A wind­ing path to the top

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

Cleve­land’s Terry Fran­cona, per­haps base­ball’s best man­ager, has earned some scars along the way.

If you start ask­ing Terry Fran­cona about his health, the first thing you will get is the jokes. “I’m as healthy as ever,” he’ll of­ten say, “for bet­ter or worse.” He’ll prob­a­bly tell you that when he got his hip re­placed last Novem­ber, three days af­ter his Cleve­land In­di­ans lost in the World Series, he awoke from heavy se­da­tion and asked where the vic­tory pa­rade was. “I thought we’d won,” he’ll crack, and in­evitably ev­ery­one around him will laugh, even though most of them have heard the line be­fore.

Next, you will get the self-dep­re­ca­tion, and the fierce in­sis­tence that his re­cent heart troubles haven’t soft­ened him. “If you’re ask­ing if I’ve gained per­spec­tive — no,” he’ll tell you. “I’ve never had it, never will.” Fi­nally, you might get the ver­bal shrug — the as­sur­ance that what­ever it is he’s deal­ing with, it’s re­ally no big deal.

“If I ever got to the point where I feel like I’m short­chang­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion, I’d prob­a­bly get out,” he said re­cently. “But I don’t want to. “I love what I’m do­ing.” The In­di­ans opened their 2017 post­sea­son this past week, tak­ing a 2-0 lead over the Yan­kees in the Amer­i­can League Divi­sion Series. Game 3 in the best-of-five series is Sun­day night in New York. Fran­cona, Cleve­land’s man­ager, is at the height of his pow­ers. At 58, he is widely con­sid­ered the best in the game at his job, both a master tac­ti­cian and a bril­liant com­mu­ni­ca­tor. Last year, he guided the pitch­ing-de­pleted In­di­ans within a win of a World Series ti­tle, los­ing Game 7 in 10 in­nings to the Chicago Cubs. And this year, if any­thing, both he and the In­di­ans have been even bet­ter, win­ning an AL-best 102 reg­u­lar sea­son games that in­cluded a league-record 22 straight in Au­gust and Septem­ber.

“I’m hav­ing a lot fun try­ing to see how good we can be,” he said last month. “Even when it’s not go­ing the way we want to, that’s what’s so spe­cial about this group — I like go­ing through it to­gether. It’s like, ‘Let’s fig­ure it out to­gether.’ ”

In the process, Fran­cona has so­lid­i­fied his sta­tus as the sport’s ul­ti­mate sur­vivor — a one-time can’t-miss prospect who over­came the in­jury-marred flame­out of his play­ing ca­reer to turn him­self into a likely Hall of Fame man­ager; an old-school base­ball man, his en­tire life from child­hood on spent in pro­fes­sional club­houses, who none­the­less has adapted and thrived in a game run by an­a­lyt­ics; a two-time World Series win­ner in Bos­ton who sur­vived a ran­corous di­vorce from the Red Sox in 2011; and a walk­ing med­i­cal school text­book with a body full of sur­gi­cal scars and ti­ta­nium joints.

As the In­di­ans began the de­fense of their 2016 AL pen­nant by host­ing the Yan­kees in the Divi­sion Series, tak­ing aim at fin­ish­ing the job they fell just shy of com­plet­ing last fall, Fran­cona was lean­ing for­ward on that ar­ti­fi­cial hip and shuf­fling around on a pair of ar­ti­fi­cial knees. (If he ever gets the other hip re­placed, he joked, “I’ll be the Bionic Man.”) He is wear­ing a heart mon­i­tor to make sure his ticker doesn’t get out of rhythm again and com­pres­sion sleeves on his legs to aid cir­cu­la­tion.

“Some of the job is harder phys­i­cally than it used to be,” Fran­cona said. “With age and health, that’s just the real­ity.”

His heart episodes this sum­mer — when he was twice rushed to the hos­pi­tal with a rapid heart rate and dizzi­ness, then un­der­went a nine-hour sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dure called car­diac ab­la­tion that forced him to miss the All-Star Game — have only in­creased the level of con­cern of Fran­cona’s friends about his long-term health.

“We worry a lot about him,” said Bill Kin­neberg, the base­ball coach at the Univer­sity of Utah and a for­mer col­lege team­mate who re­mains one of Fran­cona’s clos­est friends. “It wor­ries me about his body, how many surg­eries he’s had. We all worry about that, but in an­other sense, when you’re around him he’s never down. He’s al­ways mess­ing with some­body. It’s not as if he’s not en­joy­ing him­self.”

It is the cen­tral con­tra­dic­tion with Fran­cona. The game of base­ball is his life. No­body can imag­ine him do­ing any­thing else. But his friends also can’t help but won­der if base­ball — with its at­tend­ing stresses, travel de­mands and gen­eral daily grind — is de­stroy­ing his health.

“Every­body’s wor­ried about him,” said Curt Schilling, who pitched for Fran­cona at his pre­vi­ous stops in Philadel­phia and Bos­ton and who re­mains a close friend.

