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Big League Stew

Answer Man: Terry Francona talks Indians, Red Sox, Expos, Michael Jordan, going bald, Dustin Pedroia, Belichick hoodies and Billy Bob Thornton

David Brown
Big League Stew

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Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona literally grew up in Major League Baseball; his father, Tito Francona, hit 125 home runs over nearly 5,800 plate appearances from 1956-1970, and he brought his kid into every clubhouse along the way.

Though he was a first-round pick of the Montreal Expos in 1980 after being named the country's best college player, Terry Francona's MLB career didn't go as well. But simply observing the journey taught him much more than he ever would have learned just playing. And his minor-league experiences — notably as Michael Jordan's manager at Birmingham — also helped prepare him to manage in the majors.

The skipper of two World Series winners with the Boston Red Sox took time earlier this week for an Answer Man session that covers a lot of territory in a unique baseball life.

David Brown: Everybody knows you inherited the nickname "Tito" from your dad, but where did he get it from?

Terry Francona: When he was little ... in Italian, "Tito" kind of means — the way I perceive it, I don't want to say, like, "a pest" — but someone little with a lot of energy. His given name is John Patsy, but he's gone by Tito since. Nobody calls him "John." And when I was growing up in the clubhouse, I was always "Little Tito." It just kind of stuck. People in my hometown call me "T," my mom called me Terry. I always kind of know where I am by what I'm called. But being called "Tito," I'm proud of that, because I'm proud of my dad. I view it as kind of a compliment.

DB: When you interviewed for this job, did you have to watch the movie "Major League" so you had an idea of what the manager of the Cleveland Indians should be doing?

Tito: No, but I've watched that movie a bunch. I'm actually in it. There's one scene. In 1988, they were doing the crowd shots in Cleveland and I was playing first base. And Corbin Bernsen was No. 24. And I was No. 24, so I'm coming off the field, getting a ball [reaches like he's making a catch]. You can tell it's me, if you look real close. It's like a two-second shot. But when people see it, they go, "That IS you!" I love that movie, I think it's awesome.

DB: What kind of career do you think you would have had, if you hadn't hurt both of your knees?

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Francona injures his right knee at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium in 1981. (AP)

Tito: Mmm, I don't know. I was probably like anybody else; young and immature. Maybe a little arrogant. I thought I was gonna come to the league, maybe lead the league in hitting, make a lot of money and retire on my own terms. Three months into my career, that changed. I hurt my right knee and it took me about a year and a half to kind of get back. Came back a little stronger, more prepared, and was leading the league in hitting [in 1984] and I hurt my left knee. And when I did get back, I was basically hanging on, trying to make myself useful enough to be on a team. I got another six years in the league, but it was hard.

DB: Did not playing change how you approached the game?

Tito: It probably helped me learn, because I started watching more. Because when you're a player, you take care of yourself, you take care of your position. But when you're on the bench, you watch everything. So I watched everything. Managers, players. And I don't ever think I thought about being a manager — I just liked baseball.

DB: You were leading the league in doubles when you got hurt the second time?

Tito: Yeah, that was my best ... I was hitting, like, .340-something. I was pulling the ball — never home runs — but I was pulling the ball, having a good year.

DB: What was baseball in Montreal like?

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Francona high fives Jerry Manuel (with a monster beard) after beating the Phillies in the 1981 playoffs. That's …

Tito: Mmm, you've got to remember: That was my first team, and the team you come up with, it was almost more like a family. So even though you're in Montreal, we all lived together. It was great. But that was a time when the Expos were very popular. We drew well, we were a good team so it was really a pretty good experience. My only problem was, I was young and wanted to play every day and wasn't good enough to play everyday.

DB: That was a good team, though.

Tito: But that was very difficult for me to handle. I was immature and didn't handle it very well. But the city was awesome.

DB: You call yourself "immature," so you didn't always have your act together?

