Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona watches batting practice before a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Friday, April 21, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)

This was Terry Francona at his most revealing, and not just because he is wearing only gray skivvies, with a towel just partially covering a belly that has evolved a bit since he was a reed-thin rookie with the Montreal Expos.

In the opening sequence to "Tito: The Terry Francona Story," the documentary airing for the first time Sunday night on the MLB Network, cameras make an early morning visit to Francona in the Cleveland Guardians clubhouse and follow him to the aquatic therapy machine — dubbed the "USS Tito" — in which Francona simulates swimming laps on a daily basis. He calls it the worst part of the day, but perhaps the most essential.

"This is a really healthy time for me," the Guardians manager says. "It allows me to start to move, so I can actually go out on the field and not be limping around. I've never considered myself meditative — I don't think anybody else would, either — but it's good for my brain, too."

In these moments, senior coordinating producer Bruce Cornblatt, coordinating producer Jed Tuminaro and producer James Potocki capture the essential Tito — open, not a bit self-conscious, self-deprecating and willing to do whatever it takes to remain engaged in the place that has been home for the better part of a half-century, ever since he began tagging along with his baseball-playing father at the ballpark.

It hasn't been easy. Dustin Pedroia, his cribbage-playing partner from his days as manager of the Boston Red Sox, describes Francona as "hurt all the time — just a walking corpse."

Francona, who turned 64 on Saturday, has had both hips and both knees replaced. He has had north of 30 surgeries in all, a dozen on each knee, two on each shoulder and a 2021 surgery on his left big toe, which had developed gout and then a staph infection. That, he has said, was the toughest surgery of his life, one in which parts of two bones were removed from his toe and foot and fused together with eight screws and a steel rod that runs from his toe up through the top of his foot. For 14 months, he was able to wear only one shoe. His other shoe was encased in a walking boot, and he was on crutches for five months.

Then there are the gastrointestinal issues and circulatory problems that, at one point much earlier in his career when he was dealing with a pulmonary embolism, a priest showed up to administer last rites, according to pitcher Curt Schilling, another Francona favorite.

"I was too dumb, too stupid to die," Francona says.

But as beaten down as he has been by health issues that cut short a promising playing career and have dogged him ever since, Francona remains energized in his 11th season as Guardians manager. "As soon as those players walk through the clubhouse doors, the lights go on for him," says Kevin Cash, who played and coached for Francona and now manages the Tampa Bay Rays.

Those lights may have shined brightest in Boston, where Francona won two World Series after a rough four-year apprenticeship as manager of a hapless Philadelphia Phillies team, but they have now shined longest in Cleveland, where his father, John Patsy "Tito" Francona, played.

The impact of Terry Francona's presence on the Guardians franchise is incalculable, according to president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti. After a fractious parting from the Red Sox, Francona led Cleveland to a wild-card berth in his first season in 2013, a trip to the World Series in 2016 (when the then-Indians fell in seven games to the Chicago Cubs) and a 22-game winning streak (the longest in American League history) in 2017. He has produced four more trips to the postseason, including an unexpected appearance last year with the youngest team in baseball.

But wherever he has been, Francona has stayed true to the formula that has made him beloved in every place he has managed. This is how he defines what it means to be a "players' manager."

"You ask more of them on the field than maybe they've ever been asked before," he says. "But at the same time you care about them more than they've ever been cared about.

"I don’t try to hide the fact that I will care about them a lot. I don't apologize for that. I like getting close to our guys."


Apr 2, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; Cleveland Guardians hitting coach Chris Valaika (left) and manager Terry Francona (second from left) greet relief pitcher Trevor Stephan (37) following a 6-5 victory against the Seattle Mariners in ten innings at T-Mobile Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It has been the same everywhere he has been, and "Tito" has voices from all of his managerial jobs — Scott Rolen from the Phillies; Pedroia, Dave Roberts and (cancer survivor and surrogate son) Jon Lester from the Red Sox; Jason Kipnis and Steven Kwan in Cleveland — attesting to how enjoyable it is to play for him.

With Francona, Kipnis says players don't think about the pressure of that night's game. "You're thinking, 'Why is my manager walking around the clubhouse naked?" he says.

With great glee, some of the people closest to Francona describe the struggles he endures with the ordinary elements of daily life.

"He is incredibly high-functioning within the major-league dugout and the major-league environment," Antonetti said. "The other areas of his life? Maybe not so much."

Francona tells of falling asleep while dipping pretzels in peanut butter and waking up with smeared glasses.

"He can't manage putting something in a microwave," Cash said. "He can’t manage anything other than a baseball team."

Francona places a premium on fun, but Theo Epstein — who won two titles with Francona in Boston, then watched his Cubs prevail over Cleveland in 2016 — cited another dimension to Francona's personality that was never more evident than when the Red Sox rallied from three games down to beat the New York Yankees in the 2004 AL Championship Series, which Francona called "the four best baseball days of my life."

During their time together, Epstein, sacrificing common sense in the service of superstition, took to doing shots of Metamucil with Francona, who drank the powdered fiber supplement like Kool-Aid.

"Tito understood October baseball, managing ruthlessly, managing for the kill," says Epstein, alluding to how Francona leaned hard on closer Keith Foulke, trusted Schilling (and the bloody sock) and turned to Derek Lowe on two days' rest to close out the Yankees.

Francona, a three-time Manager of the Year during his Cleveland tenure, is a lock for Cooperstown. He may be the first person to ride into the Hall of Fame on a scooter.

He has a job with the Guardians as long as he wants to manage. He broke one curse with the Red Sox. It's 75 years and counting since Cleveland won a World Series. If his health holds up, he certainly would love a shot at ending another title drought.

But in the end, the winning, as sweet and satisfying as that is, tells only part of the story for Tito.

"The best part of the game," he says, "are the people in the game."

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