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Francona's Cleveland debut special for father, son

Tribe skipper manages first game in city where dad, Tito, played six years

CLEVELAND -- Somewhere in the midst of his six seasons with the Indians, Tito Francona had his eyes on a home on the city's west side. It was a $29,000 bungalow in Rocky River, a place where a young ballplayer could raise a family and maybe even spend the rest of a lifetime.

But Tito's boss was the infamous Frank "Trader" Lane, the guy who, in his career as a big league general manager, dealt Rocky Colavito and Roger Maris and Early Wynn and Enos Slaughter and Norm Cash and even tried to trade Stan Musial from the Cardinals. Suffice to say, then, that Francona knew his tenure with the Tribe was, shall we say, subject to change, so he decided not to commit to Cleveland real estate.

Tito took root, instead, at the old Commodore Hotel, a red-brick building on Euclid Avenue, set among shops and jazz clubs and movie theaters, and within walking distance of Western Reserve University. The location was desirable, but the place certainly didn't afford much open space for Tito's young son, Terry, to play ball.

"We lived on the fifth floor," Tito recalled, "and Terry would be hitting the Wiffle ball through the window. I'd have to go chase the ball down on the main street."

The 79-year-old Tito still chases after his son, in a certain sense. He coordinates his golf and dinner schedule around his son's games, glued to the television whenever Terry's teams take the field, that nervous feeling forming in his gut.

But in Terry's eight seasons as skipper of the Red Sox, Tito didn't attend a single game at Fenway Park. He always preferred the comfort of his own couch, and he knew the last thing his son needed in Boston was another set of eyes on him.

"That job up there in Boston, he was going 24/7," Tito said. "And pressure, pressure, pressure. He used to tell me when he'd go to the ballpark, he didn't even want to stop at any stoplights."

It's an entirely different vibe here in the city where the father once played and the son now oversees an intriguing Indians team. Forget worrying about an ugly encounter at a red light. Terry walked to work Monday morning before the Tribe's home opener against the Yankees -- and true to form for a guy notoriously awful with directions, he got lost during the two-block trek. For future games, he has plans to ride a motorized scooter to and from his downtown apartment, much like he used to ride his little red tricycle around the Western Reserve campus.

Tito was here, too, throwing out a ceremonial first pitch to his son in a touching pregame ceremony celebrating baseball's connective qualities. That quality is what makes Cleveland such a special place for the Franconas, and it's the reason the father was probably just as excited as the son when plans were put in place for Terry to take this job.

"This," Terry said, "is an extra special place for him, no doubt about it."

Special enough to coax Tito off the couch and prompt him to make the 100-mile trek from New Brighton, Pa.

It's a drive he expects to make often this summer.

"This is like renewing my contract," Tito laughed. "It brings new life for me. I played, and then I was out of it, and then when Terry started playing, I got interested again. And then, when he became a manager, boy, I became really involved. I don't think we've missed a game since he became a manager."

The only downside to Tito's increased attendance at his son's game will be the confusion it causes. People say, "Hey, Tito!" within earshot of the two men, and both their heads turn. Much like John Patsy Francona has been answering to the nickname "Tito" -- an Italian phrase for "little one" or "little giant" -- virtually his entire life, so too has his son.

"When I was hanging around the clubhouse as a kid, it was always, 'Hey, Little Tito,'" Terry recalled. "They probably didn't know my real name. I always thought it was pretty cool. I love my dad. I think he's the best dad in the world."

The elder Francona played 1,719 games in his 15 Major League seasons. Funny that despite all that angst about Lane, this was the place he spent the most -- and best -- years of his career. He received MVP votes in his first season with the Indians in 1959 -- the year Terry was born. And as Tito's career continued, his son was often by his side, developing a sharp evaluative eye.

"Most kids would be running around the ballpark," Tito said. "But when the game started, you'd always see Terry behind home plate. His arms would be on the rail, and he'd be watching them pitching. I took him on a road trip to Minnesota, and Bert Blyleven was pitching. After the game, he said, 'Dad, that was the best curveball I've ever seen.' He followed it. He knew the game."

Of course, the stories aren't all so glowing. Tito remembered a time when he was with St. Louis, and his son came into the clubhouse clutching a fistful of dollar bills.

"Where'd you get that money?" Tito asked.

"Dad," Terry replied, "we're out there selling bats!"

While Terry and his buddies -- pitcher Curt Simmons' kids -- showed quite the entrepreneurial spirit in finding buyers for the Cards' game-ready bats, Tito knew his teammates wouldn't be too thrilled with the arrangement.

"Don't you tell anybody about this!" the frustrated father said.

Because of a series of debilitating injuries, Terry didn't have anywhere near as accomplished a playing career as his old man. But his two World Series titles with the Red Sox cemented his legacy as a manager and ushered in great expectations upon his arrival in Cleveland.

"I would like to see him win two more here," Tito said with a smile.

People here have been waiting 65 years for just one title, and days like Monday, when Ubaldo Jimenez got lit up by the Yankees in an 11-6 loss, have an all-too-familiar quality to them. But there is no denying the air of positivity emanating from that Cleveland clubhouse, and it all stems from Terry Francona's decision to come here last October.

So Tito will watch every game this season, rooting for his favorite team and his beloved boy. It's a great father-son story in a sport that lends itself to them. And while Tito never did settle into that house in Rocky River, well, some ties go beyond a real estate contract.

"This," Tito said, "is like coming back home."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.
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