Francona's stops stamped by lasting legacy of excellence

October 1st, 2023

Terry Francona, the son of a Major League player who became a lasting star of baseball as a manager, walks away from the Guardians now, and from the game. Only he knows if it is for good, and he might not know until after he has been away for a while. Maybe he will come back someday for one final act the way Bruce Bochy has with the Rangers.

All we know for now is that Tito Francona -- it is the same nickname his father had before him -- is managing his last game on Sunday. So this is a day to remind everyone that he has not just been one of the best managers of his time, but that he is one of the best managers of all time, if only because of what he did in October, starting with four memorable nights in October of 2004.

Across those nights, a couple of them really long ones, Francona’s Red Sox came back from 0-3 down against the Yankees in the ALCS and became the first and only team in baseball history to come back from being three games down to win a postseason series.

It could never have happened the way it did without the great baseball man the Red Sox had in the dugout, who would not give up even after the Yankees had beaten his team, 19-8, in Game 3 and would not let his players give up. He calmly kept telling those players that all they needed to do was win a game tonight. In that way, his strength became theirs, and so did his character, and grace under that kind of pressure.

Starting with Game 4, Francona merely did the greatest managing job anybody has ever done in October, the first two of those games at Fenway Park and the last two at Yankee Stadium. Francona will likely go into the Hall of Fame. He really began to punch his ticket to Cooperstown as he and his team were becoming legends of that fall.

"I thought it was poetic justice," Francona would say much later, "to win when everybody thought we would lose after all the times when people thought we would win and we lost."

It all started, of course, in the bottom of the ninth of Game 4 when the Yankees had a one-run lead and were three outs away from a sweep, with the ball in Mariano Rivera’s hand. But then Rivera walked Kevin Millar and Dave Roberts, now the Dodgers manager, was sent out by Francona to run for Millar and steal second base, which he did a few pitches later.

“I just winked at him,” Francona said. “And that was my way of saying, 'Go get ‘em, big boy.'"

Roberts did his job and Bill Mueller singled him home and then well into the next morning, David Ortiz hit a walk-off homer in the 14th inning and the Sox were still alive. The baseball world was about to find out just alive they really were. Starting that night the Red Sox would finish off the Yankees and then the Cardinals with an eight-game October winning streak.

“There was a consistent level of calm with Terry,” Roberts told me this weekend. “And he was connected to every player on the roster.”

Three years later the Red Sox fell behind Cleveland in another ALCS, and then proceeded to come all the way back again. This time they finished off their postseason with a seven-game winning streak that included another World Series sweep, against the Rockies. So another Francona team did that. He could have walked away then and been on his way to Cooperstown.

In 2016 Francona was the one managing in Cleveland and nearly won another World Series in a city that had been waiting so long (1948) to do that the way Boston had been waiting since 1918 before October of ’04. The Cubs were the ones who came back that time, to end an even longer World Series wait of their own. Still: At that point Francona’s lifetime record in World Series games was 11-4.

For now, baseball loses his intelligence and great heart, and perhaps his humanity most of all. What could have been the worst move he made against the Yankees in ’04 -- bringing Pedro Martinez into Game 7 in those days when Pedro was saying the Yankees were his “daddy” -- wasn’t about strategy that night. Francona was managing with his heart again, because he decided he wanted Pedro to be a part of a historic moment like that.

“I wanted Petey to have a piece of that night,” Francona said.

“He never forgot how hard this game is,” Roberts said. “That’s how you gain, and keep, players’ trust.”

Other managers won more World Series than Terry "Tito" Francona did. Not one of them ever won them quite as memorably as he did. Even last October, with a bunch of kids in Cleveland, his team nearly upset a Yankees team when the sides didn’t look remotely even.

For now, a baseball lifer calls it a day. My friend Pete Hamill once said that when Joe Torre left the Yankees it was like a hundred guys leaving the room. Another hundred leave the room in Cleveland on Sunday with Terry Francona.