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Three Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Terry Francona

Lessons learned from a man who is bigger than the game

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Cleveland Guardians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

As Terry Francona’s time in the dugout comes to an end many of us find ourselves taking time to reflect on the last 11 years of baseball in Cleveland. There’s no question that the organization went through a major renaissance when they hired Tito after the 2012 season. While many question how much of an impact a manager truly has, it’s fairly inarguable to say that Francona is responsible, in large part, for the building of the stellar organizational culture here in Cleveland, and that must be worth something, right?

I’ll be honest, I’m finding myself a tad emotional after watching Tito manage his last game at Progressive Field. Let me get it out of the way now and say that this will probably not be my most polished post. I’ll likely spend a lot of time waxing poetic about Terry Francona the human being, it’s hard not to.

Is Terry Francona a perfect person, immune to mistakes? Of course not, and we all know he’d be the first to tell us as much. Based on the words of people who know him best we do know that he is a man who cares deeply for the people around him, and one whose goals have never been rooted in seeking his own exaltation, but rather in simply being a part of the successes of those he works with.

As the baseball community reflects on his career so much of the focus has been on what he’s meant to the game of baseball, the cities of Boston and Cleveland, and the players who’ve played for him. Honestly there isn’t much more I could say on the topic that hasn’t already been said this week by every other outlet that covers baseball. Instead I want to talk about some things that I’ve learned by watching the way Tito has carried himself over the last 11 years. While I’m far from being able to say that these are all qualities I possess, all three are valuable lessons that I think we can all learn from.

Lesson #1: Be the last to take credit and the last to place blame.

Oh boy if ever there was a statement that summed up Tito, it’s that one. In his 11 years in Cleveland I can’t recall a single instance of him ever taking credit for even one of the team’s accomplishments. This extends beyond his classic press conference deflections where he slyly moves on to another topic before a reporter can get him to talk about himself, Francona is effusive in his willingness to credit those around him when things go well.

On the flip side, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him lay blame at the feet of a player for a loss. This isn’t to say that he’s never expressed disappointment in a player (lookin’ at you Trevor Bauer), but any time a reporter has ever tried to goad him into blaming a loss on the reliever who blew the save, the infielder who bobbled the ball, or the hitter who left the bat on his shoulder as a critical third strike crossed the plate Tito has refused to take the bait. Instead he turns to his classic self deprecating humor and an attitude of “we’ll get ‘em next time”

Far too often in todays world we find ourselves looking everywhere we can for validation. The minute something goes well we easily start to feel the temptation to thump our chests and exclaim “I did that” in the hopes that someone out there will agree. In the inverse, when things go south the temptation becomes looking around to see where we can point the finger. How many of us on here have said “I called it” about their favorite prospect as though through sheer force of will, our insistence that the guy would pan out is the reason for his success? I know I certainly have, though this is certainly not to say that there isn’t a place for that type of banter when having fun on a message board or Twitter.

There is, however, something kind of beautiful about being willing to recognize that no matter the scope of our accomplishments, it’s rare that we can truly point to ourselves as the sole progenitor of our successes. Not to say that there’s never value in taking pride in what you’ve done, but rather that we should always strive to orient ourselves in a way where we focus on gratitude towards those that have helped us along the way.

On the flip side, when things don’t go well it’s rare that placing blame ever really solves anything. Is it cathartic? You betcha. More often than not we’re far better off rallying around the person who made the mistake and seeking to uplift, not tear them down.

Lesson #2: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

If there’s one thing a Terry Francona press conference is known for it’s his endearingly self deprecating sense of humor. Whether it’s making light of crashing his scooter, breaking a tooth on some pasta, joking about his own shortcomings as a player, or whatever wacky hijinks he’s gotten up to that day, Tito is always quick to make himself the butt of the joke. What you’ll find after watching enough of his press conferences is that he’ll often be self deprecating as a way to deflect the focus off of him when he thinks it should be on the players, or even in the inverse as a way to diffuse the tension in a room to take the heat off his guys.

Is this to say that you should put yourself down at every turn? Of course not. But the valuable lesson to be learned is that there’s something to be said for not taking yourself too seriously. When I look at Tito I see a man who doesn’t derive his worth from the affirmations lavished on him by others, and when you don’t need that affirmation it becomes a heck of a lot easier to let yourself be the butt of a joke from time to time.

This is certainly something that is much easier said than done, and something I know I struggle with every day. But there’s just something endearing about a person who is truly willing to laugh at themselves once in a while, and a person who is just not concerned at all with whether or not they’re being perceived positively. That’s one of Tito’s most endearing qualities, and it’s something I think we can all learn from.

Lesson #3: You’ll be measured by the mark you leave on those around you.

This summer I watched the MLB TV documentary on Tito, beyond being a fantastic look at one of the most important figures in baseball over the last quarter century, it showed the impact that he’s had on those around him. Seemingly every scene in the documentary was someone that had played with, played for, or worked with over the course of his career talking about the impact he’s had on their life. Of course, you’d never hear as much from Tito but it was abundantly clear how much time he’d spent investing in each of them. Investing is a word I hesitate to use as it implies the seeking of a return on that investment, and that honestly doesn’t seem to fit Tito’s M.O.

When the people he’s impacted speak about him they speak of a man who cared little about what he could get from people but rather someone who worked his tail off every day to build up those he came in contact with. Of all the qualities I admire in Francona this is the one that I want to emulate most in my own life.

Not to get too existential here but life truly is very short. We’re here for a finite time and we’re tasked with making the most of it. Often times we find ourselves wondering about the type of “legacy” we’re leaving as we go about our lives. While Tito’s hall of fame plaque will certainly list his managerial record and his two World Series titles his true legacy is that of a person who made a positive impact on the people around him. There’s something about living a life marked by the quality of the relationships you build with others and the positive impact you’ve had on their lives that feels so much more fulfilling than chasing accolades and trophies.

As I reflect on these last 11 years of Cleveland Guardians baseball the word that continually comes to mind is “thankful.” It hasn’t always been perfect, I’ve been at my wits’ end many times with his Tito’s game decision making, his loyalty to underperforming veterans, and his overuse of certain bullpen arms yet as I look back on his time in Cleveland there’s nobody I would’ve rather had as the manager of my favorite baseball team. Simply put, Tito helped make Cleveland baseball fun again after a frustrating 10 year period from ‘02-’12. I’m thankful every day that he chose to come here in 2012. I’m thankful for 11 years of some of my favorite memories in all of sports. Above all, I’m thankful that for 11 years the team I love was led by a man whom I truly admire.

So thank you Tito, I know I speak for all Guardians fans when I say how much we appreciate everything you’ve done for this team.