Terry Francona’s Next Act: Arizona Hoops Superfan

TUCSON, Ariz. — The patter sounds familiar. Hello! How are ya, kid? Good to see ya! What’s up, guys! Salutations like these were the soundtrack of countless summers, spouted in dugouts in Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland. Managing a baseball team is about strategy, but it’s also about vibes, and Terry Francona has long been considered among the best at establishing those. The kid, those guys—they were his players, the young men he needed to rally through 162 games a year. The 64-year-old Francona has been retired since October, and now he rallies someone else.

Spring training is in full swing, and for the first time in decades, Francona isn’t spending his March in baseball pants. He’s two hours south of all the Cactus League action, sitting in a cold and mostly empty arena. This is the McKale Center at the University of Arizona, the home of the men’s basketball team, and practice is about to start. In one more day, the Wildcats will depart for the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, looking to improve their March Madness positioning with a conference title. Donning a “SURVIVE AND ADVANCE” t-shirt, Francona is here to see them off, offering a peppy hello to the coaches as they make their way to the court. He’ll also be there in Nevada to welcome them.

“I’m packed till Sunday,” Francona tells them with his Barney Rubble chuckle. “So, goddammit, don’t screw around!”

After a baseball career that lasted more than four decades—from his first pro season in 1980 to last year, his final run as one of the game’s most successful managers—Francona’s chosen retirement reward is a college hoops game. He’s loved Wildcats basketball ever since he enrolled here in 1977, coming from a small town outside of Pittsburgh. But since then, baseball obligations prevented him from fully scratching his basketball itch. He’s spent many winters here, and been a season-ticket holder since 1982, but he’s usually just given those seats to friends. Come the madness of March, he’s had other commitments.

When he retired after 23 seasons as a big-league manager—the last several of which were plagued by a cascade of health issues—this is exactly how Francona envisioned using his sudden surplus of free time. He lives 10 minutes from this arena and has spent an inordinate proportion of the last six months in this building. Francona’s attended every home game but one, sitting close enough to feel the rattle of dunks and to hear the exhortations of head coach Tommy Lloyd. As a member of the athletic department’s Hall of Fame, he’s trusted enough to let himself into the building, and once every couple of weeks, Francona pops in just for a practice. Often, there is nowhere else he’d rather be.

“I was always on a clock, or I felt like I was,” Francona says. “If I was at a game, I felt like, ‘Ah shit, I’ve got to go do this.’ Now, I don’t have to, and I’m enjoying it.”

That clock had been ticking loudly in recent years. Physically, he was losing a marathon’s worth of steps. He likes to joke that “I have surgery every year.” It’s not a joke by much.

Francona has battled hip and circulation problems for decades and had a cardiac ablation in 2017. He missed much of the shortened 2020 season due to a blood clot and gastrointestinal issues, and had toe surgery the next year. “They thought I had gout and four months later, they realized I had a staph infection,” Francona says. “They had to cut out a couple of the bones.” That one landed him on crutches for spring training and in a boot for 18 months after that. He’s had two hip replacements, two knee replacements, and rang in his retirement with a shoulder replacement and double hernia surgery. Everything ached all at once, so he told the Cleveland brass in August to start looking for his successor.

“I was trying to get healthy enough to go into the season, and I’d get beat up again,” Francona says. “It takes a toll.”

Francona at a road game at Duke in November. Photo: Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics.

He says he feels great now, especially because he can throw himself headlong into basketball fandom. For years, he’d attempted to perform the demanding duties of a big-league manager while also feeding his hoops addiction. He’d wake up early in the morning for spring practices and would stay up late mainlining NCAA tournament games, an open pizza box sitting on his bed. Last March, when the second-seeded Wildcats fell to lowly Princeton in the first round, Francona was managing a Cactus League game while surreptitiously checking the score on his phone. “By the time I got back to our clubhouse, there were like eight guys with Princeton hats on,” Francona recalls. “I don’t know where the fuck they got ‘em.”

He’d also found time to forge a relationship with Lloyd. When Arizona hired the former Gonzaga assistant in 2021, Francona was standing in the visitors’ dugout in Seattle. Fresh off a Final Four appearance, Bulldogs forward Corey Kispert was preparing to throw out the first pitch. Francona pulled him aside, asking for a scouting report. “Whaddya got on Tommy Lloyd?” Lloyd and Francona quickly became close. Last September, Lloyd visited him in Cleveland for a series against the Twins. The Guardians lost the opener 20-6, with backup catcher David Fry pitching four innings in relief. Afterward, Lloyd sat in Francona’s office until 3 a.m., helping him blow off steam by talking hoops.

Francona could handle losses like that on the baseball field—as a manager, he’d better—but Arizona’s ups and downs have more of a hold on his emotions. He’s joyous after big wins and dies small deaths after losses. From tip-off until the final buzzer, he pours his happiness and frustration into a group text with friends. “We probably act like we’re 15 years old,” he says. After so many years spent trying to unbend the arcs of a rollercoaster baseball season, there’s something to be said for throwing your hands up and enjoying the ride.

“Winning the World Series is incredible, but it’s also your job. About 10 minutes later, I’m like, ‘What’s next?’” Francona says. “If we win here, I’ll go to a parade on my own.”

Has Francona the coach been fully eclipsed by Francona the fan? Lloyd doesn’t buy it. “I catch his eyes during the game,” Lloyd says, “and he’s also watching it as a coach and a competitor.” That region of Francona’s brain is still active. He arrives early to games just to be able to watch the coaching staff in action during warm-ups, and Lloyd goes to him for advice on building team culture. In the middle of an interview for this story, Lloyd pulls Francona into a team meeting. He’s there not to pump up the players but to observe and evaluate Lloyd’s messaging. “My hands were sweating, man,” Francona says after. “I told them I’m ready to play.” So … no notes. 

He might follow the Wildcats for their entire run, but he’ll definitely be there if they’re placed in the Salt Lake City region of the bracket. In 1997, he experienced Arizona’s lone national title from afar—he was a rookie manager just weeks into his first season with the Phillies—but now he’s determined not to miss out. There are also several other long-put-off bucket-list items, including a golf trip to Ireland. After a lifetime lived to baseball’s rhythms—one game followed by another, and then another and another and another—he finds the future to be enticingly open-ended. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Francona says, “but it doesn’t scare me.”

Francona’s days may now be filled with the squeak of sneakers on hardwood, but he’s not done with baseball. He’ll maintain a consultant role with the Guardians, though he hasn’t yet shot the 130 miles up I-10 to pop into camp. He wants to give new Cleveland manager Stephen Vogt a chance to establish himself without ol’ Tito hanging around and casting a shadow. At some point, though, Francona will step back into a ballpark, perhaps to visit Cleveland’s minor-league affiliates. Francona says he looks forward to that, but not as much as the upcoming Big Dance. 

“I’m a fan, man,” he says. “It’s different, and it’s OK. Fuck, I love watching them play.”

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