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Terry Francona, the Manager of the Major League Baseball team in Cleveland, who earlier in December decided they will drop their nickname ‘Indians’, answers a question about balancing work and life with his customary honesty. In doing so he delivers an insight into the mindset of a veteran player-turned-coach who was described by former Cleveland pitcher Dan Otero as a ‘baseball lifer’.
“I think the idea is to put the organisation and the players first, with yourself way lagging behind – I think that’s the best way to excel as a team – I don’t know if it’s the best way to excel with a person’s health,” says Francona.
In October, he talked to Steve Gera and Matthew Stone on the At Home With Leaders podcast from his home in Tucson, Arizona. “We’re not celebrating two championships like Steve in LA,” he says in reference to the success of the Dodgers and the Lakers, “but the sun is shining and it’s gorgeous out here, so I’m doing OK.”
The last point feels particularly significant given the health problems Francona endured during 2020 that saw him stay away from the ballpark at one stage. “I appreciate you asking,” he says. “It was a challenging year on a number of fronts; physically, everything seemed to hit me at once but, fortunately, I’m on the mend. I don’t want to quit doing my job. I’m going to be 62 next year but I also want to be healthy enough where I can do my job and not feel like I’m letting people down.”
He admits it gets harder as he gets older. “Every year I come home and it takes me longer to recharge. The good part of that is that I still do recharge. Come the first of the year I’m every bit as excited to start the year as I was the year before. It just takes me a little longer and that’s just me being honest.”
During the conversation, it becomes clear that ‘recharging’ for Francona means neither entirely stepping away from baseball nor his role as Cleveland’s leader. “I’ve been back in Arizona for about three weeks, getting physically stronger so I can do my job. As a manager, so many people rely on you and I felt like I let them down and I don’t want to do that,” he says, not that anyone in Cleveland feels in any way ‘let down’. Indeed their support has been unstinting.
“I don’t have to prepare like a 22-year-old but I want to get myself in a position where I can stand the rigours of a season and be there for the people who need me so I can do my job right. I’m going to spend some time getting healthy here and, in the meantime, I’m going to pick up the phone every day or so and try to talk to one of our players; something will hit be when I’m driving and I’ll think, ‘I need to call him and tell him that’. And it’s fun, because when you get off the phone after that, you feel a little bit invigorated and it’s good for everybody.”
A season like no other
In 2020, amid the backdrop of the pandemic, the MLB schedule was also reduced from 162 regular season games to a mere 60, although, as Cleveland President Chris Antonetti told the media, “so much has happened over the course of the season. I know we only played 60 games, but it felt like 260.”
For his part, Francona never strayed from prioritising the wellbeing of his players and staff. “We had a Zoom call yesterday and the consensus was that we learned things during this pandemic that we will use moving forward, even when we get back to the normal baseball season. I go back to when we left spring training originally; my immediate bosses are [General Manager] Mike Chernoff and Chris Antonetti and they took over like nobody’s business. They were honest, they were upfront and it was first and foremost ‘let’s get everybody safely home to where they need to be, we’re not worried about baseball right now.’ After a time passed, we started to think: ‘how are we going to get ready for when we go back to baseball?’ And our players did an outstanding job, they came in so ready, and once they got there, the first thing we told them is: ‘this is going to be different from anything we’ve ever done’. At every turn, you could either roll your eyes and complain or you can embrace the challenge; and our players did a good job of embracing the challenge.”
Francona describes his players with a real fondness that speaks to their bond. “I’ve found that if you’re organised, players will work really hard; if you’re not organised you may as well send them home because they’re not going to get done what they need to and, in this day and age, not just in baseball but other sports, players work so hard. We all get caught up in ‘hey, this is not how we did it when I was playing’; they have access to so much good information technology, [they have] the ability to work out; it’s a 12-month job now and they are strong, athletic and ready to go. It’s impressive.”
Does it ever lead to a sense of entitlement? “You’re right, with today’s younger people, there is a little sense of entitlement at times; it’s not just baseball, it’s in life, but you try not to sacrifice your principles or what you believe in and that’s part of the teaching.”
Returning to Cleveland
Francona’s first managerial role, with the Philadelphia Phillies, reached its conclusion after four years in 2000 and, within a year, he had rekindled his relationship with Cleveland, whom both Francona and his father, John Patsy ‘Tito’ Francona (who would eventually lend his nickname to his son), had represented as players.
Francona Jr had a burgeoning friendship with the then Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro, who invited him to serve as Special Assistant to the General Manager for the 2001 season. Though Francona was keen to be back in the dugout, he accepted the role, which gave him exposure to drafting, scouting, trading and the development of players – all areas that Shapiro later insisted will see Francona inducted to the MLB Hall of Fame when he eventually calls it a day.
When Francona returned to ‘The Jake’ in 2013, it was to serve as Manager. He had impressed Shapiro and other members of the front office with his presentation and a now infamous 17-page dossier that laid out his managerial philosophies, vision for the organisation, the importance of building relationships throughout the organisation, his attitudes towards setbacks, working with young players and handling the media.
Chernoff, who was still an Assistant GM at the time, has spoken of the dossier’s conversational tone and the fact that Francona prepared for the process as if he were a first-time manager as opposed to the man who led the Boston Red Sox to the World Series in 2004 and 2007.
