Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Baseball is Life for Terry Francona

I miss Terry Francona and this isn't me trying to take a shot at John Farrell. He is just one of those great baseball guys and he just so happened to lead the Red Sox to two World Series titles. The book he wrote with Dan Shaughnessy is one of the most underrated baseball books ever written. The book's release was overshadowed by the chicken and beer season and Francona's departure from the Red Sox. The book addressed those issues but the greatness of the book is about Francona's life. It is a must read for every baseball fan.

Wright Thompson, one of my favorite writers, just wrote a great piece on the Indians and their remarkable winning streak. The best part of his piece was about Francona. Francona talks about meeting Ted Williams as a kid, how baseball dominates his life and addresses a quote about his life from Theo Epstein. It is incredible. Below is that excerpt. You can find the full article here.

DOWN THE HALL, Francona sits in his office behind a huge framed picture of himself as a child, in the Indians dugout with his dad. He is, perhaps more than anyone else in the game, a creation of this weird, subterranean clubhouse world. "I'm probably more comfortable here than I am anywhere," he says, gesturing around at the concrete walls. "I think I have an advantage because I grew up here."

Some of his earliest memories are from clubhouses.

His father, the original Tito Francona, played for nine teams, including six seasons with Cleveland. Young Terry once walked across a field before a game to shake Ted Williams' hand. "Mr. Williams," he said, "I'm Mr. Francona's son, and he wanted me to come over and say hello."

Williams grinned at the boy.

"Well, you are a great-looking kid!" he replied. "Now I want to know one thing, young man. Can you hit?"

Francona saw how his father's friends treated each other and the game, and every lesson he got about how a man behaved was taught by ballplayers. His humor, his ethics, his personal code -- all shaped inside a stadium. As an 11-year-old, Francona got to go with his dad on a three-city road trip, through Minnesota, Chicago and Kansas City, riding the planes and buses, hearing the dirty jokes and lining his pockets with free clubhouse candy. His mom sent him off with combed hair and a sport coat and got back a road-busted mess of a kid, who loved every minute.

"It was probably the 10 funnest days of my life," Francona says during the streak.

So he's been happy these past weeks, not because he's managing a team into the history books but because he's been at a baseball stadium. Sitting in his office, which was exactly 68 degrees, he brings up something his old boss Theo Epstein once said about him. "He loves the game," Epstein told Boston Globe baseball writer Dan Shaughnessy. "He physically loves the clubhouse. Emotionally, I think he loves to let go of the outside world. Some people compartmentalize the job. Tito compartmentalizes the real world and throws himself into the clubhouse. He loves every aspect of the clubhouse."

Francona smiles at the insight.

"I remember when I read that," Francona says. "I was like, damn. I obviously know Theo was smart, but if I was going to be candid, that's pretty damned close. To me, this is probably my real world. I admit that."

The clubhouse cost him a marriage and his health, and he can't count the nights he's spent on a couch in a stadium, curled up beneath a blanket, alone. In his office in Cleveland, there's a red and blue Indians-colored afghan that clearly looks as if it's for more than decoration. Most days, he gets to his office early, not because he's a hard worker, he says, but because he feels at home. Watching a stadium wake up makes him happy. Sitting in an empty cathedral like Fenway or Wrigley calms him; the present and past combine, the things he sees and the things he remembers washing over him together. He liked the way the boards creaked at the old Yankee Stadium because Babe Ruth probably heard that same noise. Even now, he enjoys hotel lobbies, because he'd hang out there when visiting his dad on the road, giving his old man space to sleep in and get ready for the game.

He will, when asked, cop to at least one superstition.

There's a friend, whom he has nicknamed Gray Cloud, who's always brought bad luck.

"I will not talk to him," Francona says. "He is text only. He's cost me one job, he's not getting in the way again."

Simplicity is the primary goal when he's constructing his existence. In Boston, he even spent most seasons living in a hotel. For Francona, every day is the same, down to the number of water bottles he lines up in the dugout, and the hourlong swim he takes and the cribbage game he organizes. "I have a car here that I use about three times a year," he says. "I got a little moped. I take it everywhere downtown. I know all the police. It's Cleveland. After games, I'll go down the one-way and they're like, 'Hey, good game.'"

He points out his office door.

"It's parked right here in the hallway."

He played 10 seasons in the big leagues and jokes to his players about what a lousy career he had. But he played through severe injury and pain, a grinder who understands the hopes all players bring with them into the clubhouse. He understands doubt and fear and ego and swagger, and what internal problem each of those things is an attempt to solve. During the streak, as more reporters arrive every day in the small interview room to talk about the streak, he's more interested in finding out why the Browns released Pro Bowler Joe Haden, refusing to engage in record-chasing narratives, talking about how a season is fluid and how only today exists. He smiles and sighs when people keep asking questions, as if they think he's spinning them and not living by the codes he internalized as a boy.

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