“I think he has the right peo­ple around him, and they’re all look­ing out for him. The prob­lem is, that’s not a life that’s con­ducive to tak­ing care of your­self.”

‘I just do what I think is right’

When Fran­cona fi­nally got to sleep af­ter Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, he slept the sleep of the con­tented, his pride in what his In­di­ans had ac­com­plished win­ning out over re­gret for how it ended. It was a feel­ing he was un­used to. In the past, post­sea­son de­feats had al­ways left him devastated for weeks. But this time, he re­called re­cently, “You’re disap- pointed, but I was so damn proud, I think that re­ally won over.”

In the months since, he has never re­ally re­vis­ited the events of Game 7, a much-dis­sected clas­sic in which the In­di­ans trailed by three in the eighth in­ning, came back to tie it then ul­ti­mately lost in ex­tra in­nings. He lived it, ev­ery sin­gle pitch. He doesn’t need a re­fresher.

“Once I’m ready for a game, I just do what I think is right, feel con­fi­dent enough in what I’m do­ing, an­swer the ques­tions and move on,” he said. “I’ve al­ways felt like that. I don’t wake up to see how I’m be­ing per­ceived [in the me­dia]. I think I’m con­fi­dent enough in what I’m do­ing that I do it, and hope­fully it works. But if it doesn’t, I don’t nec­es­sar­ily think what I did was the wrong move. As long as I was pre­pared, I can live with it.”

The de­feat last fall did nearly as much for Fran­cona’s rep­u­ta­tion as his two World Series ti­tles in Bos­ton did. He some­how squeezed an ad­e­quate num­ber of in­nings out of a ro­ta­tion de­pleted by in­juries, and when he could no longer do that, he de­ployed his best re­liever, lefty An­drew Miller, with breath­tak­ing skill and ag­gres­sive­ness — tak­ing an ax­iom of the an­a­lyt­ics move­ment, that your best re­liever should pitch in the most im­por­tant sit­u­a­tions, and turn­ing Miller into a dev­as­tat­ing, multi-in­ning, high-lever­age weapon.

The close friends who know Fran­cona as a crusty, griz­zled, old­school base­ball man — a “dirt­ball,” as Schilling says with clear af­fec­tion — get a good chuckle at his be­ing held up as the dar­ling of the sport’s an­a­lyt­ics crowd. But when it comes to win­ning games, and us­ing ev­ery tool at his dis­posal to do so, there is noth­ing funny, or sur­pris­ing, about Fran­cona’s skill.

“He’s a re­ally smart guy,” Kin­neberg said. “I’m con­vinced that, if had ap­plied him­self to his ed­u­ca­tion [in col­lege] the way he did to base­ball, he could have gone to med school. He’s that smart.”

As Schilling ex­plained, “His goal is to win as many base­ball games as pos­si­ble. He doesn’t care how he does it.”

It’s no co­in­ci­dence Fran­cona has thrived in two of the most data-driven front of­fices in the game, the Red Sox of the 2000s and the In­di­ans of the 2010s.

“He’s an ex­tremely open-minded per­son,” In­di­ans Gen­eral Man­ager Mike Ch­er­noff said. “He doesn’t just ac­cept in­for­ma­tion; he em­braces it. And he’s al­ways been a re­la­tion­ship builder. That’s what al­lows him to learn and adapt.

“He wel­comes the an­a­lyt­ics guy who has just dis­cov­ered some­thing in the num­bers into his of­fice just as quickly as he wel­comes the old-school scout who has some­thing to tell him.

“He pre­pares for games bet­ter than any­one. He crushes in­for­ma­tion. He then man­ages off his ex­pe­ri­ence and his prepa­ra­tion. That’s the gold stan­dard for a man­ager.”

To his play­ers, Fran­cona’s best at­tribute isn’t his abil­ity to put face­less, an­a­lyt­ics-based con­cepts into prac­tice, but his abil­ity to con­nect with them on a per­sonal level. He may ap­pre­ci­ate what the num­bers are say­ing, but he never for­gets that within each uni­form is a beat­ing heart that re­quires its own in­di­vid­u­ally tai­lored care.

“He’s good at em­pow­er­ing peo­ple — putting them in good spots and en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple in dif­fer­ent ways,” said Miller. “He likes the shtick of play­ing dumb, but he’s clearly not.

“And the fact he em­braces some of the an­a­lyt­i­cal stuff shows he’s a re­ally smart guy and that he’s open to ideas. But what he does [for play­ers] on a one-on-one level is huge.”

‘He’s just a great leader’

Un­til this sum­mer, Fran­cona had en­dured only one ex­tended, in-sea­son stretch of time with­out base­ball in his adult life. In 1990, he had re­tired as a player af­ter 10 mostly un­mem­o­rable sea­sons. He had come into pro ball as a highly touted prospect — the son of for­mer big lea­guer Tito Fran­cona (whose first name would be­come Terry’s ubiq­ui­tous nick­name), the Sport­ing News col­le­giate player of the year and a first-round pick of the Mon­treal Ex­pos in 1980. But ma­jor knee in­juries cut short his most promis­ing sea­sons and the sec­ond half of his ca­reer was spent mostly as a util­ity player.