Tito: No, I was ... I didn't know how to handle not playing. I had always been a pretty good player and to not play... I didn't care about money. I just wanted to play. My last year (1990), I played in Louisville (in the minors) and I was beat up. But I played every day, and it was actually really fun. I played for a guy named Galen Pitts, a grizzled, minor-league guy. He treated me like gold. I didn't do particularly well, but I played every day. And I looked around and saw, probably, six or seven guys that were better than me who didn't sniff the major leagues. So I was, like, "Maybe I need to count my blessings and not be bitter. And it helped me, kind of, be done on my own terms.

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Francona in 1989. His final season as a player came a year later. (AP)

DB: That sounds like a much better way to transition.

Tito: When I retired, I actually didn't miss it. And I was scared to death, because I thought I'd be "that guy." And I realized that I had come to terms with that eight years before when I stopped playing every day.

DB: I looked up your stats from that year, and you pitched a bunch of times and actually got people out. Was that an accident?

Tito: I threw a knuckleball. I pitched like six or seven innings, I had — what — seven or eight strikeouts, gave up a solo homer, in Louisville. It was fun.

DB: You didn't think about turning that success into another shot at a career?

Tito: [Smiles]. Position players, when you're facing position players as a pitcher, you're in in an impossible position [laughs]. When you turn into an actual pitcher, it gets harder.

DB: Back to Montreal for a second. The Blue Jays and Mets are going to play two exhibition games at Olympic Stadium in Montreal at the end of spring training next year.

Tito: Really! Cool.

DB: In 20 years, do you think we could have a team in Montreal again, or is that all in the past?

Tito: I hope it's not, because it's a great place. I mean, the strike in '94 effectively killed baseball in Montreal, 'cause it was a fun place to go. It's a good city.

DB: You've been around a couple of good mascots. I'm not sure, based on what you've said, if you even noticed Youppi! in Montreal, but can you compare and contrast him with the Philly Phanatic?

Tito: Yeah, I wasn't paying much attention to Youppi! but the Phanatic's awesome. He's just funny as heck. There's time when you'd see the Phanatic during a game and you're losing and you don't want to laugh, but it's hard not to. He's just so good.

DB: So at least you left Philly on good terms with the Phanatic.

Tito: We still do get along. We were there this year. That's one of the few guys that liked me there.

DB: Did you and Michael Jordan call each other after winning respective championships?

Tito: The one thing I learned with M.J. was that everybody wanted a piece of him. So I tried to never be another one of those. I talk to him from time to time, and I text him every so often, but I try not to bother him, because I see how busy he is. Last year, I went to his golf tournament because I wasn't working. I'll text him from time to time, but I try not to bug him too much.

DB: Does the Red Sox growing beards remind you of 2004, when a lot of guys also grew beards?

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(Getty)

Tito: You know, I don't know because I'm not there, but the '04 team was unique. They were kind of a rag-tag bunch, but they were all going in one direction. And when teams do that ... I was dying for our team to get a personality, one that united them, so I was fine with what they were doing. I know we looked sloppy, some of it bothered me, but when the games started, it was, like, "game on."

DB: I've never heard you say anything negative about your players, but the statute of limitations probably has expired, so I'll ask: Did you ever tell Johnny Damon to just try throwing with his right arm instead?

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(Getty)

Tito: Haha, no. Johnny is one of my all-time favorites. That year in '04, he just got beat to [s--t]. He'd run into a wall, he'd dive on the ground, and you'd just know that he couldn't play that next night. Because I had a policy that I'd tell guys the night before if they're playing. And he'd come into my office and say, "Give me 'til tomorrow morning, then I'll call you." Because he had so much respect for wanting to play, but he also respected somebody who might play if he didn't. And I'll be damned, man, more often than not, he would play. One of my all-time favorites.

DB: That's got to be the toughest thing for an athlete: When can he play hurt and when can't he?

