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Baseball's ultimate survivor: How Terry Francona shook off tears and scares to become the best

By Dave Sheinin

October 5, 2017 at 6:03 AM

Terry Francona has the Indians positioned to avenge last year’s World Series loss. (Ted S. Warren/AP/)

CLEVELAND — If you start asking Terry Francona about his health, the first thing you will get is the jokes. “I’m as healthy as ever,” he’ll often say, “for better or worse.” He’ll probably tell you that when he got his hip replaced last November, three days after his Cleveland Indians lost in the World Series, he awoke from heavy sedation and asked where the victory parade was. “I thought we’d won,” he’ll crack, and inevitably everyone around him will laugh, even though most of them have heard the line before.

Next, you will get the self-deprecation, and the fierce insistence that his recent heart troubles haven’t softened him. “If you’re asking if I’ve gained perspective — no,” he’ll tell you. “I’ve never had it, never will.” Finally, you might get the verbal shrug — the assurance that whatever it is he’s dealing with, it’s really no big deal.

“If I ever got to the point where I feel like I’m shortchanging the organization, I’d probably get out,” he said recently. “But I don’t want to. I love what I’m doing.”

As the Indians open their 2017 postseason this week, Francona, their manager, is at the height of his powers. At 58, he is widely considered the best in the game at his job, both a master tactician and a brilliant communicator. Last year, he guided the pitching-depleted Indians within a win of a World Series title, losing Game 7 in 10 innings to the Chicago Cubs. And this year, if anything, both he and the Indians have been even better, winning an American League-best 102 regular season games that included a league-record 22 straight in August and September.

“I’m having a lot fun trying to see how good we can be,” he said last month. “Even when it’s not going the way we want to, that’s what’s so special about this group — I like going through it together. It’s like, ‘Let’s figure it out together.’ ”

Related: [MLB playoff predictions: Big expectations for Indians, conflicting opinions on Nationals, Cubs]

In the process, Francona has solidified his status as the sport’s ultimate survivor — a one-time can’t-miss prospect who overcame the injury-marred flameout of his playing career to turn himself into a likely Hall of Fame manager; an old-school baseball man, his entire life from childhood on spent in professional clubhouses, who nonetheless has adapted and thrived in a game run by analytics; a two-time World Series winner in Boston who survived a rancorous divorce from the Red Sox in 2011; and a walking medical school textbook with a body full of surgical scars and titanium joints.

When the Indians begin defense of their 2016 American League pennant by hosting the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the Division Series on Thursday, and take aim at finishing the job they fell just shy of completing last fall, Francona will lean forward on that artificial hip and shuffle around on a pair of artificial knees. (If he ever gets the other hip replaced, he joked, “I’ll be the Bionic Man.”) He will be wearing a heart monitor to make sure his ticker doesn’t get out of rhythm again and compression sleeves on his legs to aid circulation.

“Some of the job is harder physically than it used to be,” Francona said. “With age and health, that’s just the reality.”

His heart episodes this summer — when he was twice rushed to the hospital with a rapid heart rate and dizziness, then underwent a nine-hour surgical procedure called cardiac ablation that forced him to miss the All-Star Game — have only increased the level of concern of Francona’s friends about his long-term health.

“We worry a lot about him,” said Bill Kinneberg, the baseball coach at the University of Utah and a former college teammate who remains one of Francona’s closest friends. “It worries me about his body, how many surgeries he’s had. We all worry about that, but in another sense, when you’re around him he’s never down. He’s always messing with somebody. It’s not as if he’s not enjoying himself.”

It is the central contradiction with Francona. The game of baseball is his life. Nobody can imagine him doing anything else. But his friends also can’t help but wonder if baseball — with its attending stresses, travel demands and general daily grind — is destroying his health.

“Everybody’s worried about him,” said Curt Schilling, who pitched for Francona at his previous stops in Philadelphia and Boston and who remains a close friend. “I think he has the right people around him, and they’re all looking out for him. The problem is, that’s not a life that’s conducive to taking care of yourself.”

*****

When Francona finally got to sleep after Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, he slept the sleep of the contented, his pride in what his Indians had accomplished winning out over regret for how it ended. It was a feeling he was unused to. In the past, postseason defeats had always left him devastated for weeks. But this time, he recalled recently, “You’re disappointed, but I was so damn proud, I think that really won over.”

In the months since, he has never really revisited the events of Game 7, a much-dissected classic in which the Indians trailed by three in the eighth inning, came back to tie it then ultimately lost in extra innings. He lived it, every single pitch. He doesn’t need a refresher.

“Once I’m ready for a game, I just do what I think is right, feel confident enough in what I’m doing, answer the questions and move on,” he said. “I’ve always felt like that. I don’t wake up to see how I’m being perceived [in the media]. I think I’m confident enough in what I’m doing that I do it, and hopefully it works. But if it doesn’t, I don’t necessarily think what I did was the wrong move. As long as I was prepared, I can live with it.”

Terry Francona nearly brought a World Series title to Cleveland last year. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images/)

The defeat last fall did nearly as much for Francona’s reputation as his two World Series titles in Boston did. He somehow squeezed an adequate number of innings out of a rotation depleted by injuries, and when he could no longer do that, he deployed his best reliever, lefty Andrew Miller, with breathtaking skill and aggressiveness — taking an axiom of the analytics movement, that your best reliever should pitch in the most important situations, and turning Miller into a devastating, multi-inning, high-leverage weapon.

The close friends who know Francona as a crusty, grizzled, old-school baseball man — a “dirtball,” as Schilling says with clear affection — get a good chuckle at his being held up as the darling of the sport’s analytics crowd. But when it comes to winning games, and using every tool at his disposal to do so, there is nothing funny, or surprising, about Francona’s skill.

