Terry Francona returns for the 2022 Cleveland Guardians

GOOD YEAR, Arizona – Terry Francona is healthy again. You can see it in Mike Barnett’s hair.

Barnett, 63, is the coordinator of the immediate reruns in Cleveland. He went back 30 years with Francona, manager of the Guardians, and arrived here this spring with pretty good hair. Then Francona got a trimmer, slipped behind Barnett into a conference room a few weeks ago, and — with a zipper — shaved a piece of Barnett’s hair.

Ricky Passion, a bullpen hunter and barber for many of the team’s players, offered to cover up the damage. But then Francona struck again.

Get out of here, Barnett told him. “Just stop.”

Knowing that the manager would not stop, Barnett surrendered and now cut himself off with an annoyed smile. He can also testify to the great joy of everyone at the Cleveland Club that Francona is still dangerously agile when wearing two shoes.

Among the fun, these shoes are not taken lightly.

For 14 months, from the end of 2020 until his first day in Arizona this spring, Francona managed to wear only one shoe. His left foot was wrapped in his boot. He was on crutches for five of those months.

The last two years have been a dizzying fog of agony and misery for Francona, a veteran manager who has been involved in so many iconic baseball moments. He was piloting Boston when the Red Sox ended his 86-year drought in the World Series in 2004. He was in the losing dugout of Cleveland when the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year drought in the World Series in 2016. He pulled the levers on during Boston’s stunning return to the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship.

But Francona’s endless summers took a break in 2020, when he was forced to take time off for most of the shortened pandemic season after an outbreak of a gastrointestinal disorder followed by a blood clotting problem. That fall, he developed gout in his big toe, which led to a staph infection. The treatment that winter was not enough and on July 29, only 99 games in the 162-game schedule, with his toes, feet and back crushed by pain, he had to leave again.

“I was embarrassed,” Francona, who turns 63 this month, said in an interview at his office this morning. “It’s difficult because I don’t take it lightly. I don’t like the idea of ​​disappointing people. Not that they can’t survive without me. I don’t mean that. But this is my responsibility. I’m embarrassed when I can’t do it right. “

After toe surgery and hip replacement last summer, Francona is returning for his 22nd managerial season – his 10th in Cleveland, where he is the most profitable manager in the club’s history. Parts of two bones of his toe and foot have been cut out. They were joined together by eight screws and a steel rod running from the toe up through the top of his leg.

It was the worst operation of his life, he said, and Francona is something of an expert here. He has four spare parts – both knees and both hips – and believes he has undergone more than 30 surgeries: 12 on each knee (“counting staph infections”) and two on each shoulder, as well as one for the thighs, left elbow, hernia, disc in the back and “numerous” injuries to the wrist, hand and fingers (“not even counting”).

He has also had poor circulation throughout his life – compression tights under his baseball pants have been his companion for years, so dense when his circulation was at its worst that it’s like trying to put on a wet suit. It was open to the treatment of blood clots.

“I have scars all the way up,” he said. “I look like a shark that attacked me.

Understand, he emphasizes: He does not complain.

“There are people who have real things to complain about,” he said. “What I have is only aggravating. This is not the end of the world. I like the fact that I can swim. “

Water is his therapy, both physical and mental. The guards installed a therapeutic pool in their original facility, called the USS Tito, specifically for him. There is one in Progressive Field in Cleveland, and Francona has one in his backyard at home in Tucson, Arizona. “Everywhere we go, I know where I can swim. It takes me a while to get going. But as long as I do this every day, I seem to be fine, “he said.

Chris Antonetti, president of Cleveland Baseball Operations, was the confidant who made Francona take another leave last summer. Their close relationship helps explain the club’s patience and willingness to work with Francona through his health challenges. Cleveland’s controlling owner, Paul Dolan, essentially said Francona could rule for as long as he wanted.

“The easy way to say this is that we have always thought we were a better organization with Tito as a leader,” Antonetti said. “I did not want to bite him, but I wanted it to be clear what our priorities are. Baseball is important, but the rest of his life is crucial. “

Sandy Alomar Jr. joined Francona two years ago, and Demarlo Hale took over last season. Hale, who returned in 2002 with Francona, became the manager’s brother. But then Francona has the ability to generate extreme loyalty.

For example, during Carl Willis’ first year as coaching coach with Francona in 2018, Cleveland had Dan Otero and Oliver Perez in the coat – “OT” and “OP” Willis heard Francona tell him to “continue” warming up in the barn during a match, but Francona wanted Perez. It was a colossal misunderstanding. The wrong pitcher came in and Cleveland lost.

“I begged him to let me talk to the team and he wouldn’t let me,” Willis said. “He said, ‘This is my responsibility. I answer, I did it. At the same time, his trust in me never wavers, our relationship never suffered, he would not look at me funny.

“I will never forget that, because it means a lot to me.”

Watching Francona suffer the pain last year, Hale said, the coaches simply did everything they could to make his life easier, such as making sure his “cane bat,” a rubber-bottomed mushroom bat, was always around.

After all, two shoes this spring are a huge step. The first time he tried to put on his 14-month-old left shoe appropriately was the first day he put on his uniform to start camp.

“It took me a while,” he said. “I still have to be very careful. But once you leave, you build a little confidence. I made myself walk around the field in the morning, just to make sure I could do it. Such things.”

The club house, which is very different this season with the player’s salary, which has been shaved to $ 36 million, seems very happy that its leader has returned – a hair trimmer in his hands or not.

“I grew up in New England and grew up as a Red Sox fan,” said pitching pitcher Aaron Sivale, of East Windsor, Connecticut. “He was this manager, which is part of the reason I fell in love with this game. Being able to play for him is really amazing. “

This feeling is reflected in the entire league, in which nearly a third of managers – a total of nine – have played for Francona at some point in their careers: David Ross (Cubs), Tori Lovulo (Diamondbacks), Gabe Kapler (Giants), Dave Roberts (Dodgers), Alex Cora (Red Sox), Rocco Baldeli (Gemini), Chris Woodward (Rangers), Kevin Cash (Race) and Mark Kotsay (A).

“I will never forget when I went there the way he approached me right away,” said Ross, who played for Francona in Boston. He said, “Hey, you’re going to fit in right here. This is a great band. Here are our plays, here are our first and third plays, have fun, have fun, feel at home. He is a very easy person to communicate with, super organized and obviously his leadership skills are out of the charts. ”

Or, as Dr. Charles Maher, Cleveland’s senior advisor on sports and performance psychology, put it: “The player doesn’t care what you know until he realizes you care. Tito is the personification of this. “

In his spring office, happy, healthy and grateful, Francona absorbs everything on the eve of another summer adventure, working to continue where he left off. His contract expires at the end of the season, and he and leaders have agreed to wait and see how his health will react before discussing an extension.

“The only thing I’m going to brag about is that I think I’ve set a record for being a good person,” he said. “I was very lucky. I know that.

“I just love doing what I do. I’m getting a big blow from this. I like the idea of ​​waking up, going to the stadium and thinking, “Okay, how are we going to find out today?” I know I don’t have the energy I used to. I know that. So I’m trying to save him. When a spring training game is over, I go home and get up. Because I want to be happy to be here. There is a compromise. But I like to do it enough where it’s worth it. “

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