CLEVELAND – The name has been changed on the front of Cleveland's jerseys and there's a new logo on the team's caps. There's another thing notably refreshing and different about this young squad as it opens spring training.
Manager Terry Francona is back.
Sidelined over the past two seasons by serious medical issues, the 62-year-old Francona feels recharged and eager to begin his 10th season with Cleveland — and his first as manager of the Guardians, previously known as the Indians.
After hobbling around in a protective boot before stepping away last July, Francona joked that his 2022 season is already an improvement.
“I got two shoes on, so right off the bat, I’m better than I was last year," Francona cracked at the team's training complex in Goodyear, Arizona, on Monday.
The past two seasons have taken a toll on Francona, a two-time World Series champion with Boston and one of baseball's most popular managers. He struggled with simple tasks, and the inability to function tested his patience and made him irascible.
“It’s been a hard couple years, there’s no getting around it,” he said. “:And I don’t want to act like a big baby because I know there’s people that have had way worst bouts than I've had. But it’s not been easy.”
Francona dealt with gastrointestinal problems during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and during a stay at the Cleveland Clinic he experienced blood-clotting issues that required a stint in intensive care. He wound up managing just 60 games before first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. took over.
He then had surgeries on his hip and toe in the offseason, and Francona pushed himself as far as he possibly could in 2021 before stopping in July and turning the team over to bench coach DeMarlo Hale.
Francona briefly contemplated retirement, but he was determined to make it back this season, and said he's finally feeling more like himself.
“This toe thing was way harder than I ever thought it would be,” he said. “It’s the hardest surgery I’ve ever had and I’m a really good authority on surgeries. But I am moving and I seem to be moving better. I have been tolerating the days so far, and I know it will get better.”
Major League Baseball's lockout was yet another obstacle for the personable Francona as he was not permitted to have contact with any players. There was no checking in on guys during the winter, and the lack of communication gnawed at him.
But now that baseball's back, Francona feels whole, and he's gotten an extra jolt in being able to greet players arriving at camp.
“We couldn’t talk to them, so now all of a sudden they walk into the building, it’s really cool,” he said. "And then you’re seeing a lot of young kids and listen to them. It’s been a fun couple days.”
Like just about everyone else, Guardians president Chris Antonetti couldn't be happier to have Francona at full strength.
“It makes such a difference,” Antonetti said. "He’s such an integral part of who we are and the fabric of the organization and when he’s around, he helps make everyone better. We’re thrilled that he’s feeling great and energized and ready for the season.
“So now our challenge is, we need to make sure he stays there and continues on the path that he’s on.”
Francona has always felt blessed, and said the past two years didn't change his appreciation for what he does.
“I knew,” he said. "Not that you’re not trying to get a little more or a little smarter, but I felt pretty damn lucky to begin with. This going to be my 10th year here. I’ve said it a lot of times because I mean it.
“I love working here. I love the people I work with. I love the people I work for. We go through challenges together. And we have challenges, there’s no getting around that. But we try to figure them out together. I’ve felt that I’m really fortunate, and I’ve known that.”
Notes: The Indians signed free agent catcher Luke Maile to a contract for 2022. The 31-year-old, who spent last season in Milwaukee's organization, likely will back up Austin Hedges. ... Antonetti said the club will look to add bullpen help and offense in the weeks ahead.
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