How big of a deal is Terry Francona in Cleveland?
Well, here’s one for you: After the Guardians’ 2-1 win over the Rays in the playoff opener last Friday, he was riding his scooter from Progressive Field to his nearby home in the downtown Fourth Street.
Francona uses the scooter a lot, even in the bowels of a stadium, as he is still recovering from foot issues that sidelined him for large chunks of the 2020 and 21 seasons. He also had an ice pack on the ankle as he rode, so he was trying to concentrate on his route when the weirdest thing happened.
He almost got flashed.
Good. Kind of.
In the post-match hub-bub, a woman walking out of the stadium was so thrilled to meet the Guardians manager that she shouted: “You’re the best!” and started to lift his shirt.
“I’m like, hey, man, I don’t want to…I don’t want this to be filmed!” Francona called back the next day.
What the woman wanted to reveal was what was under that shirt – another shirt, this one with a picture of none other than Terry Francona. “In Tito We Trust” was also inscribed there.
“But I didn’t know that,” Francona said, in the wry manner that defined so many October press rallies.
The wife, a high school softball coach named Lacey Reichert, later said on Twitter, “I set it up by saying, ‘I’m not flashing you. ”
Then yes. Francona is pretty big in northeast Ohio, and should be, because he’s been a pretty big figure in the sport for the better part of two decades, a fixture in the managerial firmament, and a likely member of Cooperstown every time he left the dugout for good, though he never ended Cleveland’s championship drought that stretched into 1948.
He also has was one of the great Yankee foils of Octobera role he was destined to fill as skipper of the 2004 Red Sox anyway, but supported by winning another title in Boston in 2007 and then pushing and keeping the Guardians relevant since appearing at the Progressive Field in 2013.
You can trace that back to the postgame postmortem 18 years ago after Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS. The Yankees had just beaten the Sox 19-8 to take a 3-0 lead in the series. The room was silent; would Francona’s mood be funereal? Beaten down? Angry? Beaten?
It was none of that.
“All we have to do,” Francona said, sounding as jagged as the first day of spring training, “is win one game tomorrow, not four. Win one game, then worry about the game after that.
It wasn’t exactly stolen from the Rockne collection, but the Sox embraced that mantra and… well, we all know what happened from there.
What makes Francona’s career so intriguing is how different her situations have been. The Sox were a veteran-laden ball club, much of the team’s foundation before Francona arrived. Francona knew enough to let these Sox find their way, and they did. Twice.
Cleveland is a totally different universe. The Sox of the early and mid-2000s clashed with the Yankees racking up star power, flexing their big market muscles. Guardians don’t pretend who they are. Once in a while they can persuade a star like Jose Ramirez to stay long-term, but mostly it’s a place where writing and development is key.
“Baseball is still just baseball,” Francona says, dismissing the idea that dealing with geezers and kids is vastly different, but even he admits things have to be approached differently in baseball Mayberry: More cajoling , more confidence, more education, more practical advice.
“We tried to balance teaching; not hitting them on the head when they make a mistake, but trying to teach,” Francona said. “We asked them to allow us to do it, and they were great about it. There are a lot of good things, but when you say something to them once, they understand. It really helps.
Of course they get it. They know who is talking. There was some concern that Francona’s health issues might force him out of the game but he returned this year, the Guardians stayed above sea level for a few months then took it upon themselves to take over AL Central in September.
They may end up being a bit short against the Yankees. But it won’t be for lack of preparation, and it won’t be because they were overwhelmed. Since doing a four-year apprenticeship with terrible Phillies teams, Francona has won 57% of the games he has coached. Cleveland will be fine as long as he’s here. Baseball too.