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'The Game is His Oxygen': Ailing Tribe Manager Terry Francona Remains Committed to Cleveland

a photo of Terry Francona
Erik Drost
Wikimedia Commons
Terry Francona is back with the team at Spring Training as he continues to recover from a staph infection. He was sidelined most of last season as a result of a number of health concerns.

The Cleveland Indians are beginning spring training with a lot of uncertainties. The pandemic has forced the team to cut payroll and part ways with key players. Now, their manager for the past eight years, Terry Francona, is facing more health problems.

WKSU’s sports commentator Terry Pluto explains why Francona remains committed to the team and why the team has vowed to stick with in their skipper.

At Spring Training in crutches
Francona revealed during a call with the media last week that he had a staph infection in one of his toes. He had to have part of a bone removed and is on crutches as the team begins preparing for the season in Goodyear, Ariz. He also has a catheter in his arm pumping antibiotics into his body.

It's the latest in a series of health problems Francona has battled for years since joining the Indians in 2013. Most prominently, he's dealt with heart issues and blood clots.

"In the last 15 months, he's had nine surgeries. Last year, when the Indians played 60 games, he only managed 14 of them," Pluto said.

Why stay?
Francona remains committed to managing the Indians despite his mounting health problems. The team's front office has also said it remains invested in Francona.

"The game is his oxygen. The people around him, that's his heartbeat. It's not ego. And it's not money; he's made more than enough. This is what he does, and it's where he gets value," Pluto said.

"The game is his oxygen. The people around him, that's his heartbeat."
Terry Pluto

Francona's rise and fall
Pluto says many people are unaware of Francona's background as a player.

He was a star with the University of Arizona, leading the Wildcats to the 1980 College World Series. He was drafted in the first round by the Montreal Expos that year. Forty-six games into his big-league career, he tore a ligament in his right knee and missed the rest of the season. Two years later, he injured his left knee. His major league career ended in 1990.

"He went from being a phenom, to — as he often said — 'I was the 26th man on a 25-man roster, sweating out cuts,'" Pluto said.

"All of the injuries and problems he went through has made him a better man and a better manager. That's why even with the latest health problems, they want him around the team because he connects with these players."

The safety net
Pluto says there's another reason the team is willing to see how far Francona can go: the presence of Sandy Alomar Jr.

"[Alomar] is the unheralded hero of the Indians. [He] was a tremendous catcher for them during the glory days of the 90s," Pluto said.

Alomar was runner-up in the manager job to Francona in 2013. He's been with the team ever since, most recently as first base coach. He's filled in as interim manager when Francona has had to step away. Last season, Alomar led the team to a 28-18 record.

Still, the team has had a remarkable stretch under Francona. They've had winning seasons all eight years under his leadership. They've made five trips to the playoffs and had a World Series berth in 2016.

"If you projected that over to a [Cleveland] Browns coach, they'd be building a statue for the guy," Pluto joked.

A tough season ahead
The Indians may very well open with a payroll just north of $40 million because of the financial fallout from the pandemic. Former Seattle Mariners executive Kevin Mather said that the industry lost $2.9 billion in surprisingly candid remarks that were leaked online.

Many view this year as the beginning of a rebuild following the departure of players like Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana and Carlos Carrasco.

That hasn't deterred the skipper.

"He does have a relationship with the guys. He's been there since 2013. He works well with the front office. Over the years he could have gone and managed elsewhere, but he wants to be here," Pluto said.

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Sean Fitzgerald is an announcer/board operator at Ideastream Public Media.