Tito reflects on 2023 season, looks ahead to new chapter

October 2nd, 2023

DETROIT -- Instinctively, there was only one answer that immediately came to Guardians manager Terry Francona’s mind when he was asked about his emotions after his final game as Cleveland’s skipper: “I’m kind of pissed we lost, like always. I don’t like when we lose.”

There was nothing left on the line for the Guardians in Game 162. They were eliminated from playoff contention more than a week ago. Although Francona hasn’t used the word “retirement” just yet -- that’s expected later this week -- he’s already admitted he’s stepping down, and he’s talked about not being in the dugout next season often.

Even when the pressure was off and he could have just savored the last innings he had as a Major League manager, Francona couldn’t help but impulsively be bothered by a 5-2 loss to the Tigers at Comerica Park. It’s the only way he’s known for the last 23 years he spent managing and the decade he spent as a player in the big leagues.

This loss came with a little more emotion. Usually, Francona would just head back to his office and start preparing for the next day’s game. With no game -- or next season -- to plan for, Francona hung back and hugged each player as they came off the field.

“I just needed to tell them 'thank you,'” Francona said. “We didn’t accomplish what we set out to this year, but they didn’t shortchange anybody in effort and they’re such good kids. … I just want them to know that because when you don’t win, sometimes you’re not able to maybe convey that as much as you should and you shouldn’t have to win to care about guys.”

The Guardians ended their season 10 games below .500, Francona’s second losing season in his 11-year tenure in Cleveland. This was a club that was primed to sit atop the AL Central once again after an unexpectedly exhilarating 2022 season caught the nation’s attention. The foundation seemed to be set.

The front office tried to be aggressive in acquiring some offensive help in free agents Josh Bell and Mike Zunino. The farm system was flush with talent. It all looked like a recipe for an even better 2023.

Instead, it was full of hurdles and disappointment.

Bell and Zunino never panned out. Zunino was designated for assignment in June and Bell was shipped away to get his salary off Cleveland's plate at the Trade Deadline. Starter Zach Plesac struggled so much he was sent to Triple-A in the first week of May and was never recalled.

Oscar Gonzalez wasn’t the cult hero he became in the ‘22 playoffs. Steven Kwan got off to a slower start in his sophomore campaign. Emmanuel Clase beat the 42 saves record he set last year, while simultaneously blowing 12 games throughout the year.

Even when the Guardians enjoyed their high moments, an obstacle was just around the corner. The luck that the team experienced in ‘22 was gone and everything had to be earned. As exciting as it was to get a glimpse of Tanner Bibee, Gavin Williams and Logan Allen, it was at the expense of losing veterans Shane Bieber, Cal Quantrill and Triston McKenzie for long chunks of the season.

When José Ramírez stole home in extra innings against the Royals in June, Kansas City came back in the bottom half of the frame to walk it off. The Guardians were trying to desperately muster a comeback in the AL Central standings, but trading Amed Rosario, Aaron Civale and Bell at the Deadline seemed to suck the energy out of the clubhouse. At the same time, Josh Naylor, the team’s best hitter, landed on the IL for a month.

But at the center of this developmental year was Francona, whose standard to always play the game the right way led to a constant hustle from his players that never waned, even after they were eliminated from postseason contention -- lessons that will stick with each of them well beyond this season.

“It’s an honor, a blessing to play for him,” Naylor said. “He’s such a good leader, such a good mentor to all of us. He teaches us to play the game the right way and to have fun and trust ourselves. … It was a blast to play for him and all of us as a team, we love him to death and we’re all super thankful.”

The players wanted to show their appreciation by gifting Francona something memorable. Over the last few days, Naylor snuck around the room, getting everyone to sign a No. 77 Francona jersey for his final sendoff.

“We all just wanted to just give him something to go out with,” Naylor said. “He can always look at it and remember the last team he had and remember that we gave him everything we could for him. We just played our hearts out and did it for him, not for ourselves.”

Naylor gave it to Francona just before his final game on Sunday. He also couldn’t help but pop into Francona’s office one last time after the loss before it was official that Francona was no longer his manager. Just moments later, it became clear that the 64-year-old skipper was making the right decision.

Francona was asked about his emotions from his final game. When he instinctively said he was upset, he paused for a moment and then a smile came to his face.

“But I mean [my] grandkids are here and I’ll go take them to dinner and play with them, let them tire me out,” Francona continued. “I guess I should start practicing that because I’ll probably get to do it more, which is great.”

It’s the only sign anyone needed to know Francona is ready to start his next chapter, even if baseball isn’t ready to say goodbye.