Terry Francona returns for the Cleveland Guardians in 2022

GOODYEAR, Arizona – Terry Francona is healthy again. You can see that on Mike Barnett’s hair.

Barnett, 63, is Cleveland’s instant replay coordinator. He goes back 30 years with Francon, the manager of the Guardians, and arrived here this spring with pretty good hair. Then Francona got a trimmer, snuck up on Barnett in the boardroom a few weeks ago, and — zipped — shaved a piece of Barnett’s hair.

Ricky Pacione, a ladder catcher and barber to many of the team’s players, offered to camouflage the damage. But then he hit Francona again.

“Get out of here,” Barnett told him. “Just stop.”

Knowing the manager wouldn’t stop, Barnett surrendered and now has a buzz with a bitter smile. He can also testify, to the great delight of everyone at the Cleveland Club, that Francona is still dangerously mobile when wearing two shoes.

In the midst of joy, those shoes are not taken lightly.

For 14 months, from the end of 2020 until his first day in Arizona this spring, Francona could only wear one shoe. His left foot was wrapped in a boot. Five of those months he was on crutches.

The past two years have been a dizzying fog of agony and misery for Francona, a veteran manager who has participated in so many legendary baseball moments. He piloted Boston when the Red Sox ended their 86-year drought in the 2004 World Series. He was in the lost Cleveland dugout when the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year drought in the 2016 World Series. 2004 American League Championship

But Franco’s endless summers took a break in 2020, when he was forced to take leave for most of the season shortened by the pandemic after a gastrointestinal disorder broke out, followed by a blood clotting problem. That fall, he got gout in the big toe of his left foot, which led to a staphylococcal infection. Treatment during that winter was not enough, and on July 29, only 99 games in a 162-game schedule, with toes, legs and back shaking with pain, he had to leave again.

“I was ashamed,” said Francona, who turns 63 later this month, during an interview at his office one morning this spring. “It’s difficult because I don’t take it lightly. I don’t like the idea of ​​letting people down. It’s not that I can’t survive without me. I don’t think so. But this is my responsibility. I’m embarrassed when I can’t do it right. “

After toe surgery and hip replacement last summer, Francona is returning for his 22nd season as manager – his 10th in Cleveland, where he is the most winning manager in the club’s history. Parts of two bones in his leg and foot were cut out. They were connected together via eight screws and a steel rod that led from the toe up through the tip of his foot.

It was the hardest operation of his life, he said, and Francona is a real expert here. He has four replacement parts – both knees and both hips – and estimates he has undergone over 30 surgeries: 12 on each knee (“counting staphylococcal infections”) and two on each shoulder, as well as one for the hips, left elbow, hernia, disc in the back and “numerous” injuries to the wrist, hand and fingers (“I don’t count them”).

He also had poor circulation throughout his life – compression tights under his baseball pants had been his companion for years, so thick when his circulation was at its worst that it was like trying to put on a wet suit. It is cut to treat blood clots.

“I have scars all the way up,” he said. “I look like a shark attacked me.”

Understand, he emphasizes: He does not complain.

“There are people who have real things to complain about,” he said. “What I have is only aggravating. It is not the end of the world. The fact that I can go swimming, I love it. ”

Water is his therapy, both physical and mental. The guards set up a therapeutic pool at its source, called “USS Tito”, especially for him. There is also one in Progressive Field in Cleveland, and Frankona has it in his backyard home in Tucson, Ariz. “Every place we go on a trip, I know where I can go swimming. I need some time to get going. But as long as I do it every day, I feel like I’m OK, “he said.

Chris Antonetti, Cleveland’s president of baseball operations, was a confidant who persuaded Francon to take another break last summer. Their close relationship explains the club’s patience and willingness to work with Francona through his health challenges. Cleveland owner Paul Dolan has essentially said Francona can manage as much as he wants.

“The easiest way to say that is that we have always thought that we are a better organization with Tito as the leader,” Antonetti said. “I did not want to complain to him, but I wanted it to be clear what our priorities are. Baseball is important, but the rest of his life is of the utmost importance. ”

Sandy Alomar Jr. he entered Francona’s business two summers ago, and DeMarlo Hale took over last season. Hale, who returns in 2002 with Francon, became a brother to the manager. But then, Francona has the ability to create extreme loyalty.

For example, during Carl Willis ’first year as a throwing coach with Francona 2018, Cleveland had Dan Otter and Oliver Perez on the bench -“ OT ”and“ OP ”Willis heard Francona tell him to“ go ”on a warm-up in pencils during one game, but Francona wanted Perez. It was a colossal misunderstanding. The wrong pitcher came in and Cleveland lost.

“I begged him to let me address the team, and he didn’t allow it,” Willis said. ‘He said,’ It’s my responsibility. I’m in charge, I did it. ‘ At the same time, his confidence in me never wavered, our relationship never perished, it wasn’t funny to watch me.

“I’ll never forget that, because it means a lot to me.”

Looking at the pain Francona suffered last year, Hale said, the coaches simply did everything they could to make his life easier, such as making sure his “stick” – a mushroom bat with a rubber bottom – was always nearby.

After all, two shoes this spring are a huge step. The first time he tried to put on his left shoe after 14 months, appropriately, was the first day he put on his uniform to head to camp.

“It took me a while,” he said. “I still have to be very careful. But when I go, you build a little confidence. I forced myself to walk the field in the morning just to make sure I could. Things like that. ”

The club, which is much different this season with the payroll of players reduced to 36 million dollars, seems overjoyed that its leader has returned – a hair trimmer in his hands or not.

“I grew up in New England and grew up as a Red Sox fan,” said starting pitcher Aaron Civale, who is from East Windsor, Conn. “He was that manager who is part of why I fell in love with this game. Being able to play for him is truly amazing. ”

That feeling is reflected throughout the league in which nearly one-third of managers – nine in all – have played for Francona at some point in 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).

“I will never forget when I got there, the way he addressed me right away,” said Ross, who played for Francona in Boston. “He said,‘ Hey, you’re going to fit in here. It’s a great group. Here are our theatrical performances, here are our first and third performances, have fun, enjoy, feel at home. ‘ He is a guy he can easily connect with, he is super organized and obviously his leadership skills are out of the top list. ”

Or, as Dr. said. Charles Maher, Cleveland’s senior advisor on sports and performance psychology, “A player doesn’t care what you know until he knows you care. Tito is the embodiment of that. “

In her spring office, the happy, healthy and grateful Francona soaked everything up ahead of another summer adventure, working to continue where he left off. His contract expires after the season, and he and the players have agreed to wait and see how his health will react before discussing the extension.

“The only thing I’m going to brag about is that I set a record in the company of good people,” he said. “I was lucky. I know that.

“I just love doing what I do. I got a big kick out of it. I like the idea of ​​waking up, going to the stadium and thinking, ‘OK, how are we going to figure that out today?’ I know I don’t have the energy I had. I know that. That’s why I’m trying to save him. When spring training is over, I go straight home and get off my feet. Because I want to enjoy myself here. There is a compromise. But I like to do this enough where it pays off. ”

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