GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Terry Francona returned to training camp Sunday, a day prior to the Indians’ first full-squad workout after attending funeral services for his father in New Brighton, Pa.
He no doubt arrived with a heavy heart, but was able to find some solace in his comfort zone — the baseball field.
“It’s so nice to be back,” Francona said. “I went back for two days to be with my family and then I came back here to kind of be with my family. This is about as close as you can feel to people that aren’t your family. And it’s not just baseball, it’s Cleveland, it’s the people here.”
Francona’s father, the original Tito, died unexpectedly Wednesday at the age of 84. The tight bond between the two former Indians players was well-documented. They were so close they even shared the same nickname.
“I think he had a hard time understanding why people always called me that,” Francona said. “But for me, I felt like I could be called a lot worse. Because I care about my dad so much, I always took it as a compliment.
“I think, like everybody, you cry, you laugh. But I think the good part for me was that I felt the same way about my dad two months ago. A lot of times when people pass away, you hear all these good things. I felt that before. I felt like the luckiest kid ever. I had the best parents ever and that feeling has never changed. I was really fortunate and I knew it.”
Francona said he received countless messages of well-wishes, many from people who knew his father over his lengthy big league career that included a significant stop in Cleveland from 1959-64, where he received his only All-Star nomination in 1961.
During that time, Francona got his first experience in the city as a child.
“I think I answered every one of the (messages), because if people took the time to say something kind, ya know, but it was a lot (of messages),” 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 he felt blessed that he was able to spend more time than usual with his father once his job took him closer to Pennsylvania when he became manager of the Indians in 2013.
Francona’s father was a frequent visitor to Progressive Field, tossing out ceremonial first pitches prior to his son’s first game as manager and Game 1 of the 2016 ALDS against Francona’s former team, the Boston Red Sox.
They were happy days for father and son.
“Cleveland’s as close to a familial feeling as you can get in a professional setting for him and myself,” Francona said. “The fact that he was down halfway (to Cleveland) and could come up whenever, the picture of him throwing out the first pitch and the way he was treated when he would come back. My son did a eulogy (Saturday) and he mentioned that, that what a fitting way to kind of wind down your life as being that happy.”
Looking forward, Francona was asked if he would do anything on the field to honor the legacy of his father.
“That’s probably getting a little bit deep for me,” he said. “He’s taught me, I mean the majority of what I do know or what I care about, came from him. But once the game starts, that might be getting a little deep. We’re just trying to win.
“But I care about the game, I respect the game, I love the game because of my dad, I guarantee you of that. He taught me to care about baseball so deeply. I got that right from him, there’s no getting around that.”