CLEVELAND (AP) — At some point in the next few days, Terry Francona will hop on his celebrated scooter, zip along the underground concrete concourses of Progressive Field and leave the ballpark he’s called home the past 11 seasons for the final time.
His ride is nearly over.
Although he hasn’t made it official — and true to form, Francona was adamant about not pulling the spotlight away from the Guardians during their playoff push — the 64-year-old manager has indicated he’ll step down after this season, perhaps the most challenging of his run with Cleveland.
Slowed by major health issues in recent years, the personable, popular Francona may be stepping away, but not before leaving a lasting imprint as a manager and one of the game’s most beloved figures.
Adored by players. Respected by peers. Cherished by fans.
Born into baseball, he’s been a lifer. As as kid, he grew up in Pennsylvania hoping to follow his father Tito’s footsteps into the big leagues, and not only did so but also managed in Cleveland, where his dad had his best years.
A jokester, storyteller and throwback. A player’s manager. A manager’s manager. Francona is everyone’s manager.
“There’s nobody like him,” said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, who played one season for Francona in Boston.
Francona has poured his heart and soul into the game, first as an outfielder who battled through injuries and banged around for 10 seasons with the Expos, Cubs, Reds, Indians and Brewers, and then 23 more as a manager, over 3,600 games.
Quite a journey.
In Birmingham, Alabama, he managed Michael Jordan during his bold swing at a second sport. In Philadelphia, the relentless boos from the city’s fervent fans made Francona question his career choice.
In Boston, Francona ended a a decadeslong curse by winning a pair of World Series titles to guarantee him fabled status from Fenway Park to Faneuil Hall and beyond.
And, finally in Cleveland, he kept teams competitive despite financial limitations and nearly quenched a championship drought in 2016 on the way to becoming the winningest manager in the club’s 123-year history.
He’s 13th on the career wins list (1,948), fittingly sandwiched between Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel, two of baseball’s most colorful, larger-than-life managers with whom Francona shares so many traits.
There will be a day when Francona also is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but Cooperstown was never any kind of goal.
“I don’t think you’ll meet a person inside the game that doesn’t love Tito, myself included,” New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Just funny, self-deprecating. Doesn’t take himself too serious. But has awesome respect and eye for the game.”
For Wednesday’s home finale against Cincinnati, the Guardians will attempt to pay tribute to Francona, who has long shunned any self-promotion or attention. The team is handing out 20,000 “Thank You Tito” T-shirts to fans, and the three-time AL Manager of the Year will be saluted with a pregame video on the ballpark’s giant scoreboard.
Don’t be surprised if Francona grabs a few pieces of bubble gum and hides somewhere out of sight while it plays.
It’s never been about him, one of the many reasons why Francona is so admired. The team has always come first, and Francona’s ability to relate to players and fiercely protect them has led to universal praise.
Francona eschewed team meetings or clubhouse visits, except in an emergency. But his office door has always been open, an invitation for a pregame chat or game of cribbage.
“Tito showed everyone that you can really enjoy what you do, and still do it successfully and that’s not something that you get everywhere in this game,” said Baldelli, whose Twins dethroned the Guardians in the AL Central this season. “He does it by bringing everyone together. The way he runs his clubs is the same way you run your household, and it’s an uplifting way to play the game.
“It all kind of runs through him because he sets just a lovely tone, but also a competitive tone at the same time. It’s a striking balance that almost nobody else pulls off quite like him.”
The “Tito touch” was perhaps never more evident — or needed — than in the 2004 AL Championship Series. The Red Sox, carrying the weight of an 86-year title drought, trailed the rival New York Yankees 3-0 in the series, with Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera on to pitch the ninth.
Needing a spark, Francona turned in the dugout and simply winked at Dave Roberts, who hadn’t played in 10 days, to go in as a pinch-runner. Francona initially had a bunt signal in place but removed it, giving Roberts a chance to steal second base. And once he did, it triggered Boston’s epic comeback.
The rest is history and part of Francona’s lore.
To this day, Roberts, now managing the Los Angeles Dodgers, said Francona made sure every player felt needed.
“He was honest from the outset,” said Roberts, one eight current managers who played for Francona. “When I got traded from LA he told me my role. I didn’t like it, but he was honest and upfront. I’d watch when guys were struggling and you could always tell he was pulling for you, and players don’t always feel that with their managers.
“I just don’t know a player who wouldn’t play hard for him.”
Jason Kipnis definitely did. A two-time All-Star second baseman, Kipnis spent seven seasons with Francona and was one of the team’s leaders in 2016, when Cleveland came within one swing of winning a World Series that went to the Cubs in seven games.
Kipnis and Francona hit it off from the outset, their healthy work relationship kindled by “one-liners and zingers.”
“You had so much fun coming to the ballpark every day and that starts with Tito,” said Kipnis. ”You could be 0 for 4 or 0 for 12 and you had a smile coming into the ballpark because you knew it was going to be a fun day and you’re going to compete and be a part of a fun environment.”
It’s been harder for Francona to have fun the past few seasons. He had to abandon the Guardians in 2020 and 2021 because of health scares, and he’s already scheduled a shoulder replacement surgery after this season.
He’s tired, beaten up.
“I don’t ever want to do this for the wrong reasons,” he said last month, hinting toward this being the end.
If it is, the game will go on. It just won’t be quite the same without Francona.
“Baseball is going to miss him in the dugout, I told him that,” said Rangers manager Bruce Bochy, who returned this year after a three-year retirement. “Good man. Great baseball man. I think a lot of him and what he’s accomplished.
“You never know, he might be hitting the pause button.”
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