'I was really touched': Behind the scenes of Francona's farewell

September 28th, 2023

CLEVELAND -- “Thank you Tito” was painted in white behind first and third base. The scoreboard was plastered with the same words, surrounded by images of Terry Francona from his 11-year tenure in Cleveland. It was hours before first pitch against the Reds and Francona was tucked back in his office, playing cards with his staff far away from the spotlight.

This was the type of night the 64-year-old skipper dreads. Fans were lining up outside the ballpark to make sure they secured a giveaway T-shirt that had the same phrase, “Thank you, Tito,” printed on it. For everyone not named Francona, this day was one to be savored, witnessing a likely eventual Hall-of-Famer say goodbye to his home park.

For Francona, he’d rather focus on the 4-3 victory over the Reds to retain the Ohio Cup yet again. He struggles with the spotlight, but everyone involved in Wednesday’s contest knows that Francona did take in the emotions that came with the day, even if it was difficult.

“It was kind of nice that he didn’t have a choice,” Guardians starter Shane Bieber said with a smile.

It was the end of a historic run for Francona in Cleveland. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how the day transpired.

3:30 p.m. ET: Brad Mills spotted in the clubhouse
As you worked your way through all the players and staff wearing the red giveaway Tito shirts in the clubhouse, you could see the coach’s room in the back corner. A familiar face in former bench coach Mills popped out and headed back toward Francona’s office. Mills, one of Francona’s closest friends, made the trip to support his buddy in his final home game.

“That’s not friendship. That’s just he wants a free T-shirt,” Francona joked. “Don’t let that fool you for a minute.”

4:15 p.m.: Francona tells one last comical story
It’s only fitting that Francona had one last story that makes the media room sound like a comedy club. In his typical humorous way, the skipper let everyone know that his beloved scooter had once again been stolen. This time, it was returned to him in a condition that was beyond repair. He then explained how relying on a new scooter resulted in an embarrassing accident in front of fans.

6:02 p.m.: The tribute video
It was probably the longest four minutes of Francona’s life. He stood in the dugout, right by his captain’s chair, and watched a brief video tribute that the organization had put together on the big screen in left field. As it concluded, he received a standing ovation from his fans and players, and he answered with a tip of his cap.

“I was glad Millsy was here and he was in a lot of that [tribute video],” Francona said. “DeMarlo [Hale] was standing next to me while it was on. The clubhouse guys were standing right behind him. Those are the things that mean a lot.”

8:00 p.m.: Bieber delivers for his skipper
It was only fitting that the team’s ace toed the rubber on Francona’s big day. Even though it was only his second start since coming off the injured list, he looked like vintage Bieber, allowing one run on five hits through six innings with seven strikeouts.

“I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t mean a little bit more tonight,” Bieber said. “It was easy to anticipate and get amped up for it.”

8:35 p.m.: The Tito chants begin
In the ninth inning of the one-run game, closer Emmanuel Clase entered to secure the win for Francona and the crowd understood that these would be the last few moments of having him in the home dugout. Mixes of “Tito” and “Thank you, Tito” chants began to break out and grew louder until the final out was made.

“It was bone-chilling,” Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan said. “That was the loudest chant we’ve had all year, which was super exciting.”

8:39: Francona’s last win at home
Francona improved his home record to 484-355 (.576) over 11 seasons in Cleveland.

8:40: The last handshake line
Francona did his usual post-win ritual of grabbing starter Triston McKenzie’s shoulders. But instead of the rest of the team simply shaking his hand, each player gave him a hug as they came off the field.

8:41: Francona forced to receive one long ovation
Just as Francona turned to go back into the dugout, third baseman José Ramírez stood at the top of the steps, blocking Francona’s departure from the field. It forced the skipper to tip his hat once again to the crowd and take in the loud cheers. The rest of the team filled in around Ramírez and kept Francona out there much longer than he would’ve liked, but everyone knew it was well-deserved.

“I was like 'Come on, man. Enough,'” Francona said. “I think that’s why they were doing it just because they knew I was kind of feeling it. Believe me, down deep, I was really touched. I guess what I’m just trying to convey is the 11 years here are what is the best part. It’s not like the last day. It’s everything I lived through here with the people I was with. That’s what I care about.”

8:57 p.m.: Tito gives his final words to Guardians fans
“I think tonight it would just be, ‘Thank you,’” Francona said. “I have tried to do my best all the time and sometimes it’s been better than others. But I appreciate my time here very much and I hope that they support these guys moving forward because there’s a lot to like. We didn’t get things accomplished this year like we wanted. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”