheated to beat me at Yahtzee because he couldn’t bear to lose. I loved managing Michael. We had so many laughs.”

There weren’t many laughs in Philadelphia when Francona began his managerial career in the major leagues with the awful Phillies in 1997. He was given a young team full of players he had to teach not only how to play the game, but how to be professionals. One of Francona’s favorites was closer Wayne Gomes. He was young and raw, but no one tried harder than Gomes.

“Gomesy comes into a game to try to get a save, he gets to the mound and he’s got mustard all over his jersey,” Francona said. “I said, ‘Damn it, Gomesy, you can’t come into a game with mustard on your jersey, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘Sorry, Skip, when they opened the bullpen gate for me to go in, a bunch of fans threw hot dogs at me.'”

Years later, telling that story, Francona paused and said, “And we were at home!

Francona’s sense of humor and his ability to connect with people, and the game, came from his late father, Tito, whom he worshiped. Tito, a left-handed-hitting outfielder/first baseman, was a career .272 hitter in 15 major league seasons with nine teams. When Terry Francona was 10 years old, his dad took him on a 10-day road trip, during which he hung out with the players, worked out on the fields, rode the planes and buses.

“Those were the greatest 10 days of my life,” Terry Francona said, “because I was with my dad.”

The funniest, most educational and most entertaining 10 days of my work life was the spring training tour of camps that I took with Francona in Florida in 2012: that famed Fort Wilderness trip. It was then that I learned so much more about Francona, including that he is exceedingly punctual: If you tell him that we will meet in the hotel lobby at 6:45 p.m. for dinner, it’s guaranteed that he will be waiting for you at 6:35. We went out to dinner five nights in a row; he paid the first four nights, against my wishes. The fifth night, I made sure that the waiter gave the bill to me. Francona wasn’t pleased.

“I always pay for dinner,” he said. “I have to. It’s what I do.”

One day that spring, he had to do a TV report for ESPN on the Yankees, a team he had just engaged in epic battles for the previous eight years.

“I forgot my suit,” Tito said, “so I had to go to Today’s Man to buy a suit. It cost $89. And it was a pinstripe suit! When the day was over, I just threw it in the trash can.”

During another conversation over that stretch, I told him that I have a dog named Tito.

“I bet he poops all over the house,” Tito, the analyst, said.

Which, of course, he does.

Yet another day, Francona and I visited the Blue Jays camp. Pitcher Ricky Romero approached us and told us that Toronto catcher J.P. Arencibia did a Tim Kurkjian impersonation. All 60 Blue Jays players gathered around Arencibia, Francona and me as he impersonated me. It was awful; it was hilarious. Francona, ever mischievous, decided to ambush me on the air. He secretly taped an interview with Arencibia, who was pretending to be me. When [Karl] Ravech, Francona and I did our Blue Jays report on the air that night, the taped interview with Arencibia was dropped in the broadcast to my surprise — and my horror. It was so bad, it was funny.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Francona said on the air. “I’m laughing too hard!”

I once asked him about his health.

“Remember,” he warned, “you asked.”

Francona could always play baseball. During his junior year in high school in Pennsylvania, Francona hit .769; he made nine outs all season. In 1980, at the University of Arizona, he won the Golden Spikes Award, given to the best college baseball player in the country. His major league career included a promising start; he batted .321 as a part-time player with Montreal in 1982. Then the injuries started.

That day I asked, Francona detailed countless surgeries which had led to all sorts of ailments, including blood flow issues. His body, and all the injuries, cut his playing career short. For the past 10 to 15 years, if he doesn’t get in the pool early in the morning to swim, to get the blood moving, his body might lock up by midafternoon, making it virtually impossible to move, or to manage. That, more than anything, is why he is planning to retire. His body, now 64 years old, simply can’t take the rigors of managing.

To me, he detailed his final game. He did so without anger or regret.

“I was in spring training with the Brewers [in 1992],” he said. “My body was falling apart, but they told me that I would make the team if I swung the bat well in our final exhibition game. I drove in eight runs. The final swing I took, I hit a grand slam. I could barely run around the bases, my kneecap was broken. They called me in after the game and told me they were releasing me. They sent me home, but they didn’t even send me back to Tucson. They sent me to Phoenix. I had to get from there to my house in Tucson. I swore then if I ever managed, I would handle the release of a player properly. And I’d make sure he got home.”

It is that sort of warmth and care that have made Francona a Hall of Fame manager — that and his wonderful sense of humor. And in retirement, that’s how I will remember Francona. Not for the nearly 2,000 wins, or the two world championships in Boston, and nearly a third in Cleveland, but for his laugh and the way he treated people — not just his players or his bosses. He still knows the names of production assistants from one year at ESPN 12 years ago.

My final fond memory of Francona will be the scooter that he drove around Cleveland as the Guardians’ manager. He lived so close to Progressive Field, he didn’t need a car. So, he bought a scooter. For a TV piece I did on him, I rode around the inside of the stadium on the back of his scooter, like Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, just without the frozen snot.

Tito looked the camera and said, “Now this really is ‘Dumb and Dumber.'”

Typical Tito. The best story, the best line, the perfect timing, and always finishing with a laugh.



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