I see a lot of people walk into a clubhouse: politicians and movie stars. They come in and they’re nervous. Not me. Not even close.
When I walk into the clubhouse, I’m so comfortable. I walk around in my underwear when it may not be politically correct to do so.
That comfort level in a clubhouse evolved from what I consider the best ten days of my life, the ten days you allowed me to join you and your team on a road trip.
It was the summer of 1970. My dad, Tito Francona, was in his 15th and final year of his Major League Baseball career. You were his manager on the Milwaukee Brewers. Back then, kids didn’t hang out in the clubhouse and you were kind of a crusty old-school baseball guy. So, I don’t know if my dad asked you if I could come on this 10-day road trip or if he just told you I would be there.
Either way, I was so excited. At age 11, I knew I was lucky to have this opportunity. My mom bought me a sports coat, got me a haircut and cleaned me up. The trip was to Kansas City, Chicago and Minneapolis.
When we got on the plane for the first leg of the trip, Al Downing, who was traded with my dad to Milwaukee, said to my father, “Hey! Is it OK if I borrow him?”
Downing added, “He’s sitting with me.”
I felt like I was 10-feet tall. There I was on a charter plane with the Milwaukee Brewers, sitting with Al Downing.
At the hotels, I didn’t want to miss a moment. I would get up in the morning and sit in the lobbies. If a player came down and needed a newspaper or a coffee or a Coke, I’d get it for him.
In Chicago, they wouldn’t let me on the field. But you couldn’t just leave me behind. Instead, the players got together and they put me in Tommy Harper’s uniform because he was the smallest guy on the team.
They taped the uniform around my ankles and my waist. I went out and shagged in the outfield and I probably looked like a clown. The players had fun with it and I, of course, had a ball.
In our final city, Minneapolis, my understanding of the nuances of baseball became very apparent to the players, including my dad. Bert Blyleven pitched against us.
After the game, I said, “Dad, I have never seen a curveball that good in my life.”
He looked at me and knew I wasn’t like any other 11-year-old kid. I was locked in on the game.
When I got back from our road trip, it looked like I’d been gone for a year. My hair was a mess. My sport coat was gone, as the trip was quite an adventure for me.
Dave, even today, when I think of those ten days, I smile. My dad made me thank you back then. You didn’t say a whole heck of a lot, but I think deep down, you knew you made this 11-year-old boy’s life.
But at the time, I had no idea that those ten days would have a subtle but profound impact on the way I’d conduct myself throughout my baseball career.
When I became a major league player years later, I wanted to be rich. I wanted to win a batting title and I wanted to retire on my own terms. But my plans changed when I tore my ACL early on in my career. After my knee injury, I harbored that same energy as that little kid trying to do whatever he could to help the players in a hotel lobby, as I tried to find any and every way to help my teammates and bring value to an organization.
After my playing career was cut short, I went into coaching. When I was 37, I was hired as the manager for Philadelphia. I spent four tough years there. After I lost my job, I didn’t know if I wanted to manage again.
I spent some time in the Cleveland Indians’ front office.
In 2002, I got a staph infection and was at risk of losing my legs and my life.
I kept telling all the doctors, “Hey man, spring training starts February 15th.”
They’d look at me like, “I’m just trying to keep you alive.”
Because of our trip, I already knew for a long time that baseball is where I feel most alive, regardless if I am the star of the team, a manager or a kid dressed in an oversized uniform.
And Dave, to this day, I still light up when I see Al Downing. In fact, as a manager, I have tried my best to replicate his warmth in my clubhouses.
My dad made me thank you back then. You didn’t say a whole heck of a lot, but I think deep down, you knew you made this 11-year-old boy’s life.
When I was a manager in Boston, we had one rule, which was when a kid came in the clubhouse, they had to stop in and say hello to me.
On Sundays here in Cleveland, we have girls days. We wait until everyone gets dressed and then players go and get their daughters, so they, too, can hang out with their dads.
Win, lose or draw, I’ll end up grabbing some kid and holding them or bouncing them around.
Ever so often, we get letters from the league to keep the kids off the field. But I’d rather pay a fine from the league than have our players and their families unhappy.
While creating positive atmospheres and family-friendly clubhouses, we won two World Series in Boston. In 2016, with the Indians, we lost to the Chicago Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series.
On those teams, the ride was even more incredible than the outcome.
Each day, I did not know how my plan would play out, but I felt confident that I would figure out a way to win. Just like I locked into the Bert Blyleven’s curveball in Minneapolis, throughout my career, I have locked into games, almost craving the intensity and the challenge of baseball.
At 60 years old, the demands of the travel are getting harder for me. Brad Mills is my bench coach. We’ve been together since 1977. He takes a ton off of my plate but there is going to come a time where I don’t want to shortchange people and I am going to step away. Even then, I can see myself going back to the minors. That’s because, at heart, I am still that little boy excited to be around baseball and all the people involved.
Regardless of whether or not my dad gave you a choice, I wanted to thank you one more time.
From opening my clubhouses to children to leaving a sickbed to go to spring training camp to wearing my underwear at the wrong time, the clubhouse is where I feel most comfortable and much of that comfort started with you.
That’s because 49 years ago, you and your team opened the door for me to professional baseball, and in doing so, you welcomed me to a place I still consider home.