Tito: Yeah, but the really good ones find a way. I remember after that year, he wasn't sure if he was coming back (to Boston) and he signed a jersey to me. I remember, one, it really touched me, but it also made me sad because I thought he might be leaving. I enjoyed him a lot.

DB: You ever ask Justin Masterson about being born in Jamaica?

Tito: Haha, yeah. Just about all of the time when I see him. I think his dad might have been stationed there on a mission, or something like that. He might like to keep a little mystery there.

DB: When you fill out the lineup card, do you ever have trouble spelling Ryan Raburn's last name?

Tito: R-A-B-U-R-N.

DB: No trouble there. I always want to put a "Y" in there for "Rayburn."

Tito: Well, I might have the first time. But you hear about it from players when their name gets misspelled. You learn quickly.

DB: Have you ever heard the word "bro" so much in your life? All thanks to Nick Swisher.

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(Getty)

Tito: Haha. Never this much.

DB: Ever feel like going up to him in a tense moment and saying, "I'm not your bro, bro"?

Tito: No, because in the tense moments, that's probably when he's at his best. He's been in New York and he's played in some big games there and Oakland. When the game is the tightest, that's probably when he's at his best. His most "bro."

DB: Can you say "Corey Kluber" 10 times fast?

Tito: Corey Kluber, Corey Kluber, Corey Kluber, Corey Kluber, Corly Kuber ... haha. About 4 1/2!

DB: Thanks for doing that. Does Jason Kipnis remind you of Dustin Pedroia at all?

Tito: You know, I've heard that. They're very different. Dustin Pedroia is a one of a kind. I probably put too much pressure on him because I trusted him so much. Kip is quickly becoming a guy that others are compared to. They'll be comparing guys to Kip really soon, know what I mean? He doesn't have the six or seven years in yet, but he's making his own name for himself. They're different players, but the one thing Kip does a lot like Pedroia that I respect: Every time Kip hits a ball, he runs like it's his last at-bat and, as a manager, that's one thing you can respect more than anything else.

DB: What do you think about the Red Sox locking up Pedroia long term? Nothing at all against Kipnis, an All-Star, but there goes any chance of a Tito-Laser Show reunion.

Tito: Um ... I feel lucky that I had a chance to manage a guy like Dustin Pedroia, and he should stay a Red Sock. That's good. That's smart for them, that's good for him, and I'm just fortunate I had the time I did with him.

DB: From the standpoint of the ex-girlfriend you still have feelings for, do you like whose hands the Red Sox are in now?

Tito: With John Farrell? Yes. The day he got the job, somebody asked me that, and I remember saying that the glass got instantly half-full. Because guys like Pedroia, (Clay) Buchholz, (Jon) Lester, (Jacoby) Ellsbury, there was an immediate buy in, because of their respect for him. And I knew they were going to be good.

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(Getty)

DB: Bunting. Why do we even bother?

Tito: What do you mean?

DB: Bunting gives away outs, and outs are the most precious possession a team has.

Tito: Yeah, I've obviously fought that because, in Boston, that was a big thing. There's times to bunt. But when you bunt, you're playing for one run. Normally, when you play for one run, you're not going to score more than one. There's times when one is good enough. So that's what we kind of try to do.

DB: I saw a red carpet video interview with actor Billy Bob Thornton, and they asked him a question that somehow got the conversation on the Red Sox, and he went out of his way to offer his support to you. "Terry Francona got too much flak for what happened in Boston," or something like that. This was after things got bad with chicken and beer. How does that make you feel that Billy Bob Thornton has your back?

Tito: Actually, when [the Indians] were in Boston, and I was at the ballpark, I got a message from "Billy Bob Thornton" — he was at our hotel doing something — and I thought it was a joke. So I had this phone number to call and I left a message: "Mr. Thornton, this is Terry Francona. If this is a joke, I apologize to whomever I'm calling." And it was actually him. And I've texted back and forth with him, probably, 50 times this year.

DB: So you have Michael Jordan's number and Billy Bob Thornton's number in your phone. Famous people.

