GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Terry Francona is healthy again. You can see it in Mike Barnett’s hair.
Barnett, 63, is Cleveland’s instant-replay coordinator. He went back 30 years with Francona, the manager of the Guardians, and came here this spring with a fine head of hair. Francona then got a trimmer, slipped behind Barnett in a conference room a few weeks ago and – zip – shaved off a patch of Barnett’s hair.
Ricky Pacione, a bullpen catcher and barber to many of the team’s players, offered to hide the injury. But Francona struck again.
“Get out of here,” Barnett told him. “Just, stop that.”
Knowing the manager wouldn’t stop, Barnett surrendered and is now playing a buzz cut with an angry smile. He can also testify, to everyone’s delight at the Cleveland clubhouse, that Francona is still dangerously mobile when wearing two shoes.
Amidst the fun, such shoes are not underestimated.
For 14 months, from late 2020 until her first day in Arizona this spring, Francona wore only one shoe. His left foot was wrapped in the walking boot. He climbed for five of those months.
The past two years have been a confusing blur of pain and grief for Francona, a veteran manager who has portrayed many iconic baseball moments. He was piloting in Boston when the Red Sox ended their 86-year drought in the World Series in 2004. He was in the lost dugout in Cleveland when the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year drought in the World Series last year. 2016. He pulled the levers during Boston’s stunning return against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series.
But Francona’s endless summer continued into hiatus in 2020, when she was forced to leave most of the shortened pandemic period after a gastrointestinal illness erupted, followed by an issue of blood clotting. That fall, he developed gout in the groin of his left foot, which led to a staph infection. The treatment that winter wasn’t enough, and on July 29, just 99 games into the 162 -game schedule, with his toe, leg and back sore, he had to leave again.
“I’m embarrassed,” Francona, who turned 63 later this month, said during an interview in her office one morning this spring. “It’s hard because I don’t care. I don’t like the idea of letting people down. Not that they can’t live without me. That’s not what I intended. But this is my responsibility. I wouldn’t be comfortable if I couldn’t do it right. ”
After toe and hip replacement surgery last summer, Francona is back for his 22nd season in the manager’s seat-his 10th in Cleveland, where he is the most winning manager in history. at the club. Parts of two bones in his toe and foot were removed. They are joined together by eight screws and an iron rod that runs from the toe to the tip of his foot.
It was the most difficult operation of her life, she said, and Francona is an expert here. He has four alternate parts – two knees and two thighs – and it is estimated that he survived well in 30 surgeries: 12 on each knee (“counting staph infections”) and two on each shoulder, as well as for his hip, left elbow, a hernia, a disc in his back and “multiple” injuries to his wrist, hand and finger (“I don’t even count that”).
He also has a lifetime of poor circulation – compression tights under his baseball pants have been his companion for years, so thick when his circulation is at its worst it’s like trying to sweat. wear a wet suit. He was operated on to treat blood clots.
“I have scars up to the height,” he said. “I feel like he’s attacking me.”
Understand, he emphasizes: He’s not complaining.
“There are people who have real things to complain about,” he said. “What I have is just getting worse. This is not the end of the world. The fact that I can swim, I love it. ”
Water is his therapy, physical and mental. The Guards set up a therapeutic pool at their spring facility, named “USS Tito,” especially for him. There’s also one at Progressive Field in Cleveland, and Francona has one behind her home in Tucson, Ariz. I need a moment to move on. But as long as I do it every day, I feel OK, ”he said.
Chris Antonetti, president of baseball operations in Cleveland, was the confidant who talked to Francona about taking another vacation last summer. Their close relationship helped explain the club’s patience and willingness to work with Francona on her health challenges. Cleveland’s controlling owner, Paul Dolan, actually said Francona could manage as long as he wanted.
“The quick way to say it is, we always thought we were a better organization with Tito as a leader,” Antonetti said. “I don’t want to upset him, but I want it to be clear what our priorities are. Baseball is important, but the rest of his life is the most important. ”
Sandy Alomar Jr. entered Francona’s job two summers ago, and DeMarlo Hale took over last season. Hale, who returned in 2002 with Francona, became like a brother to the manager. But then, Francona has the skill to produce extreme loyalty.
For example, in Carl Willis ’first year as pitching coach with Francona in 2018, Cleveland had Dan Otero and Oliver Perez in the bullpen-“ OT ”and“ OP ”Willis heard Francona tell him to“ OT ”to heat the pen. during a match, but Francona wanted Perez. This is a huge misunderstanding. Wrong pitcher came in and Cleveland lost.
“I asked him to let me speak to the team, and he wouldn’t allow it,” Willis said. “He said, ‘It’s my responsibility. I’m in charge, I do it. ‘ At the same time, his trust in me was unchanging, our relationship never suffered, no one gave me funny looks.
“I’ll never forget that, because it’s important to me.”
Looking at the pain Francona endured last year, Hale said, the coaches simply did what they could to make her life easier, such as making sure her “cane” – a fungo bat that formed with rubber bottom – always nearby.
After that, two shoes this spring is a big step up. The first time he tried to wear his left shoe in 14 months, right, was the first day he wore his uniform at the start of camp.
“I was late,” he said. “And I still have to be careful. But once I get walking, you can build a little confidence. I made myself walk around the outfield in the mornings to make sure I could do it. Things like that. ”
The clubhouse, which is so different nowadays that the player’s salary has been slashed to $ 36 million, appears to be very happy that its leader is back – haircuts in his hands or not.
“I grew up in New England and grew up a Red Sox fan,” said starting pitcher Aaron Civale, who is from East Windsor, Conn. Being able to play for him is absolutely unbelievable. ”
That sentiment is echoed in a league where nearly one -third of managers – nine in total – have played for Francona at some point in their careers: David Ross (Cubs), Torey Lovullo (Diamondbacks), Gabe Kapler (Giants), Dave Roberts (Dodgers), Alex Cora (Red Sox), Rocco Baldelli (Twins), Chris Woodward (Rangers), Kevin Cash (Rays) and Mark Kotsay (A’s).
“I’ll never forget when I got there, the way he talked to me right away,” said Ross, who played for Francona in Boston. “He was like, ‘Hey, you fit in here. This is a great group. Here are our bunt plays, here are our first-and-third games, having fun, having fun with yourself, feeling at home. ‘ He’s a quick person to get along with, super organized, and obviously his leadership skills aren’t on the charts.
Or, as Dr. Charles Maher, Cleveland’s senior adviser for sport and performance psychology, “A player won’t pay attention to what you know until he or she knows you care. Titus is an example of that. ”
In her office in the spring, a happy, healthy and grateful Francona soaks it up on the eve of another summer adventure, working to keep up where she left off. His contract expires after the season, and he and brass have agreed to wait and see what the response to his health will be before discussing an extension.
“One thing I can be proud of is, I think I’ve set the record for interacting with good people,” he said. “I am very lucky. I know that.
“I just love what I do. I got a big kick out of that. I love the idea of waking up, going to the ballpark and thinking, ‘OK, how are we going to think about this now?’ I knew I was no longer with the energy I used to have. I know that. So I tried to save it. When the spring training game is over, I’ll go home right away and get up. Because I want to enjoy here. There is a trade-off. But I like to do it where it’s worth it.