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Mills, Francona share much more than ASG role

MLB.com @castrovince

MIAMI -- Beyond the obvious, which is Terry Francona's recent surgical procedure to address an irregular heartbeat, there is a story to how Indians bench coach Brad Mills got to this unexpected and unusual spot of managing the American League squad in the All-Star Game presented by Mastercard.

It's a story that begins not with Francona laying in a hospital bed but on a dormitory couch. It was the fall of 1978, and Francona and Mills were the only two University of Arizona baseball recruits to receive full scholarships that year. With this shared status came quite a bit of attention from their Wildcat peers, and so Mills expected to feel a quick kinship with the son of former MLB All-Star Tito Francona.

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MIAMI -- Beyond the obvious, which is Terry Francona's recent surgical procedure to address an irregular heartbeat, there is a story to how Indians bench coach Brad Mills got to this unexpected and unusual spot of managing the American League squad in the All-Star Game presented by Mastercard.

It's a story that begins not with Francona laying in a hospital bed but on a dormitory couch. It was the fall of 1978, and Francona and Mills were the only two University of Arizona baseball recruits to receive full scholarships that year. With this shared status came quite a bit of attention from their Wildcat peers, and so Mills expected to feel a quick kinship with the son of former MLB All-Star Tito Francona.

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What Mills did not expect, in this first player gathering of the school year, was for the guy splayed out on the couch, wearing frayed, cutoff jean shorts, red, high-top Chuck Taylors and -- you'll never believe this -- hair that grew all the way past his shoulders to stick out his hand and introduce himself as Terry Francona.

"You're Terry Francona?!" Mills said, unable to hide his shock at this sight.

By the next day, as instructed by head coach Jerry Kindall, Francona's hair was cut, and Francona and Mills were well on their way to becoming road roommates and fast friends.

"I'm not sure if Coach Kindall put me with Terry as roommates on a lot of trips to keep him straight," Mills said with a smile Monday at Marlins Park. "I don't know if I helped him or if he corrupted me."

Whatever the details, the formula works.

When Francona got his first managing job in Philadelphia, the man he affectionately refers to as "Millsie" was his first-base coach. When he went to Boston and won two World Series titles, Millsie was there for both of them. And when Francona came to Cleveland in 2013, Millsie, having had his own managerial opportunity in Houston (2010-12) fizzle, joined his staff.

Tweet from @Indians: The AL skipper getting loose. pic.twitter.com/x9csfmVtt3

Francona loves to jab at Mills. When his condition was first being studied by the Cleveland Clinic, he joked that doctors had not ruled out an allergy to his bench coach. But in more serious moments, he'll tell you Mills has been elemental to his success as a skipper, from drawing up daily Spring Training plans to assisting with the in-game strategizing.

And so while everybody in the industry would obviously much prefer Francona be here in good health, representing his central role in the Indians' emergence as an American League power last fall, the silver lining is Mills getting a small amount of the spotlight shined upon him at this midsummer spectacle.

Interactive All-Star roster

Mills had a hand not just in the Indians' run to the AL title and in the ensuing construction of the AL's starting lineup, but also in the early Major League development of Astros All-Stars Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel. Mills was in an impossible situation when he managed in Houston. The Astros were built to lose as many games as possible in order to reap the benefits of prominent Draft picks. And sure enough, the losses -- and the picks -- rolled in. From the 86-loss season of 2010 came starting AL center fielder George Springer at No. 11 overall in 2011. And from the 106-loss campaign of 2011 came starting AL shortstop Carlos Correa at No. 1 and reserve arm Lance McCullers Jr. at No. 41.

Obviously, none of that did Mills any good at the time. He was fired midway through a 107-loss 2012.

"He was in a tough spot," Keuchel said. "We were really bad. It was not his fault. I thought he was a very good manager. He was docile, but stern when he needed to be, and he let the players play. When you let the players play, they're going to be there for you. Hopefully he'll get another shot soon."

For now, Mills gets this one-off shot on the All-Star stage. Francona did still chip in. When Mills showed him his rough draft of the lineup, Francona suggested a small tweak, flip-flopping the batting order spots of Correa and Justin Smoak. This is how Tito and Millsie operate -- in conjunction. They've been around each other so long and so often that they've even begun to slightly resemble each other. So in this strange and extreme situation, Francona had a replacement at the ready.

"It's a situation where Terry has empowered his coaches to do what they do," Mills said. "So when we have this responsibility without him, it just picks up and flows. It's a testament to him more than anything else."

Francona's tattered jorts, red kicks and flowing hair are all gone. But his partnership with Mills has endured. And the fruits of their friendship will be there in the AL dugout.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

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