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

Tim KurkjianESPN senior writerSep 27, 2023, 08:00 am ETread 9 minutes

AP Photo/Aaron Josefzik

During spring training in 2012, Terry Francona was working with ESPN. This was the year he was fired as manager of the Boston Red Sox, a year before he was hired to manage Cleveland. Tito didn’t have a very good sense of direction, so that spring, ESPN put him in my care. my sense of direction Too Terrible, but after Tito, I am Vasco da Gama. Our first night in Florida, we were assigned to stay at a Disney property called Fort Wilderness. This was not a hotel, but rather isolated log cabins in the woods – complete with bunk beds, as if we were Cub Scouts.

“I thought it was a joke,” Francona recalls, laughing. “I thought when I went in, there were some people jumping out from behind the curtain Wonder! Then take us to a real hotel. It did not happen. I called room service. The woman 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.

“Would you like to come to my cabin and cook something?” He asked.

That’s Tito Francona. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he always finds himself in the middle of something and he always comes out unscathed, usually with a laugh, often directed at himself. That’s what makes him the funniest, most generous, most down-to-earth, most lovable person I have ever met in baseball. And it’s 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 down” after the season, and his self-deprecating sense of humor, vast baseball knowledge and incredible ability to connect with all types of people are just three reasons why he will go into the Hall of Fame as a manager. . As soon as he is eligible. Francona won 1,948 games in 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, in Cleveland, Francona nearly led another team to its first World Series since 1948.

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

“You can learn a lot about a guy by watching him play something other than baseball, even cribbage,” Francona said. “You see how someone takes risks and wins, and you think, ‘I can 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 regular players, and at one time in Boston, closer Jonathan Papelbon, who had never played, asked to play for money.

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

Francona had a unique relationship with his players. They made fun of them, and vice versa. Francona and Pedroia were especially close. Francona thought ESPN’s John Clayton, the late, great Hall of Fame football writer, looked a lot like Pedroia – because they were both thin and bald. So, Tito, pretending to be Pedroia, arranged for Clayton to videotape a pep talk with the team before a big game. The entire team, including Pedroia, laughed out loud.

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

When he was finished, Francona said, “You’re from western Pennsylvania, right?”

As is, of course, Francona. Everyone present in the room started shouting – including the reporter.

Francona’s touch and feel for people was never more evident 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 hard worker and a great teammate, but he had not played baseball since high school. Francona taught him to play the game, to respect the game. They were very good friends then; They are very good friends today.

“So, one night, we got off the bus after the game, our apartment complex was right next to the basketball court,” Francona said. “People start chirping at Michael. So he grabs the four of us, the manager, the coach, the trainers and says ‘We’re playing!’ I tried to talk to him about it, but he wouldn’t listen to me. The first time down the court, I set a pick for Michael at the top of the key. He yelled at me, ‘Get out of my way, I I will not do it. It doesn’t need any special pick!’ The game went bad, and I’m in charge of Michael, I have to make sure he doesn’t get hurt. He dunked on some guy, almost tore the rim, then stood over that guy, yelling at him! I said, ‘Enough, 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 with a laugh. “Michael is the greatest basketball player of all time, and the richest man in America. And he cheated to beat me at Yahtzee because he couldn’t afford to lose. I loved managing Michael. We used to laugh a lot.”

When Francona began his managerial career in the major leagues with the dreadful Phillies in 1997, there weren’t many laughs in Philadelphia. He was given a youth team full of players, teaching them not only how to play the game, but how to play professionally. One of Francona’s favorite closers was Wayne Gomes. He was young and raw, but no one tried harder than Gomes.

“Gomasi comes into the game to try to save, he gets to the mound and he gets mustard on his jersey,” Francona said. “I said, ‘Damn it, Gomesi, you can’t come to the game with mustard on your jersey, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘Sorry, skip, when they opened the bullpen gate to let me in, a group 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 idolized. 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 father took him on a 10-day road trip, during which he spent time with players, worked out on fields, rode airplanes and buses.

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

The most fun, most educational and most entertaining 10 days My There was a spring training tour of work life camps that I took with Francona in Florida in 2012: that famous Fort Wilderness trip. Then I learned a lot about Francona, including that he is extremely punctual: If you tell him we’ll meet in the hotel lobby for dinner at 6:45 p.m., it’s guaranteed he’ll be there. Will be waiting for you at 6 o’clock. :35. We went out to dinner five nights in a row; He paid for the first four nights, against my wishes. On the fifth night, I made sure the waiter gave me the bill. Francona was not happy.

“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 that had been 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 threw it in the trash.”

During another conversation on that extension, I told him I had a dog named Tito.

Analyst Tito said, “I’m sure he’ll poop all over the house.”

Which, of course, he does.

Another day, Francona and I visited the Blue Jays camp. Pitcher Ricky Romero contacted us and told us that Toronto catcher JP Arencibia had done a Tim Kurkjian impersonation. As soon as he took over my form, all 60 Blue Jays players gathered around Arencibia, Francona and me. It was terrible; it was hilarious. Francona, always mischievous, decided to launch an aerial attack on me. He secretly taped an interview with Arencibia, pretending to be me. When Ravech, Francona and I aired our Blue Jays report that night, the taped interview with Arencibia was omitted from the broadcast, which surprised me – and horrified me. It was so bad, it was ridiculous.

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

I once asked him about his health.

“Remember,” she cautioned, “you asked.”

Francona could always play baseball. During his junior year in high school in Pennsylvania, Francona hit .769; He made nine dismissals throughout the season. In 1980, while at the University of Arizona, he won the Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation’s best college baseball player. 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 explained in detail the countless surgeries that had caused all kinds of ailments, including blood flow problems. His body and various injuries cut his sporting career short. For the past 10 to 15 years, if he doesn’t get into the pool for an early morning swim to get the blood flowing, his body can become blocked by the afternoon, making it almost impossible to move or manage. More than anything, that’s why he’s planning to retire. His body, now 64, cannot tolerate the rigors of management.

For me, he explained his last game in detail. He did this without anger or regret.

“I was in spring training with the Brewers [in 1992],” he said. “My body was breaking down, but they told me if I swung the bat well in my final exhibition game I would make the team. I scored eight runs. The last swing I took, I hit a grand slam. I could barely run around the bases, my knee cap was torn. They called me 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 go from there to my home in Tucson. I vowed then that if I ever became successful, I would handle the release of a player properly. And I’ll make sure he gets home.”

John Kuntz/ via AP

It’s the same kind of warmth and caring that has made Francona a Hall of Fame manager – and it’s his wonderful sense of humor. And in retirement, that’s how I’ll 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 his treatment of people — not just his players or his owners. He still knows the names of production assistants from his one-year stint at ESPN 12 years ago.

My last memory of Francona is the scooter he drove in Cleveland as manager of the Guardians. He lived so close to Progressive Field, he didn’t need a car. So, he bought a scooter. For a TV job I did on them, I rode around the stadium on the back of their scooter like Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunn, without the frozen snot of course.

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

Typical Tito. Great story, great lines, great timing and always ends with a laugh.

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