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Terry Francona’s legs are rapidly rocking back and forth. He reaches for a pencil on his desk, and starts softly jabbing his right leg, over and over, as if a little pain will make the twitch stop.

Francona, his eyes darting back and forth, looks at his laptop one moment, the TV above on the wall the next, while greeting the players strolling by his office. His desk has three pieces of bubble gum front of him, a pouch of Lancaster chewing tobacco and a pack of playing cards on one side, and a fresh cup of coffee with an incomplete crossword puzzle on the other side.

This is Francona’s refuge.

The baseball clubhouse.

He arrived at 11:15 in the morning, eight full hours before the first pitch of the Cleveland Indians’ game against the San Francisco Giants earlier this week. He swam for an hour. Talked candidly for 30 minutes to Giants manager Bruce Bochy about heart problems. Played cribbage with pitchers Josh Tomlin and Bryan Shaw. Chatted with Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper, the former Cleveland infielder. Had meetings about potential trade acquisitions with Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti. And kept dropping in and out of the coaches’ room next door.

“This is where I belong,’’ says Francona, in his fifth year of managing the Cleveland Indians, after winning two World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox. “The clubhouse. This is all I know. Really, this is all I’ve ever done since I was 3.’’

Francona, whose father, Tito, played 15 years in the major leagues, has a picture in the Indians’ media guide sitting in front of his father 1963 Indians’ Father-Son game. He played 11 years himself, managed 20 years, and handled clubhouses with personalities ranging from David Ortiz to Michael Jordan to Curt Schilling.

Baseball, except for a few months of real estate training when he quit halfway through the class, is really all he knows.

“That’s why it almost killed me,’’ Francona says, “when it was taken away.

“This game means everything to me.’’

It’s why Friday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays just could be the most emotional game in Cleveland since Game 7 of last year’s World Series.


Francona, 58, will be managing his first game in Cleveland at Progressive Field in 18 days.

He was last seen in Cleveland leaving the dugout in the fifth inning July 4 against the San Diego Padres. His heart was pounding at the rate of 200 beats a minute, and he was so light-headed, he thought he was going to pass out.

He was rushed to the Cleveland Clinic for tests, and was hospitalized for three days until doctors diagnosed the problem that caused him to leave the dugout with chest pains four times since last August.

He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, and underwent a 10-hour surgery on July 7 to have a catheter ablation procedure.

“We were all so scared,’’ Cleveland catcher Yan Gomes said. “It’s like he just tripped and hurt himself. I’m no doctor, but when you talk about heart, you never know what may happen.

“You start realizing that there’s more to life than just this game, especially when you see one of the leaders of this organization gone from us. It’s so great to have him back.

“We want to make it easy on him, so he doesn’t have another heart attack.’’

Francona, as is his custom, has leaned on self-deprecation to ease his players’ minds. Even when he was first admitted to the hospital, and saw how young his doctor looked, Francona quizzed him before he could even bring out the stethoscope.

“Hey,’’ Francona asked, “you did graduate from medical school, right?’’

“I was frustrated, like, “Man, what the hell is going on here,’’ Francona told USA TODAY Sports. “It was a relief once they found out what it was, but I was mad that I wasn’t around. I hate missing games. They’re almost sacred.

“Even once they found out what it was, I was like, “Let’s do it and get it over with. I’m not sitting around here. So you’re either doing it tomorrow or I’m going back to work.’’

The heart, Francona said, could wait.

The Indians have another pennant to win, and Francona wasn’t about to walk out on his team.

“People always talk about me retiring,’’ says Francona, “but I’m not in any rush to retire, because I love what I’m doing. Some day if I can’t do this job correctly, whether it’s health or whatever, I could stay in the game and help younger kids or something. But I’m not there yet.

“I still have that fire. Even though the game can keep you up at night and talking to yourself, I love it so much. It wears you out because you care so much, but to do this right, you’ve got to care. As you get older, you know how to manage your time better, but I don’t think you ever learn how to deal with losses better.

“When you’re not winning, it just beats you up.’’

There are 29 other managers in the game who can relate, particularly Bochy, who has had a few health scares himself, including a heart attack, and three months ago underwent the same procedure as Francona.

“I think we all realize what we go through,’’ says Bochy, “and I talked to another manager who went through the same thing. The way we take some of these tough losses, it goes with the territory. There for a while, I was having an incident almost every day.

“It’s a tough lifestyle, but when you love this game like we do, it’s almost part of the job.

“People ask me about retiring, too, but what am I going to do? This is what I love doing.’’

Francona, who remained in Cleveland while bench coach Brad Mills and his staff managed the American League in the All-Star Game, says he actually felt strong enough to attend the game. He was already out of the hospital, and even poked his head into the Indians’ clubhouse the last day before the All-Star break, joking to his players that, sorry, they couldn’t kill him off that easily.

“I didn’t go to the All-Star Game,’’ Francona says, “because I thought it sent the wrong message. Here I am missing games from the Indians, and then I’m going to trot myself down there to Miami? That’s not right.

“My responsibility is here.’’

So he stayed in his downtown Cleveland apartment listening to Mills address the American League All-Stars before the game on a speaker phone. He offered a few words himself after Mills and Kevin Cash of the Tampa Bay Rays brought out a cardboard cut-out of Francona. And then laughed so hard he almost passed out when Mills was interviewed during the game with a wad of bubble-gum on his cap.

“Oh, my God,’’ Francona says, “I was sitting on the edge off the bed in my underwear, just cracking up. If somebody had a camera, they would have had to put me into an institution, I was laughing so hard.’’

Francona, whose father also has endured heart problems, has agreed to make health concessions. He stays away off the field during batting practice, instead watching from the dugout. He carefully watches what he eats. He just began swimming an hour each day again. He is even going to start trying an apparatus for sleep apnea.

“I know I have to get off my feet, and it’ll take some time until I get my strength back,’’ Francona says, “but it doesn’t mean I still can’t get mad and frustrated. I can’t imagine doing anything different.

“I’d sure like to win more, but I still love it.’’

The Indians’ players say they want to ease Francona’s stress level by opening a nice lead in the second half, but it’s been everything but calming. The Indians, with regulars Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis on the DL, dropped five of six games to the woeful San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s on their Bay Area trip.

They lead the Minnesota Twins by just one-half game, with four teams within 4 ½ games, and at 48-45, have shown an inability to break from the pack all season.

“This team is too good, with too many players in this clubhouse with postseason experience,’’ Indians closer Cody Allen says, “to be playing like this. It stinks. We’re supposed to make it easier on Tito, not harder.

“You hear people talk about playoff hangover, but if that happens, shame on us. To get to October, you have to earn that. It’s not a given. We have to earn a right to play on that stage.’’

It’s a reflection of Francona, who instilled an excuse-free atmosphere upon his arrival five years ago.

The Indians have been in the playoff hunt every year since, winning one American League pennant and a wild-card berth, and the window remains open for the ultimate achievement.

“It would be hard to overstate the impact,’’ Cleveland president Chris Antonetti says, “that Tito has had on our organization. It’s incredible what he’s done’’

Francona was the manager who ended the Red Sox’s 86-year World Series drought, and had the Indians one run from their first World Series championship since 1948 last year.

Now, if he can only take the Indians that last step, maybe he can finally relax.

“It’s hard because you care,’’ Francona says, “and when it starts to not bother you, it’s time to do something else. The hard thing is not to let it define you, ruin your self-esteem and things like that.

“But I’ve got a responsibility here. I’ve got an obligation. And I’m going to live up to that. So I don’t want anyone to worry about me, because I’m not, I’m worrying about my team. They mean everything to me.’’

The feeling, as the Indians’ players emotionally expressed, is quite mutual.

“He taught us what it takes to win,’’ Tomlin says. “You’ve seen the difference he’s made to this organization since he got here.

“So when you think about it, we need him more than he needs us.

“It’s up to us to keep him healthy.’’

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