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'It energized him': A surprising season draws Guardians manager Terry Francona back for an 11th year

Cleveland baseball team manager Terry Francona, center, waves to fans after getting a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, June 20, 2021.
Gene J. Puskar
/
AP
Cleveland baseball team manager Terry Francona, center, waves to fans after getting a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, June 20, 2021.

After leading Major League Baseball’s youngest team to the playoffs, Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona said he’ll return for an 11th season. Ideastream Public Media’s sports commentator Terry Pluto said Francona’s unusual contract structure underscores the special culture in the Guardians’ front office.

Francona has had an incredible run in Cleveland. In his 10 seasons, he’s had nine winning records, six trips to the playoffs and once losing to the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

A two-year contract extension he signed in 2019 expired at the end of this magical season. Pluto said Francona didn’t want to sign another extension, largely because of the uncertainty surrounding his health issues.

“He did not finish the 2020 or the 2021 season, and when he says he's had more than 40 surgeries in his life, that’s true. And, as the season went along, I don't think any of us were wondering about Francona would play out his contract and go elsewhere. But the question was, will he be healthy through the whole season? And then what about coming back?” Pluto said.

Shortly after the season ended, 63-year-old Francona said he has not yet signed a contract but intends to be back next season.

“Chris Antonetti, team president, Mike Chernoff, the general manager and Francona are telling the story. They say, ‘What are we going to do about next year?’ Francona said, ‘Well, let's just go one year at a time,''' Pluto said.

Then, the group said the negotiations took “about five minutes.”

“Francona said, ‘Well, it's really one year.’ And Antonetti said, ‘Well, it is one year, but we want him to keep managing as long as he wants to keep managing,’” Pluto said.

“This is like, unprecedented,” Pluto said. “Usually, there's the agent comes in, [and] he does all the hardball stuff. That's how it usually works.”

Pluto said that underscores the special bond and culture between Francona, Antonetti and Chernoff.

“There's a second factor,” Pluto said. “And that is his health issues. He's been under the care of Cleveland Clinic now for 10 years. And there's a joke down at the Clinic that there's the ‘Francona suite.’ But when you've gone through all the different health problems that he's had, you want to be by your doctors. You want to be by your hospital. Even though Francona spent his offseason down in Tucson, [Ariz.], he'll fly up here all the time for medical checks or when he has some rough off seasons. He's been up here quite a bit.”

Another unusual contract quirk about Francona – since he’s been in Cleveland, he’s turned down a clause that would pay him a bonus should be named MLB’s Manager of the Year.

“His feeling is, if I get the manager of the year award, we have done so well, it’s going to pay off for everybody. And it's not just me, it's my coaches, it's the front office. [And] he feels, yes, there's some budget constraints. But I want to go through this with the people that I trust. They feel they could overcome that because they have stability and they have freedom to do pure baseball.”

And Pluto said another factor was leading the youngest team in baseball to an American Central Division title.

“It energized him. He now wants to see where it goes. In fact, his end-of-the-year speech was, ‘We can't just say this was a nice year. This is something that nobody expected. This is a starting point for us. So, let's see how far we can take it.’”

Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.