Tito: It's really filling up with them [laughs].

DB: Billy Bob Thornton.

Tito: Big baseball fan. Big Cardinals fan. He's from Arkansas, but he's out in L.A. so he watches the Dodgers. But he just follows the sport.

DB: Could you please tell the story about how you became separated from your shirt in a photo where your daughter appears to be showing her engagement ring?

(Leah Francona's Facebook, via Barstool Sports)

Tito: That was in my kitchen and I was going to bed. And they were laughing downstairs, and someone was taking pictures. So I went like this [Francona flexes his left arm] And the New York Post got it or something. ... Oh, my daughter put it on Facebook. So the Post got it. That was funny. But actually, my son-in-law, somebody made a funny comment about him, so he takes more [s--t] than I do.

[Editor's note: Yeah, don't mess with Francona's son-in-law. He's a marine. Also, check out these gorgeous wedding photos.]

DB: Old pictures of you, baseball cards, whatever: Your hair was unbelievable. Long, wavy, dark. Full.

Tito: [Chuckles].

DB: It was ... not only did you have it, but you had it, if you know what I mean.

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(Getty)

Tito: I know! People laugh now.

DB: And yet, you've pulled off the shaved head really well.

Tito: Well, I don't know about that!

DB: But did you dread losing it?

Tito: You know what I dreaded, to be really honest: I didn't mind losing my hair, I just didn't want to be in the middle with the comb over. When it became fashionable to cut (all of) your hair off ... I remember thinking, before it became fashionable, I remember thinking, "I wish I could just do this." But you weren't really supposed to yet. And when it became fashionable, I was thrilled, because I do not miss taking care of it. I had hair that would, like, if you didn't blow dry it, it was going everywhere. I hated it. I didn't mind (losing it), I just didn't like the in-between part.

DB: You didn't take a cue from Michael Jordan, who lost his hair but looked good after he shaved it?

Tito: Haha, nah, I don't think so. I learned a lot from M.J., though. I learned more from him about competing than he learned from me about baseball.

DB: Do you think history will be kinder to him about playing baseball than people were at the time?

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(Sports Illustrated)

Tito: That was a sore spot for me. Because, at a time when baseball is out on strike, he was so respectful of the game of baseball. He was playing for the right reasons. I always tried to protect him, because he was so respectful.

DB: Do you have a thought as to why he hasn't been a successful owner yet?

Tito: He will be. He will be. Nothing he ever does ... he will always be the winner in the end. I guarantee it. When you tell Michael, "No," he will find a way and make the answer be yes.

DB: You got to be good friends with Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach. Maybe you know the answer to this: Why hasn't he come out with his own line of short-sleeved hoodies where you don't have to cut the sleeves off yourself?

Tito: Haha. 'Cause he doesn't care. He's gonna do what he wants to do and he doesn't care about fashion. He just wants to win.

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(AP)

DB: You got any Belichick hoodies?

Tito: I actually cut off the sleeves on one of my hoodies, and I took so much [s--t] for it, because I looked so stupid, that I didn't wear it. I put it on one day in Cleveland, and Chris (Antonetti, the Indians' GM) and the other guys from the front office were there, and they were giving me so much [s--t] that I thought, "I can't wear this during the game, because when I go to make a pitching change, you guys are going to be killing me." So I didn't wear it. And it was comfortable as hell, but I looked like an idiot, so I didn't wear it.

DB: You've won two Commissioner's Trophies for winning the World Series. They're neat trophies, probably not as neat as the Stanley Cup, but they look brittle, like one of the little flags is going to break off.

Tito: I don't have it, and I barely held it for a minute. The trophy goes to the team. You can buy a replica and I didn't want it.

DB: How come?

Tito: I enjoyed just being there. I didn't really need the memento. I enjoyed the journey. I usually do. That's much more fulfilling for me. About 20 minutes after it's over and we won, I'm like, "OK, what's next?"

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