“He’s a really smart guy,” Kinneberg said. “I’m convinced that, if he had applied himself to his education [in college] the way he did to baseball, he could have gone to med school. He’s that smart.”

As Schilling explained, “His goal is to win as many baseball games as possible. He doesn’t care how he does it.”

It’s no coincidence Francona has thrived in two of the most data-driven front offices in the game, the Red Sox of the 2000s and the Indians of the 2010s.

“He’s an extremely open-minded person,” Indians General Manager Mike Chernoff said. “He doesn’t just accept information; he embraces it. And he’s always been a relationship builder. That’s what allows him to learn and adapt. He welcomes the analytics guy who has just discovered something in the numbers into his office just as quickly as he welcomes the old-school scout who has something to tell him.

He prepares for games better than anyone. He crushes information. He then manages off his experience and his preparation. That’s the gold standard for a manager.”

To his players, Francona’s best attribute isn’t his ability to put faceless, analytics-based concepts into practice, but his ability to connect with them on a personal level. He may appreciate what the numbers are saying, but he never forgets that within each uniform is a beating heart that requires its own individually tailored care.

“He’s good at empowering people — putting them in good spots and encouraging people in different ways,” said Miller. “He likes the shtick of playing dumb, but he’s clearly not. And the fact he embraces some of the analytical stuff shows he’s a really smart guy and that he’s open to ideas. But what he does [for players] on a one-on-one level is huge.”

*****

Until this summer, Francona had endured only one extended, in-season stretch of time without baseball in his adult life. In 1990, he had retired as a player after 10 mostly unmemorable seasons. He had come into pro ball as a highly touted prospect — the son of former big leaguer Tito Francona (whose first name would become Terry’s ubiquitous nickname), the Sporting News collegiate player of the year and a first-round pick of the Montreal Expos in 1980. But major knee injuries cut short his most promising seasons and the second half of his career was spent mostly as a utility player.

That summer, he decided to try to get his realtor’s license, enrolling in classes and envisioning a life spent selling houses in suburban Philadelphia. Then, out of the blue, a former teammate, Buddy Bell, called and asked if Francona would be interested in coaching in the White Sox organization. Francona ditched the real estate classes and jumped back into the arms of baseball.

“Nobody was going to buy a house from me anyway,” he has often said.

Within six years of starting his coaching career, in 1997, he was named the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, his natural skills as a communicator carrying him up through the ranks — his minor league managing career highlighted by a stint managing Michael Jordan with the Class AA Birmingham Barons — with stunning swiftness.

“He’s just a great leader, and what a great leader does is make people want to perform at their best for him,” said Schilling, the starting pitcher in Francona’s first game as the Phillies’ manager. “I’ve played for others I didn’t like. I didn’t stop trying. But with a great leader, it’s a different mentality. He’s always been able to make that connection with his players. You know he cares. He’ll take a bullet for you in the media or with ownership.”

This summer’s heart episodes kept him out a total of 11 days, but it was hardly his closest brush with death. In 2002, complications from knee surgery produced a staph infection, massive internal bleeding and a pulmonary embolism on each side of his lungs.

“I could have died,” Francona said. “I stopped breathing a couple of times.”

Before going in July 7 for his cardiac ablation procedure, in which a tube is inserted through a vein in the leg and heat and radio waves are applied to the heart to jolt it back into rhythm, Francona texted Kinneberg, his close friend, to inform him. When Kinneberg immediately called Francona, the latter naturally downplayed it. “Just going in for a little procedure,” he said, “that’s all.”

But while a little heart procedure may have been no big deal to Francona, at least not to the extent that he let on, it was a major concern for his employers and his players. The front office was forceful in getting him to accept its conservative timetable to return to the dugout, which he did on July 14, in the second-half opener. And the players walked the fine line between expressing their concern and staying out of his business.

“Actually, [the front office] wanted us to leave him alone, because talking to him about his health just stressed him out,” Miller said. “There was a level of concern because he’s such a big part of this team. But honestly, guys were more concerned just for his well-being, on a personal level. The guys who have gotten to know him, we love him and we want him to be healthy.”

It may seem paradoxical, but even in the midst of Francona’s most challenging season from a health standpoint, he has never seemed happier, or more alive. During the Indians’ 22-game winning streak, what stood out, aside from how well the Indians were playing, was how sharp and engaged Francona was — his mood uniformly sunny, his self-deprecation game at full strength, his barbs landing with extra force.

At one point, as the win streak zoomed past 20, he made a crack about a good friend he has dubbed the “Gray Cloud” who isn’t allowed to call him — because of Francona’s superstition and the Gray Cloud’s unlucky powers. But even with the streak still alive, Francona was feeling good enough to break the ban and call the friend, whom he eventually identified as Kinneberg, himself.

It wasn’t like Francona to test the Gray Cloud’s dark powers — “You sure you want to do this?” Kinneberg asked him — but perhaps that is another sign of the good, happy, healthy place Francona finds himself these days, in mind and spirit if not in body. Things are going so well for Francona and the Indians, he has even seemed — dare we say? — capable of introspection.

“I love the journey,” he said last month, as the Indians began to look ahead to October. “Only one team can win. It’s really hard to win. So I hate to wait till it’s over to say, ‘Oh, that was cool.’ I love what we’re doing right now.”

Read more on MLB:

The true, complete story of how the Nationals fixed baseball’s worst bullpen in two trades

The AL wild card game had lots of relievers, homers and strikeouts. Get used to it.

MLB playoffs start with a bang as Yankees win frenetic AL wild-card game

In MLB playoff format, ‘Sometimes those off days can be tough on good teams’


Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.

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