That sum­mer, he de­cided to try to get his re­al­tor’s li­cense, en­rolling in classes and en­vi­sion­ing a life spent sell­ing houses in sub­ur­ban Philadel­phia. Then, out of the blue, a for­mer team­mate, Buddy Bell, called and asked if Fran­cona would be in­ter­ested in coach­ing in the White Sox or­ga­ni­za­tion. Fran­cona ditched the real es­tate classes and jumped back into the arms of base­ball.

“No­body was go­ing to buy a house from me any­way,” he has of­ten said.

Within six years of start­ing his coach­ing ca­reer, in 1997, he was named the man­ager of the Philadel­phia Phillies, his nat­u­ral skills as a com­mu­ni­ca­tor car­ry­ing him up through the ranks — his mi­nor league manag­ing ca­reer high­lighted by a stint manag­ing Michael Jor­dan with the Class AA Birm­ing­ham Barons — with stun­ning swift­ness.

“He’s just a great leader, and what a great leader does is make peo­ple want to per­form at their best for him,” said Schilling, the start­ing pitcher in Fran­cona’s first game as the Phillies’ man­ager. “I’ve played for oth­ers I didn’t like. I didn’t stop try­ing. But with a great leader, it’s a dif­fer­ent menhe tal­ity. He’s al­ways been able to make that con­nec­tion with his play­ers. You know he cares. He’ll take a bul­let for you in the me­dia or with own­er­ship.”

This sum­mer’s heart episodes kept him out a to­tal of 11 days, but it was hardly his clos­est brush with death. In 2002, com­pli­ca­tions from knee surgery pro­duced a staph in­fec­tion, mas­sive in­ter­nal bleed­ing and a pul­monary em­bolism on each side of his lungs.

“I could have died,” Fran­cona said. “I stopped breath­ing a cou­ple of times.”

Be­fore go­ing in July 7 for his car­diac ab­la­tion pro­ce­dure, in which a tube is in­serted through a vein in the leg and heat and ra­dio waves are ap­plied to the heart to jolt it back into rhythm, Fran­cona texted Kin­neberg, his close friend, to in­form him. When Kin­neberg im­me­di­ately called Fran­cona, the lat­ter nat­u­rally down­played it. “Just go­ing in for a lit­tle pro­ce­dure,” he said, “that’s all.”

But while a lit­tle heart pro­ce­dure may have been no big deal to Fran­cona, at least not to the ex­tent that he let on, it was a ma­jor con­cern for his em­ploy­ers and his play­ers. The front of­fice was force­ful in get­ting him to ac­cept its con­ser­va­tive timetable to re­turn to the dugout, which he did on July 14, in the sec­ond-half opener. And the play­ers walked the fine line be­tween ex­press­ing their con­cern and stay­ing out of his busi­ness.

“Ac­tu­ally, [the front of­fice] wanted us to leave him alone, be­cause talk­ing to him about his health just stressed him out,” Miller said. “There was a level of con­cern be­cause he’s such a big part of this team. But hon­estly, guys were more con­cerned just for his well-be­ing, on a per­sonal level. The guys who have got­ten to know him, we love him and we want him to be healthy.”

It may seem para­dox­i­cal, but even in the midst of Fran­cona’s most chal­leng­ing sea­son from a health stand­point, he has never seemed hap­pier, or more alive. Dur­ing the In­di­ans’ 22-game win­ning streak, what stood out, aside from how well the In­di­ans were play­ing, was how sharp and en­gaged Fran­cona was — his mood uni­formly sunny, his self-dep­re­ca­tion game at full strength, his barbs land­ing with ex­tra force.

At one point, as the win­ning streak zoomed past 20, he made a crack about a good friend he has dubbed the “Gray Cloud” who isn’t al­lowed to call him — be­cause of Fran­cona’s su­per­sti­tion and the Gray Cloud’s un­lucky pow­ers. But even with the streak still alive, Fran­cona was feel­ing good enough to break the ban and call the friend, whom he even­tu­ally iden­ti­fied as Kin­neberg, him­self.

It wasn’t like Fran­cona to test the Gray Cloud’s dark pow­ers — “You sure you want to do this?” Kin­neberg asked him — but per­haps that is an­other sign of the good, happy, healthy place Fran­cona finds him­self these days, in mind and spirit if not in body. Things are go­ing so well for Fran­cona and the In­di­ans, he has even seemed — dare we say? — ca­pa­ble of in­tro­spec­tion.

“I love the jour­ney,” he said last month, as the In­di­ans began to look ahead to Oc­to­ber. “Only one team can win. It’s re­ally hard to win.

“So I hate to wait till it’s over to say, ‘Oh, that was cool.’ I love what we’re do­ing right now.”

TED S. WAR­REN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

“I’m con­fi­dent enough in what I’m do­ing that I do it, and hope­fully it works,” Cleve­land Man­ager Terry Fran­cona said.

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