A conversation with Terry Francona, part three

In Part III of his conversation with new Indians manager Terry Francona, Pat McManamon asks Francona what it was like to manage Michael Jordan in Jordan’s only year in baseball. The two also discuss Francona’s playing career, which was shortened by numerous injuries, and his health.

Q: What was your first conversation with Michael Jordan?

A: Oh boy. I went up to him in the outfield at the end of spring training … there were like four or five days left in spring training. He saw me coming, and I could see him thinking, ‘Oh boy, here’s another guy who wants to be my coach.’ Because everybody wanted to be a part of that. I walked up to him, introduced myself and said, ‘I’m going to be your manager. For the next four or five days I’m going to leave you alone.’ I could see him kind of exhale, relax. I’m like, ‘Just get yourself grounded. When we get to Birmingham we’ll sit down and we’ll talk about what’s important and how it works.’ And I think he appreciated that.

Q: And then what?

A: We sat down. I told him figure out what questions you have. He wanted to know how we travel, things like that. We had a really good relationship. He was terrific. He respected … that was one thing I told him, I said you have to respect what we’re doing here for this to work. And from day one, he did. He really did.

Q: That’s a curveball you don’t expect coming.

A: Right. But I learned more than he did. Just about how to compete. Watching him and the way he handled people. I was amazed. I’m a big fan of his. I think it comes across when I’m talking about him, but I am. I’m a big fan of his.

Q: When you say the way he handled people, you mean the constant attention?

A: Anything. I’ve never seen anybody get picked at like him. That’s why I don’t call him very often. Because his life was one constant … people were always trying to get at him. I think that’s part of the reason he liked baseball so much. He’d get on those bus rides and nobody could get at him. So I saw a side of him that a lot of people didn’t, with his guard down, and it was fun.

Q: That’s a unique experience. How much did that help you be a good manager?

A: A lot. When you’re in AA, you’re dealing with two writers and you’re on radio. I was put in, not a predicament, but a spot nobody else is. Dealing with national media. I learned how to be organized. Dealing with a high-profile athlete. I’m sure it helped a ton.

Q: And how much did he improve during the season?

A: A lot.

Q: Do you think you had much to do with it.

A: No. We had a hitting coach and everything. He got better. He went out to the Fall League and did a lot better. And I don’t doubt if he’d have kept at it he’d have figured out a way to get to the big leagues. Because I found out if you tell him he can’t do something, he’ll figure out way to do it. I found that out a lot of times the hard way.

Q: Your playing career, any disappointment at the injuries?

A: I got hurt so early that my goals kind of drastically changed. I wanted to be a hotshot hitter and lead the league in hitting, to suddenly just trying to be good enough to make a team. So my goals kind of changed. But it helped me prepare for this side of the game. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was really helpful for this side. I got to see a lot of different managers and how they did things, different organizations. But I never felt like I was dealt a bad hand. I used to stay in the training room with Andre Dawson, and we’d get our knees taped at the same time together. He’d go out and he’d put up Hall of Fame numbers and I couldn’t do it. So I would move from team to team and I always felt like I’d get another opportunity. It was what it was, and I did the best I could.

Q: The recurring health issues that have lingered, how much have those set you back?

A: It set me back a lot. In ‘02 I had that (staph infection) fiasco. It aged me. It’s not gonna kill me, but what it does is kind of piss me off. It’s aggravating. Today, when I’m done with you and some other guys after I’ll go in and swim. Because it helps me. That’s the one thing … if I swim it really helps, helps my circulation, helps me limber up. In spring training I’ll wake up in the morning and I’ll go swim somewhere so I can be a working coach.

Q: Every day?

A: Yeah. That’s the one thing, and I’ve really gotten good at it. If we’re on the road I’ll find a place to go.

Q: How about here in the clubhouse?

A: They’ve got the SwimEx here. It’s wonderful. Awesome. I love it. I’ll tear that thing apart.

Q: Have you ever counted how many different surgeries you’ve had? There are different numbers online.

A: I’ve had 22 knee surgeries. Alone.

Q: That’s partly because of staph too, right?

A: Yeah. You count six in there, so I’ve had 16 or 18 before that anyway. I’ve had both my shoulders done, my elbow, my hands, my neck. I’ve had a lot of surgeries. My body hurts.

Q: Was it worth it?

A: (Pause) Yeeeahh. (Smiles) I loved playing. And even my last year, I spent my last year in Louisville in AAA, but I loved it because I got to play. I loved it there. My body was failing me and I wasn’t a very good player but I loved it because I’d show up at the ballpark and I knew I was going to play.

Q: What did you have to do every day just to get ready to play?

A: It was hard. It was hard.

Q: A long routine every day?

A: Yeah, and we played on turf that was awful. But I wasn’t productive enough to play in the major leagues, but I go to AAA and I played every day. It killed my body but I loved playing. It was good. It was fun.

Q: Do you think it was just good fortune, good luck that you happened to know Buddy Bell and he brought you to coaching?

A: Very. Our relationship … we hung out together when I was with the Reds and we talked baseball all the time. He had enough faith in me that when he was with the White Sox he wanted me to be a manager. Then when he went to the big leagues he took me as his third base coach. And a year later I was managing. I’ve been fortunate a lot of times. Because I think I’m just a normal guy that loves the game, and I’ve caught a lot of breaks. I don’t dispute that.

Q: Some might say you’ve caught a lot of bad breaks too though.

A: Hmm … I don’t think so.

Q: But you were hitting .320 and your foot got caught in the turf …

A: Yeah, but I probably wasn’t strong enough to … That’s why I think that last season at Triple-A was good for me. I saw six or seven guys on that Triple-A team that didn’t have any time in the big leagues and they were better than me. So I thought maybe I ought to count my blessings here and not whine too much. It was good for me, good learning experience. I played for a guy that was kind of a grizzled minor league guy, and he treated me great.

Q: Who was it?

A: His name was Gaylen Pitts. And it got to the point where I wasn’t playing very well and he had to pinch hit for me … I’m sure that wasn’t very easy. I learned a lot from him. Like how to treat people. He’d go out every day and throw to me early, and his arm was killing him. We’d pick up the balls together and I knew he was pulling for me and I wasn’t doing that well. But I respected him a lot.

Q: So batting practice every day with him?

A: Always. Then we’d go pick up the balls together. I learned a lot from him.

Q: Sounds like a Bull Durham thing.

A: Sort of. But it was good. It was a great learning experience.

Tomorrow: The conclusion of our conversation with Terry Francona.
To read Pat McManamon’s profile of Terry Francona, go here to the Cleveland Magazine web site.