GOODYEAR, ARIZ. — It seemed fitting when the black-and-white photos of Amber Rose appeared on the whiteboards and refrigerator of Indians camp last week. Shortstop Francisco Lindor had celebrated the start of spring training by shaving his poofy bleached curls and dyeing the stubble silver. He received compliments from teammates for his work on the Thong Song—Sisqó’s 1999 hit—and comparisons to model Rose.
The ribbing was nearly nonstop, and the Cleveland clubhouse contains its fair share of practical jokers, so there were many theories as to who was responsible. Corey Kluber, the team’s silent assassin of a prankster? Trevor Bauer, who goes to creative lengths when it comes to retribution? Michael Brantley, Lindor’s mentor?
Lindor, who laughed uproariously and hung one of the photos on his locker, knew right away. “Tito,” he says confidently.
Yes, the most dangerous member of a clubhouse full of 25-year-olds is their 58-year-old leader, manager Terry Francona. The Rose move would not even rank in the top 10 of jokes he has played on those around him.
Starter Josh Tomlin is a frequent victim. Last year, when they were playing cribbage in Francona’s office on the road, Tomlin made the mistake of leaving his coffee cup unattended when he used the bathroom. He was almost finished with it when he noticed the wad of chewing tobacco Francona had added to the bottom. “That was one of the grossest things I’ve ever experienced,” Tomlin says. “He was laughing his head off.”
One spring training early in Bauer’s career with the Indians, he gave up back-to-back-to-back home runs against the Cubs. During the Goodyear Police Department’s annual presentation to the players a few days later, they began discussing vandalism by players. “Who is responsible for these?” they demanded, producing three baseballs.
The most regular occurrence is the water balloons. Two or three times a week during spring training, he gets a clubhouse guy to help him fill dozens. They load them into the back of the gator he rides from Goodyear Ballpark three quarters of a mile to the Indians’ facility, pelting anyone they encounter along the way. Often that includes the front office staff. “He’s like a nine-year-old,” says media relations director Bart Swain, a frequent victim because Francona finds the image of him on his bike hilarious. “No one is safe.”
Francona often enlists help from others. He and Rays manager Kevin Cash have been friends since both were with the Red Sox in 2007, so for Tampa Bay’s annual trip to Cleveland, Francona works with the Indians scoreboard operator to welcome Cash to town. “Kevin Cash: A tribute to a legacy,” it read. “.183 AVG .248 OBP .273 SLG.” Last year he put the numbers in context: “How bad is Kevin Cash at the plate? Cash’s career batting stats: .183/.248/.273. In the history of Major League Baseball, among all non-pitchers with at least 650 plate appearances, Kevin Cash is the 5th worst OPS+ of all time.”
Cash should have seen it coming. When he worked on Francona’s Cleveland staff, he lost a bet one year. Francona had a new jersey made in honor of the money his friend had surrendered: NO CASH. Cash had to wear it to deliver the lineup card to the umpire.
That moment turns out to be a risky one when Francona is around. Last spring training, while Indians bullpen coach Jason Bere trotted out with the card before the game, Francona poured water on his chair, then mixed in some chewing tobacco.
“He had to go get some new pants,” says third base coach Mike Sarbaugh. “It didn’t look good.”
And sometimes the manager just amuses himself. One year he instructed assistant hitting coach Matt Quatraro to wear a double-ear-flap batting helmet during a spring game.
Most of the time Francona goes unscathed. Tomlin did pay him back by adding a little uncut tobacco to the milder stuff Francona prefers. “He almost threw up on the bench,” Tomlin says. “I kind of felt bad doing it during the game, but we had a pretty big lead.”
Bauer plans to get him back at some point, but he’s not working on anything just yet. “If you put too much thought in it, it’s not funny,” says the man whose retaliation for the old gum-in-the-hoodie a few years ago was to freeze Mike Clevinger’s shoelaces in a block of ice. “Just spur-of-the-moment things like that.”
“You’ll get it twice coming back to you,” says Sarbaugh. “You’re better off just wearing it.”
Friends can only remember one time he has been truly bested: In 2015, he tore back to the facility on his gator, wondering where his usual targets had gone. He was delighted to encounter VP of player personnel Ross Atkins—who, it turned out, was being used as bait. As soon as Francona approached, a dozen kids and adults soaked him. He carried on valiantly toward the facility, where he had spotted assistant director of scouting Victor Wang, but finally admitted defeat when GM Chris Antonetti poured several buckets of water on him from the roof. Francona fixed his sights on assistant GM Mike Chernoff. “You have a Princeton education and this is what you come up with?” the manager demanded.
Given his history, it seems likely that it was he who added to the clubhouse decor. But Francona isn’t spilling. Was he responsible? “I might have been,” he says, eyes glinting. And does he not have access to a color printer? He howls with laughter. “We’re on a tight budget.”