CLEVELAND: Terry Francona has two artificial knees.
He survived a serious health scare in 2003 that kept him in intensive care for six weeks and even now might make him feel like an old 53.
“I had a pulmonary embolism, I had staph infections, I had some compartment bleeding. You name it, I had it,” Francona said. “It aged me.”
So did the 2011 season in Boston, which ended with a September collapse that led to his firing even though he had managed the Red Sox to two World Series championships and five playoff appearances in eight years. Now he realizes the forced sabbatical, spent working as an analyst for ESPN, was needed.
“It was an important year,” he said. “I thought I lost a little bit of perspective. Taking a year [to step] back, it’s not easy to accept that you need to, but I think it was healthy for me. To do this job and do it correctly you’ve got to be all in all the time. I think I was showing some signs of wear and tear.”
By the time Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti called and asked him to interview to become the Tribe’s 42nd manager, those signs were long gone. When Antonetti and Francona talked Friday, Francona told his friend he was “all in.” On Saturday, they completed a four-year deal, with Francona chosen over bench coach and interim manager Sandy Alomar, who had replaced Manny Acta with six games remaining. On Monday, Francona was introduced.
History in Cleveland
Francona worked in the Indians’ front office as an adviser in 2001. He also spent a portion of the 1988 season on the Indians’ major-league roster.
He begins an emotional journey in the city where his father Tito played from 1959-64. The elder Francona, who spent 15 years in the majors, hit .363 in 1959, led the American League with 36 doubles in 1960 and was an All-Star in 1961.
Calling to tell his father the contract was signed, Francona said he got choked up.
“I kind of cried a little bit,” Francona admitted. “I didn’t want to, but it just happened. You can’t take a job because your dad was a good Indian. But it’s still a good story.”
Tito Francona and his second wife, Jean, drove 90 miles from their home in New Brighton, Pa., for the news conference. Sharply dressed in a navy pinstriped suit, Tito, 78, never took his eyes off his son as he watched from the back of the room.
“I didn’t want him to make any mistakes,” Tito said.
Tito said he always considered the Indians “my home team.” So when Terry told him he was interviewing, Tito said his reaction was, “Stop right there.”
“I didn’t want to get my hopes up, not until he had his name on that line,” Tito said. “I lost a lot of sleep over this.”
His son didn’t. He made up his mind if the Indians picked Alomar, he would stay at ESPN and told his bosses at the network.
Itching to return
But after serving as a manager for 12 years, four with the Philadelphia Phillies, Francona desperately missed the game. He realized that on his first spring training assignment, which sent him to Florida on an ESPN bus with Tim Kurkjian to interview four or five managers.
“Tim Kurkjian said, ‘Ready?’ and I said, ‘For what?’ ” Francona said. “He goes, ‘We’ve got to go in the clubhouse.’ It hit me. He goes, ‘You need to do this.’ I spent a week with Tim and he was like my baby sitter.
“It was still hard to walk into the clubhouse because the clubhouse was my home. Now I’ve got a tie on and I’m a visitor.”
Francona said he learned a lot at ESPN and made many friends. He talked with former Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden about burnout. But as the year went on, he found it increasingly difficult when he ran into those he knew in clubhouses across America.
Taking care of Terry
Francona was bursting with energy on his first day but vowed not to neglect his health. He takes blood thinners, and said if he’s hit by a foul ball, he’ll be bruised for a while. He might sit down to watch the last group of hitters during batting practice. He swims about a mile every day, a non-weight bearing exercise his knees can handle.
“If I do that, I can go throw BP. I can be a working coach, which I want to be,” he said.
Together as a Tribe
But it sounds as if Francona will also be the Indians’ psychologist. He wants his players to “care about each other fiercely” and will strive to build loyalty.
“I’ve been on some teams where there might be some carefree and loose guys, but once the game started, they had each other’s backs,” Francona said. “That’s special. You’ve got to fight to get to it, it doesn’t happen. But when you get to it, it’s unbelievable.”
Francona is well aware of the challenge he is accepting. But he returned to managing because he likes building something special as much as he likes celebrating it.
“When you can see guys jump on a pile, that’s the ultimate feeling because you see guys who have fought through so much. You see all the pure joy,” he said. “But about 10 minutes later, I’m like, ‘What’s next?’ The journey, I like that part of it.”
Given the obstacles the Indians face, Francona’s journey may take longer than expected. But Monday at Progressive Field, the promise of joy was unmistakable.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.