GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) — On his first day back at spring training after his dad’s funeral, Terry Francona seemed to exhale when the questions eventually turned to baseball.
“Thanks, I made it,” the Cleveland manager said.
He spent the first six minutes of his media session Sunday reflecting on his father, former Indians player Tito Francona.
While Francona remained composed, it was clear what his dad meant to him and how good it was to be back with his baseball crew.
“It’s so nice to be back. I went back for two days to be with my family and then I came back here to kind of be with my family,” he said. “That’s about as close as you could feel with the people that aren’t your family. … It’s not just baseball. It’s Cleveland, it’s the people here, and I know that.”
Francona left the Arizona camp on Thursday afternoon to go to Pennsylvania to attend the private services for his father.
John “Tito” Francona, who proudly watched his son follow his footsteps to the major leagues, died unexpectedly at his home on Tuesday night in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. He was 84.
The Indians manager is also known as “Tito,” a nickname his grandfather had given his father.
“The way he explained it to me is that it’s kind of a little, kind of a kid that’s in the way, kind of a little ornery, like energetic,” Francona said. “But not always complimentary, maybe. Kind of depended who gave you the description.”
The elder Francona made his big league debut in 1956 with the Baltimore Orioles, and retired as a player following the 1970 season with Milwaukee
Terry Francona was born in 1959, the first year his dad played in Cleveland. Tito hit .359 that season and finished fifth in the AL MVP voting. He led the AL in doubles the following year, and in 1961 he was an AL All-Star and led the league in singles.
Flooded by messages about his father in the past several days, Francona said he believes he answered every one of them.
“Because people took the time to say something kind, but it was a lot,” he said. “When you play for nine teams and you’re a good guy, you’re going to know a lot of people.”
Francona said the Indians had a family feeling in a professional setting for both he and his father, who was only about 90 minutes away and could come up whenever he wanted to watch his son’s games. The elder Francona threw out a first pitch before Game 1 of the AL Division Series two years ago, as he had before the Indians home opener in 2013, his son’s first season as their manager.
“Just the way he was treated when he would come back, not just for me to get to see him, but the way he was treated,” he said. “My son did kind of a eulogy yesterday, and he mentioned that, that like what a fitting way to kind of wind down your life as being that happy.”
Describing himself as the luckiest kid ever with the best parents, Francona said he knew how fortunate he was growing up like that. His love for baseball definitely came from his dad.
“The majority of whatever I do know, or what I care about, came from him,” Francona said. “I care about the game, I respect the game, I love the game because of my dad, I guarantee you that. He taught me to care about baseball so deeply.”
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