"He'll be the first call."
Those are the words that came to mind when I heard about the passing of Tito Francona. Those were Terry Francona's words in the aftermath of the Indians clinching the American League pennant at Rogers Centre in 2016. We were in the visiting manager's office, Francona was puffing on a victory cigar and scrolling through the hundreds of notifications on his iPhone after I had asked him if he'd heard from his father yet.
Sure enough, when Francona got to the beginning of the missed call log, there it was: "Dad."
For so many of us sons out there, that's the tie that bound us to baseball from the beginning. And for Terry, that's the tie that returned him to Cleveland. There would be other, possibly less risky managerial opportunities out there for the two-time World Series-winning skipper, but the idea of winning one with the team for whom his father starred and with whom his father still identified with was the most attractive opportunity of all.
The elder Francona left us at the age of 84 on Tuesday night in his home in New Brighton, Pa., where he had watched every Cleveland Indians game that he has not attended personally these last five seasons ("His whole day is wrapped around what time the game starts," Terry had said). Tito didn't personally attend a ton of games. They made him too nervous, and, anyway, he always figured there's enough pressure on his boy without having his father's eyes watching him from the stands. But occasionally Tito would make the two-hour trek to Progressive Field, and it was always such a joy to see the interactions between father and son, the pride in Tito's eyes when he'd talk about Terry. I can only imagine what it must have been like for him to watch Game 5 of the '16 AL Championship Series.
• Tito Francona, father of Indians skipper, dies
Now, I can only imagine the grief "Little Tito," as they used to call him in the Tribe clubhouse way back when, must be feeling.
"I love my dad," the younger Francona said before his first home opener as the Indians' skipper. "I think he's the best dad in the world."
Thanks to his dad, Terry grew up with baseball, hitting plastic balls through the windows of the family's fifth-floor apartment on Euclid Avenue and sending Tito scampering down the street to retrieve them.
Terry wanted so badly to retrieve a World Series title in Cleveland for his father. That 2016 team finished agonizingly short, and last year's club was ousted way earlier than anticipated, putting a frustrating finish on a trying year in which Terry himself battled some serious heart issues.
That heart is heavy now, and a day that was supposed to mark all the hope and optimism of the pitchers and catchers report date was instead made for mourning. But if the Indians didn't already have enough organizational incentive to do what hasn't been done in 70 years, well, winning one for Tito is a pretty wonderful thought.
Tito Francona's time with the Tribe was relatively brief -- six seasons from 1959-64. But he was one of the most popular players in town. He batted .363 and finished fifth in the AL MVP voting in his first season with the club, which doubled as Terry Francona's "rookie" year in this world. He was an All-Star for the Indians in 1961.
There are a lot of great stories about Tito from his playing days. Perhaps the most unusual is the one about the home run he hit in a 1961 Spring Training game in Tucson, Ariz. When a parks employee went to retrieve the ball, he discovered the dead body of a fugitive who had been wanted for the murder of his wife's lover and had committed suicide at that spot. With the crack of the bat, Francona had cracked that case wide open.
When Terry decided to take the Indians job prior to the 2013 season, Tito felt like he had been signed up, too.
"This is like renewing my contract," he had said. "It brings new life for me."
And to say Terry Francona has breathed new life into this ballclub is an understatement. The Indians have won more games than any other AL club during Little Tito's tenure, and Big Tito was glued to every inning.
So the Indians lost one of their most devoted fans on Tuesday night. And Terry lost his biggest supporter, the man who introduced him to the game and inspired him to come back to Cleveland.
Pitchers and catchers are in camp, and soon enough a new season will begin with the Indians and their broken-hearted skipper trying to do something special. If they are able to win it all this year, Terry Francona won't have to check his phone to know his dad is watching.
"He'll be the first call."