There was so much to like about the Cleveland Indians’ 22-game winning streak. There was the magnetism of Francisco Lindor, the excellence of Corey Kluber, the dramatics of Jay Bruce, the revival of Carlos Santana, the slugging of Edwin Encarnacion, the return of Andrew Miller, the joy of sellout crowds embracing an exciting team.
But there was no greater sight than the man in the dugout directing the show. Terry Francona was in the hospital with heart trouble two months ago.
Go into the hospital with a cardiac episode, and who knows? Tommy Lasorda did that 20 years ago. He never managed another major league game.
The Indians probably could advance to a second consecutive World Series without Francona. They would rather not try.
“We need him for October,” infielder-outfielder Jason Kipnis said.
The way the Indians tell it, Francona puts everyone in a lighter mood, from the fresh-faced and nervous rookie to the pressure-tested veteran. He relieves the intensity in the dugout, has a word or two for everyone, keeps a nightly three-hour dialogue going with bench coach Brad Mills, the Visalia native.
And then one night in June, Mills suddenly heard the sounds of silence. He looked up, and he looked all around the dugout, and Francona had vanished.
Said Mills: “To say I wasn’t scared wouldn’t be telling the truth. I was really concerned.”
Francona had left that game to undergo tests, to find out why he was feeling lightheaded, why his heart was beating faster. The doctors suggested stress or dehydration, or maybe both.
“They didn’t think it was anything to do with my heart,” he said.
Then it happened again – the departure from the dugout, the symptoms, the tests, the diagnosis.
“A couple of nights, I probably shouldn’t have been there, and I wouldn’t go home,” Francona said. “I’d say, ‘If this is stress, I’m not going to let it beat me.’”
In July, after Francona had been outfitted with a heart monitor, doctors detected an irregular heartbeat. They corrected it with a procedure called cardiac ablation, which burns the tissue responsible for kicking the heart out of rhythm. The Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen had the procedure five years ago.
“My heart is healthy,” Francona said. “It was just going too fast.
“Thankfully, it’s strong, or it might have killed me.”
He returned to his job after missing five games. His jovial self took a little longer to return.
“He was a little guarded,” Mills said. “He wasn’t really sure how he felt. It just took six, seven, eight days to get back to knowing how he was going to feel.”
Francona stays off his legs as much as possible, letting Mills take charge on the field during batting practice. He swims every day. He recently got his two-month checkup, to confirm the ablation had worked, and it had.
“I’m just the same as I was before,” he said with a laugh, “for better or for worse.”
He is 58. He is a baseball lifer, minus the few months he spent trying to earn a real estate license. He got a minor league managing job and quit the real estate class.
“Nobody was going to buy a house from me,” he said.
He understands he cannot do this job forever. He is apprehensive about what might come next.
“There will be a day when my health probably gets in the way of me doing the job right,” Francona said. “And I’ll back away, because I don’t think it’s fair to the organization. I’m not looking forward to it. The travel gets harder every year. It takes me longer in the winter to bounce back. But I love what I do. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Francona would be the first to tell you this is all about the players. He does not hit, or run, or pitch. His guys sure can pitch.
The Indians beat the Angels on Tuesday 6-3, in the process becoming the first major league team in 101 years to give up four or fewer runs in 25 consecutive games. Their record in those games: 24-1.
The team that gave up so few runs 101 years ago? The New York Giants, the same team that holds the major league record with a 26-game winning streak. The 2017 Indians rank second, and maybe their 22-game streak is more impressive: Those 1916 Giants won all those games at home. Seriously. Not a single road game in their streak.
Andrew Miller, who has pitched for Francona in Boston and Cleveland, said the manager’s presence during that 22-game streak was not coincidental.
“He’s the force behind this,” Miller said. “He makes it a fun place to play. He does such a good job of creating a culture and a place that people want to be in, and people come and thrive in.
“Getting him back and having him is something that we need to be at our best.”
Francona led the Red Sox to their first title in 86 years. The Indians are at a mere 69 years, and counting.