As the pop fly that sealed the American League Central for the Cleveland Guardians hung high inside Globe Life Field on Sept. 25, Terry Francona let out an exclamatory expletive from his spot along the rail in the visiting dugout and then, as the ball was caught, raised his arms in victory with a satisfied smile.
Winning still thrills the 63-year-old skipper. And winning this year, with the youngest team in baseball, has to rank as one of the greatest achievements of Francona’s Cooperstown-worthy career.
But with health issues having prevented Francona from doing his job for significant segments of both the 2020 and 2021 seasons, coming back for 2022 was no certainty. And Francona, whose current contract expires after this playoff run, is still publicly noncommittal on whether he will return for 2023.
“We’ll get it figured out,” Francona says. “I don’t even know how to answer the ‘How long?’ because I don’t know. It could be a year, it could be ... we’ll see, we’ll see.”
The relationship between the manager and the front office in Cleveland is unique in modern baseball. Though his most recent extension is ending, Francona will not be seeking employment elsewhere, and both Guardians president Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff will not be seeking his replacement until the day he decides to call it a career.
This is Francona’s 10th season in Cleveland -- a run that exceeds his time with the Red Sox franchise that most baseball fans associate him with. His decision to join the team in 2013, because of the relationships he had built with Antonetti and then-president Mark Shapiro, stunned many in the industry who had assumed such a prominent free-agent skipper -- the man who won two World Series title, including a curse-breaker in big-market Boston -- might instead seek out a clearer path to the postseason on teams with bigger stars and more spending.
Instead, while Francona’s Cleveland teams have not ended what now stands as the longest World Series title drought in the sport, winning has been a constant -- six postseason appearances, four division championships and one American League pennant. In Tito’s 10 seasons, Cleveland has only played 19 regular-season games after being eliminated from postseason contention. And actually, 10 of those games came in 2021, when Francona wasn’t even managing the team.
Francona missed all but 14 games of the abbreviated 60-game schedule in 2020, as well as a Wild Card Series against the Yankees, because of gastrointestinal and blood-clotting issues that forced him into an ICU. In 2021, he stepped away from the team in late July to have a hip replacement and a toe surgery, necessitated by a staph infection.
Being away from his team for the better part of two seasons was disconcerting for Francona and had him seriously questioning his ability to do the job this year.
“I was kind of actually worried,” he says. “[The physical issues] kind of take the fun away, right? And I just was like, ‘Man, if I can't do this right, I don't think I want to do it.’ It was getting to that point.”
For much of his Cleveland tenure, various health problems have forced Francona to defer many of the day-to-day duties during batting practice to his coaches, so that he can limit the amount of time he spends on his feet. But the toe issue, which required Francona to be on crutches until January of this year and still forces him to wear a protective steel plate in his shoe, was particularly precarious.
“Truth be told, I thought I was going to be off the crutches way before,” he says. “I had no idea it was going to be January. No idea. So if I had known, I don't know if I would have come back this year. So I really am hoping this offseason, I can actually get healthy.”
Francona credits his coaching staff with going above and beyond the normal duties so that he can continue to manage. When the Guardians were on the verge of that final out in Texas in their Central division clincher, he implored his coaches to stand alongside him on the top railing.
“They worked their asses off,” he says, “and I wanted them to be there.”
Video of Francona sporting gigantic goggles, puffing a celebratory cigar and giving a celebratory speech to his club (“We’re the [expletive] Guardians!”) in the aftermath of that victory was a reminder of the fascinating juxtaposition Tito’s team presents. At a time when rebuilding efforts often fall into the laps of first-time managers, baseball’s youngest club has one of its most accomplished skippers.
Why does that strange dynamic work for the 2022 Guardians?
“Because of their willingness to play the game the right way,” Francona says. “I'd laugh when you hear that thing, ‘Let the kids play.’ Well, OK, as long as you play the game right. I’ve been real honest with them, like, ‘Hey, I'm old; you're not. That's not your fault. But you can't sacrifice how we feel about the game, because there’s a right way and a wrong way.’ They've been really good about that. So it kind of makes it fun. They’ll get on the plane and they’ve all got earrings, and I love looking at them. I just don't want them on the field. And they all respect that. So it works.”
As the Guardians stormed in September toward what turned out to be one of the biggest division leads in MLB, it became more fashionable for people to pay attention to their brand of baseball -- built on contact and defense and smart baserunning -- and wonder if other clubs ought to emulate it.
The truth is that this brand was built out of necessity, given the personnel and payroll. The Guardians aren’t built on power, because they didn’t pay for it.
Francona has always been a good soldier when it comes to both publicly and privately accepting the payroll limitations that prevent Cleveland’s front office from pursuing many of the known commodities in the marketplace each winter. Last offseason, the club’s only new additions in free agency were backup catcher Luke Maile and reliever Enyel De Los Santos.
“Chris and Cherny are really good about explaining stuff to me,” Francona says. “It lets me adjust. Because then I’ve got to try to get the coaches to understand. They’ll say, ‘Hey, let's go get this guy,’ and I'm like, ‘This isn't where we are.’ Because I've had 10 conversations with Chris and Cherny, and these guys weren't privy to those. So I got to slow down and explain to them where we are.”
Rather than fixate on what they don’t have, the 2022 Guardians capitalized on what they have.
The extension of José Ramírez just before the start of the season -- at a point when the star third baseman was on the verge of being traded if a contract wasn’t reached -- changed the entire tone of the campaign. It gave Francona someone to point to, when addressing his young players (Cleveland has tied a franchise record with 17 players making their debut this year), as the representative of the way he wants the game to be played. And where the young roster could have worked against the Guardians as an MLB-high 12 postponements led to a slew of doubleheaders on the schedule, instead their relatively fresh legs worked for them. They played their best baseball down the stretch and ran all over the slumbering White Sox and Twins.
Now, thanks to the established Ramírez and Shane Bieber and breakout years from Triston McKenzie, Andrés Giménez, Steven Kwan, Amed Rosario and others, the Guardians have an October opportunity in their home ballpark. It has been a stunning season, and perhaps the beginning of a new championship-caliber window for a team with the third-best farm system in the game, per MLB Pipeline.
“As long as they understand that with the year’s experience, you can't come back and slow down,” Francona said. “You just use the experience to make it better. That’s a conversation for next spring.”
Will Francona be the one delivering that message next spring? That’s entirely up to him. All we know is that his decision to come back this year resulted in an unexpected triumph and one of his best managerial jobs yet.