“It made me recognize my own blind spots,” Chernoff told The Athletic of the process. “It was a huge learning experience for me, not just for interviewing a manager, but anything in life or baseball, where you think you might have an answer, but when you dig deeper and talk to somebody who’s really experienced, they uncover things for you that you didn’t even know you were missing.”
“I work very closely with Chris and Cherny,” says Francona. “I give them so much credit for creating an environment where it’s a safe to give an opinion. To be blunt, good baseball people are going to have strong opinions. You’re not going to agree on everything; and I think the bosses appreciate strong opinions as long they’re thought out and not just blurted out.
“People ask me all the time about all the meetings we must have, but we really don’t, and the reason being that we communicate so much and so regularly and so consistently – and I use the word ‘safe’ all the time because that’s a good word – that we don’t need meetings. Our messaging is consistent and it’s because we believe together what we believe in. When I came to Cleveland, the reason I came was because of the people and that has done nothing but get stronger in my opinion. Do we get challenged? Of course, but going through challenges through people that you respect and care about can be really gratifying.”
A safe space for players
What, then, are the characteristics of a good manager in MLB? “What people first probably say is expertise during the game, and I think that’s the easy part. I’m going to do what I’m going to do during the game; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and I think you need to be confident enough in what you’re doing that you make your move. When the game’s over you answer the questions and then you don’t run to see how you’re being perceived in the media the next day. You move on. That takes some confidence. But the very biggest thing is you need to put the players and the organisation first and you way behind lagging second. I felt that way back in 2008 in Birmingham when I was making $31,000 a year and I still feel that way in somewhat 25 or 26 years later in Cleveland. I think it works. If you’re putting yourself ahead of the players, they’re going to see through that, and it isn’t going to work.”
Francona takes this attitude into his conversations with players. “Some of the communication is team-driven and completely inclusive of the team and then there’s times where you talk to guys one on one. I try to explain to our team that if we use our entire team and we complement each other then we’re going to be a better team. It’s not an indictment on what you can’t do, it’s just the idea that if we’ve complemented each other in the right way we’re going to be better. I also explain to them that I have an obligation to go what’s best for our team to win but I also have an obligation to explain to players why I’m doing something and they’re always welcome to come in and talk to me about it but, just to remember, if they’re not putting the team first, if they’re putting their own personal agenda first, then they’re going to get some honest feedback from me and be ready for that.”
Francona, who is known for his trademark self-deprecation and well-earned reputation as a prankster, tends to enjoy excellent rapport with his players. He feels this is essential when he needs them to find moments of game-winning inspiration out on the field. “It’s a huge part of the equation. We talk to our players all the time about not wanting to point them from point A to B to C to D. We feel if they have the freedom to be athletic, they have the chance to be a much more dynamic team.
“Now, to do that, they need to understand what’s expected of them during a game because we can’t just freelance. You get 27 outs a day and if you give away a handful, you’re hurting your chances to win. But I found that if you talk to players and ask them ‘what do you think?’ they start to understand and the more they understand, the more you can turn them loose, to be athletic and safe; and when there’s a mistake you can’t just react because players are going to make mistakes and they can’t play the game worrying that if they’re going to make a mistake you’re going to jump down their throat because then they’re going to play too cautiously and that doesn’t help anybody.”
As a coach now in his seventh decade, Francona is mindful of the generation gap that exists between him and his players. Sometimes the differences manifest out on the field, where he regularly bears witness to shots he would not have seen during his own playing career. “When you talk about being creative, you see now the bat flips and a little more exuberance on the field than maybe you would have 20 or 30 years ago.” At other times, it is simply the fact that he is a 61-year-old working with players young enough to be his children, but Francona’s teams will always be guided by set of principles that he insists upon. “What I’m trying to tell our guys is that’s it’s OK, you are younger, and times do change a little bit, but we never want to sacrifice what we’re doing on the field at the expense of maybe showing something off the field. Play the game right always. The other thing is to take care of themselves. I’ve always felt strongly about that and we talk to our guys about that all the time. When you hit a ball, if you’re going to admire it, it’d better be a home run because we feel very strongly that we need to push the envelope and push the envelope while being intelligent. That’s the best way I can say it.”
He is also proud of the way players at Cleveland and beyond have spoken out in support of social justice issues. “If you look back some years ago I think it had the chance to maybe hurt some teams and I think that’s wrong,” he says. “We actually met several times in our spring training 2.0. We decided to tackle it head on and our guys were unbelievable in their maturity and the way they talked about it and we certainly didn’t figure out all the world’s problems, but I really think it’s good to talk about it in an open environment and allow people their opinions in a space where they felt safe with their teammates.”
With so much still unknown as baseball heads into 2021, Francona is looking to ensure that he remains fresh and ready for a season where the team’s roster will contain a lot of youth and inexperience. “I believe there’s a time when a manager or coach has a shelf life and I don’t want that to happen. It’s not just with the people you work for but the players. So you have to keep the message fresh but you also have to be consistent; that is a wonderful topic and it’s something I think about a lot because I don’t want there to be a shelf life in Cleveland.
“I don’t think the adage that you’re ‘hired to be fired’ necessarily has to always be true. I’d like to think there’d be a time where I’m just ready to retire and I walk away successfully as opposed to be being shown the door because your message got old.”
Listen to the full interview with Terry Francona: