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Francona Seeks a New Lease on Baseball Life

Associated Press

Terry Francona didn’t realize how bad a season he’d had in 1987 until he tried finding a job in 1988.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this difficult to get a shot with a ballclub,” said Francona, who is now close to becoming the Cleveland Indians’ starting first baseman, even with the club’s acquisition of Willie Upshaw from the Toronto Blue Jays.

Francona, released three times in the last three years, got off to a bad start with Cincinnati last season and wound up hitting .227 despite a decent finish. The Reds let him go after the season.

“I felt I could at least get invited somewhere,” said the 28-year-old Francona. “I know I had the reputation of having a ton of knee operations, of not moving around real well, and on top of that I had an awful year. But I felt like I could show them I could still play.”

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Yet just a month ago, Francona was sitting at home without even a minor-league offer.

“I was doing a lot of almost begging, because nobody was giving me a chance,” Francona said.

All that the Indians were willing to offer was a trip to a minor-league “satellite camp” they held shortly after the start of spring training. That was the opening Francona had spent the offseason preparing for, strengthening his legs and keeping to a rigorous fitness program.

“I worked hard over the winter, and the hardest part about it was that I kept thinking, ‘Maybe I’m doing this for nothing,”’ he said. “It’s hard when you don’t know what your future is. But looking back, I’m really glad I stayed with it.”

Once he arrived at the Indians’ minor-league camp in Tucson, Francona started hitting well in ‘B’ games, and the hitting continued once he was invited over to the big-league camp. In 10 ‘A’ games, he’s hitting .391, including a double, a single and a sacrifice bunt in Wednesday’s 6-3 victory over the Seattle Mariners.

Francona has outperformed rookie prospect Don Lovell for the first-base job. Lovell, who was given the job at the start of camp, hit .100 in 11 spring games. Now his main competition is Upshaw.

Francona, whose father, Tito, played with nine major-league teams, including the Indians, between 1956 and 1970, came to the majors with Montreal in 1981 and remained with the Expos through 1985. He was picked up as a free agent in 1986 by the Chicago Cubs and went to the Reds last year.

Francona showed in 1982 and again in 1984 that he could hit, averaging .321 and .346, respectively. But both those seasons were interrupted by knee operations that sidelined him for nearly three months each time. He’s had two other knee operations during his career.

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“Now, I’m healthy. I’m not out here limping around like I was for a few years,” he said. “I’m able to enjoy playing. It’s a new start.”

In fact, it’s his third new start.

“There’s not a lot of stability in this job, and it gets a little depressing at times. But there are enough rewards. It’s a nice way to make a living,” he said.

Francona doesn’t have much power -- 12 homers in six-plus seasons -- so he feels fortunate to be with a team that won’t need power from its first baseman.

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“This team’s got a shortstop (Jay Bell) and a second baseman (Julio Franco) who can jerk the ball. They don’t need a first baseman to do that,” Francona said. “I think they’re looking for someone to put the ball in play, move runners over, and let Joe Carter, Pat Tabler and Mel Hall and those guys drive the runs in.”


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