His last game as a manager (not counting his grandkids’ Little League games) is less than a week away. And Terry Francona still hasn’t been able to get himself to say the “R” word.
But the “T” word? As in “T-shirts?” There’s nowhere to hide once you say that “T” word. And Terry Francona has come to grips with that.
“Once you give out T-shirts,” the Guardians’ Cooperstown-bound manager quipped on a new Starkville edition of “The Athletic Baseball Show” podcast, “there’s no going back.”
So Francona’s first mention of the “R” word — as in “retire” — may not come until next week. But that’s just a formality now. After 3,695 games as a big-league manager, two World Series parades and three Manager of the Year awards, Francona knows it’s time. And luckily for all of us, he was willing to spend a half-hour with me and Doug Glanville on Starkville, not just explaining why it’s time but also regaling us with one spectacular managerial tale after another.
Asked if he is finding it hard to say that word, “retire,” Francona replied, “No, it really isn’t.” But if you noticed, he was careful to answer that question in the present tense. And there’s a reason for that:
Because for two months in midsummer — until he finally summoned the resolve last month to deliver the news to his two bosses, Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff — he found out the hard way that the big retirement debate is a slightly tougher decision than, say, whether to bunt the Zombie Runner over in the 10th inning.
“I’ll tell you what,” Francona said. “From about June until I talked to Chris and Cherny, probably in the middle of August, yeah, it was hard. I was really wrestling with it. And it was kind of making me mad because it was consuming a lot of my thoughts. And that’s not a healthy thing, especially for a manager.
“And then, once I came to the decision, (I knew that) hey, I’ve got to talk to these guys. Then I felt back to being myself, so I knew it was the right thing. I just took some time to get there. And I think that’s probably only realistic. When you’ve done something so long, you don’t want to make a decision overnight.”
But this is a man who needs shoulder-replacement surgery this winter … and also two hernia procedures … and then there are all the months he has spent dealing with the lingering effects of a staph infection in his foot. So as the aches, the pains and the trips to the operating room mounted, how could he not begin to ask himself: How much longer can I keep doing this?
“It’s a good time,” Francona said. “I never want to overstay or stay for the wrong reasons. And there’s things I’m not able to do, even just because physically (he can’t anymore). And I don’t want to just stay to stay. That’s not how I feel. And there’s always got to be a huge respect for the game.”
Yet he still loves being a manager. So I asked him if it has been hard to imagine himself not managing, after 23 seasons.
“That’s the good part,” he said. “It really hasn’t been that hard. … Right when the season’s over, I’m going to get another set of surgeries. I do that every year. And it’ll take me a while to kind of get healthy. But I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s next, and what do I miss? You know, how much do you miss it? Do you miss it?
“You know, I thought when I got done playing (1990), I would be a typical guy (who missed playing because) that’s all I’ve ever done. And I put my equipment bag away and never looked at it again. I gave everything I had. It was time. And I moved on. I’m kind of looking forward to this now, just to see how I do feel. And I’m not worried about (that). You know, there’s no timetable. For the first time in my life, I can take a deep breath and, like I said, get healthy. And then we’ll see what happens.”
He was open and detailed as he explained all those thoughts that have been floating around his brain. But once he’d gotten that out of the way, Francona spent the rest of his visit to Starkville doing one of his favorite things in life — telling stories and making people laugh.
Here’s just one hilarious sample. I asked him if he had a favorite Dustin Pedroia story from Boston that still makes him laugh. He broke into a smile and got rolling.
“There’s about 1,000 of them,” Francona said with a chuckle. “I always tell people that when he walked into a room … the room got brighter. It’s like the bulbs got brighter. But he had this way about him. He used to mess with (Red Sox coach turned manager) John Farrell all the time. And John one day picked him up — and it was so easy — just kind of grabbed him, picked him up and he put him headfirst into the garbage can.
“And his little feet are waving. And you could hear him, like it was an echo. And he’s like, ‘You can’t do this to me. I’m the MVP.’ And that was just Pedey. He could say things, but they were so genuine and harmless and endearing.”
But there was so much more from Francona. So many laughs. So many tales. So much reflection. So much insight.
So if you’d like to hear The Best of Tito — including his favorite stories about the 22-game winning streak in Cleveland, Games 4-5-6-7 of the 2004 ALCS, Dave Roberts’ stolen base, Manny Ramirez’s wackiness, life at Philadelphia’s infamous Veterans Stadium, and what he thinks he’ll be doing next year in the last week of September — you know what to do.
You can listen to the whole conversation here:
Or you can watch the whole show on YouTube:
Humor, humility and hot dogs: How Terry Francona managed his way into the Cleveland record books
Terry Francona has been one of MLB’s most influential managers. What if this is it?
(Top photo of Terry Francona in between first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr., left, and bench coach DeMarlo Hale during a Guardians team photo: Ron Schwane / Getty Images)