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Former prospect Francona adjusted to numerous injuries

by Mike lesko | reporter Published: July 27, 2016 12:00 AM

Aurora -- Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, once a top baseball prospect, always dreamed about playing in the Major Leagues, but he almost ended up as a realtor.

Injuries whittled away his baseball dreams.

"When I was 23, I already had both knees operated on," he told guests June 19 at Christ Community Chapel in Aurora, where he was invited to speak. The engagement was open to everybody in the community.

"[My dream of being an excellent player] was already taken away at a young age. I was a shell of what I wanted to be as a player."

By age 32, Francona had retired as a player after having operations on his wrist, knee and shoulder.

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"About two months later, I was sitting on the living room sofa watching 'Gilligan's Island' on TV," he said. "My former wife said, 'Is this what you're going to do for the rest of your life?'"

So Francona signed up for a real estate course.

"About halfway through the course, a guy from the Chicago White Sox called me and said, 'Would you like to start being a minor league manager?'"

Francona was intrigued by the idea. "I took my real estate book and gave it back to the teacher," he said. "I said, 'Hey, nobody's going to buy anything from me anyway.'"

Francona began managing in the lower levels of minor leagues.

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"I loved it," he said. "The first year, I made $18,000. You're with 18- and 19-year-old kids. You're talking to kids who just went to the prom. You're the dad, uncle, brother -- everything."

Francona had found his niche. He has been the Indians manager since the start of the 2013 season.

Early dreams

As a youngster, Francona had every reason to believe he could be a successful pro ballplayer.

His father Tito carved out a 15-year career in the majors with nine teams, including the Indians from 1959-64.

"Every year, my high school guidance counselor said, 'Terry, you can't put 'professional baseball' down as an occupation,'" he said. "Back then, I didn't realize how stacked the odds are against you. I figured my dad did it, so I was going to do it."

He couldn't imagine that his injuries would take such a toll. By age 32, his playing career was over.

Francona began managing in the minors in 1991. By 1997, he was hired to manage the Philadelphia Phillies. He was 36.

"The reason I was hired was they didn't think they were any good," he said. "We had one good pitcher -- Curt Schilling. So every five days, we were actually pretty good. The other four days, we were terrible."

On one particular day, Schilling was getting hit hard. Fireworks at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium seemed to be going off constantly after all the Reds' home runs.

Francona walked to the mound, and Schilling went into a tirade about potentially being removed from the game. Francona was silent.

Finally, Schilling said to Francona, "Aren't you going to say something?"

Francona responded, "I just came out here to give that poor fireworks guy a rest."

In 2004, Francona was hired to manage the Boston Red Sox. That season, they won their first World Series since 1918 by coming back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the American League championship series. Boston won four games in a row.

"Everybody always asks me, 'What did you tell your players? Did you have a big meeting?'" he said.

"After we lost the third game 19-8, I was sitting with the coaches the next day. We said, 'What do we do?'

"I walked into the food room. [Red Sox standouts] Johnny Damon, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were watching the movie 'Animal House.' [Actor] John Belushi was crashing a guitar over a guy's head, and they were cracking up.

"I thought, 'These guys are just dumb enough to think they can win.' So I stayed out of the way. And we won the series."

Later, the Red Sox dumped the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series. Boston won a second World Series under Francona in 2007 by thumping the Colorado Rockies. Along the way, the Red Sox defeated the Indians in the ALCS.

Today, Francona is well-established as Indians manager. He also has a workout routine established. He arrives at the ballpark at about 10:30 a.m. for night games to use a swimming "box" where one can turn on a water current to swim.

"Because I've had so many surgeries on my body, I try to have an hour to myself where I can swim," he said. "It makes my whole day better. I can bend over and touch my toes. I seem to have a little more energy.

"So I get my work done before the players start coming in at 1 p.m. Whatever's going on, I can be a part of it. I can't relax before the game until I feel prepared. Once I'm prepared, I'm good to go."

Email: mlesko@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4187

Facebook: facebook.com/mike.lesko.378

Twitter: Mike Lesko@MikeLesko_RPC

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