GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Terry Francona is healthy again. You can see it in Mike Barnett’s hair.
Barnett, 63, is Cleveland’s instant-replay coordinator. He goes back 30 years with Francona, the Guardians manager, and arrived here this spring with a reasonably good head of hair. Then Francona acquired a trimmer, sneaked up behind Barnett in a conference room a couple of weeks ago and — zip — shaved out a patch of Barnett’s hair.
Ricky Pacione, a bullpen catcher and the barber to many of the team’s players, offered to camouflage the damage. But then Francona struck again.
“Get out of here,” Barnett told him. “Just, stop.”
Knowing the manager wouldn’t stop, Barnett surrendered and now sports a buzz cut along with an exasperated smile. He also can testify, much to the delight of everyone in Cleveland’s clubhouse, that Francona is still dangerously mobile when wearing two shoes.
Amid the mirth, those shoes are not taken lightly.
For 14 months, from late 2020 through his first day in Arizona this spring, Francona was able to wear only one shoe. His left foot was encased in a walking boot. He was on crutches for five of those months.
The past two years have been a dizzying blur of agony and misery for Francona, a veteran manager who has figured in so many iconic baseball moments. He was piloting Boston when the Red Sox ended their 86-year World Series drought in 2004. He was in Cleveland’s losing dugout when the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year World Series drought in 2016. He was pulling levers during Boston’s stunning comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series.
But Francona’s endless summers went on hiatus in 2020, when he was forced to take a leave of absence for most of the pandemic-shortened season after a gastrointestinal disorder flared up, which was followed by a blood-clotting issue. That autumn, he developed gout in the big toe of his left foot, which led to a staph infection. Treatment over that winter wasn’t enough, and on July 29, just 99 games into the 162-game schedule, with his toe, leg and back racked with pain, he had to leave again.
“I was embarrassed,” Francona, who turns 63 later this month, said during an interview in his office one morning this spring. “It’s hard because I don’t take it lightly. I don’t like the idea of letting people down. It’s not that they can’t survive without me. I don’t mean it like that. But this is my responsibility. I’m uncomfortable when I can’t do it right.”
After surgery on the toe and a hip replacement last summer, Francona is back for his 22nd season in the manager’s seat — his 10th in Cleveland, where he is the winningest manager in club history. Parts of two bones were excised in his toe and foot. They were fused together via eight screws and a steel rod running from the toe up through the top of his foot.
It was the toughest surgery of his life, he said, and Francona is something of an expert here. He has four replacement parts — both knees and both hips — and estimates he has endured well over 30 surgeries: 12 on each knee (“counting staph infections”) and two on each shoulder, as well as ones for his hips, left elbow, a hernia, a disk in his back and “numerous” wrist, hand and finger injuries (“I don’t even count those”).
He’s also had a lifetime of poor circulation — compression tights underneath his baseball pants have been his companion for years, so thick when his circulation was at its worst that it was like trying to pull on a wet suit. He has been sliced open to treat blood clots.
“I have scars all the way up,” he said. “I look like a shark attacked me.”
Understand, he emphasizes: He is not complaining.
“There are people who have real stuff to complain about,” he said. “What I have is just aggravating. It’s not the end of the world. The fact that I can go swim, I love it.”
The water is his therapy, both physical and mental. The Guardians installed a therapeutic pool at their spring facility, named the “U.S.S. Tito,” specifically for him. There also is one at Progressive Field in Cleveland, and Francona has one in his backyard at home in Tucson, Ariz. Every place we go on the road, I know where I can go swimming. It takes me awhile to get going. But as long as I do that every day, I seem to be OK,” he said.
Chris Antonetti, Cleveland’s president of baseball operations, was the confidant who talked Francona into taking 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, has essentially said that Francona can manage as long as he wants.
“The easy way to say it is, we’ve always thought we were a better organization with Tito as a leader,” Antonetti said. “I didn’t want to nag him, but I wanted it to be clear what our priorities were. Baseball is important, but the rest of his life is of the utmost importance.”
Sandy Alomar Jr. stepped into Francona’s job two summers ago, and DeMarlo Hale took over last season. Hale, who goes back to 2002 with Francona, has become like a brother to the manager. But then, Francona has a knack for engendering extreme loyalty.
For instance, during Carl Willis’s first year as a pitching coach with Francona in 2018, Cleveland had Dan Otero and Oliver Perez in the bullpen — “O.T.” and “O.P.” Willis heard Francona tell him to “get O.T.” warming up in the pen during one game, but Francona wanted Perez. It was a colossal misunderstanding. The wrong pitcher entered and Cleveland lost.
“I begged him to let me address the team, and he would not allow it,” Willis said. “He said, ‘It’s my responsibility. I’m in charge, I did it.’ At the same time, his trust in me never wavered, our relationship never suffered, there was no giving me funny looks.
“I’ll never forget that, because it means a lot to me.”
Watching the pain Francona endured last year, Hale said, the coaches simply did what they could to make life easier for him, such as making sure his “cane” — a fungo bat fashioned with a rubber bottom — was always nearby.
After all that, two shoes this spring is an enormous step. The first time he tried to put on his left shoe in 14 months, fittingly, was the first day he put his uniform on to start camp.
“Took me awhile,” he said. “And I’ve still got to be real careful. But once I got going, you build up a little confidence. I made myself go walk around the outfield in the mornings just to make sure I could do it. Stuff like that.”
The clubhouse, much different this season with the player payroll having been shaved to $36 million, appears overjoyed to have its leader back — hair trimmer in his hands or not.
“I grew up in New England and grew up a Red Sox fan,” said starting pitcher Aaron Civale, who is from East Windsor, Conn. “He’s been that manager who is part of why I fell in love with this game. To be able to play for him is truly incredible.”
That sentiment is echoed throughout a league in which nearly one-third of the managers — nine total — have played for Francona at some point during their careers: David Ross (Cubs), Torey Lovullo (Diamondbacks), Gabe Kapler (Giants), Dave Roberts (Dodgers), Alex Cora (Red Sox), Rocco Baldelli (Twins), Chris Woodward (Rangers), Kevin Cash (Rays) and Mark Kotsay (A’s).
“I’ll never forget when I got over there, the way he addressed me immediately,” said Ross, who played for Francona in Boston. “He was like, ‘Hey, you’re going to fit right in here. It’s a great group. Here’s our bunt plays, here’s our first-and-third plays, have fun, enjoy yourself, feel right at home.’ He’s a very easy guy to relate to, super organized, and obviously his leadership skills are off the charts.”
Or, as Dr. Charles Maher, Cleveland’s senior adviser for sport and performance psychology, said, “A player doesn’t care what you know until he knows that you care. Tito is the epitome of that.”
In his spring office, a happy, healthy and grateful Francona soaked it all in on the eve of another summer adventure, working to pick up where he left off. His contract is up after the season, and he and the brass have agreed to wait and see how his health responds before discussing an extension.
“The one thing I will brag about is, I think I’ve set the record for being around good people,” he said. “I’ve been so lucky. I know that.
“I just like doing what I do. I get a big kick out of that. I like idea of waking up, going to the ballpark and thinking, ‘OK, how are we going to figure this out today?’ I know I don’t have the energy I used to. I know that. So I try to save it. When a spring training game ends, I go right home and get off my feet. Because I want to enjoy being here. There’s a trade-off. But I love doing this enough where it’s worth it.”