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Tales from Tito: Road trip with dad and a bat-selling 'Ponzi scheme'

By Marla Ridenour Published: June 15, 2014

Tito Francona, father of Indians’ manager Terry Francona, played his final major league season in 1970 with the Milwaukee Brewers. At that time families didn’t travel with players during the season, but Tito Francona asked Brewers manager Dave Bristol if he could take 11½-year-old Terry on a 10-day road trip to Chicago, Kansas City and Minnesota.

The “crusty” Bristol said yes, knowing the elder Francona was facing retirement.

“Mom bought me a sport coat and tie, dressed me up,” Francona remembered Saturday before the Indians’ game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. “Al Downing, he came and got me on the plane and said, ‘Sit with me.’ Al Downing is one of my favorite players of all-time. He was traded with my dad from Oakland to Milwaukee and Al was that guy who liked to look out for an 11-year-old kid. When I see Al now we laugh like (heck). He’s letting me sit next to him on the plane. Do you know what that meant to an 11-year-old?”

Because Major League Baseball didn’t allow children on the field, Francona said the Brewers dressed him up in the smallest uniform they could find and put tape around him so he could go out on the diamond. But he had to watch the games from the stands.

The game Francona remembers most came in Minnesota, when Bert Blyleven gave up two runs.

“On the bus on the way home my dad was like, ‘What did you think?’ I said, ‘Dad, he’s got the best curve ball I’ve ever seen,’” Francona said. “To this day he remembers that. He said, ‘From that day on, I knew you were watching.’ Most kids are like ‘What’s going on over there?’ I was watching his breaking ball.”

One of Francona’s funniest moments came when he was 6 or 7 and Tito Francona was playing for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1965 and ‘66.

“My dad didn’t play very much,” Francona said. “They had Orlando Cepeda at first, they were loaded.

“We were in the car -- Ray Washburn and his wife and some kids, Bob Skinner and his kids -- we were going to see the arch. They had just erected the arch. It came on the radio that Orlando Cepeda had been hit in the eye playing pepper and his eye swelled shut. I was like, ‘Yesssss!’ My mom was devastated. I said, ‘Dad’s going to play tonight!’ She said, ‘What the (heck’s) wrong with you?’”

Francona put his father in a tough spot during that final season in Milwaukee when Francona saw the bat boy hand a kid a broken bat and the kid gave him $2.

“Something clicked,” Francona said. “The kid said, ‘Can you get me a bat?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ So I come in with $20 and my dad’s like, ‘Where’d you get 20 bucks?’ I said, ‘The bat boy gave that guy … so I sold him some bats.’ I had sold three of the guys’ gamers. You try having your dad explain that. You talk about getting a thrashing; I got the thrashing of a lifetime. It was like a Ponzi scheme.

“That was probably the most I ever got yelled at. Inside my dad was probably laughing. It was time to explain to some of the players, ‘Your bats are gone. My kid sold ‘em.’”

 

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