ARLINGTON, Texas — After Game 2 of the American League Division Series, a wild affair in which the Rays overcame two Giancarlo Stanton home runs to beat the Yankees, Cleveland’s most ardent Tampa Bay fan fired up his iPhone.
Stanton reminds me a lot of you back in the day, Terry Francona texted Kevin Cash, the famously light-hitting Rays manager.
Cash has led his team to the World Series, which is tied at one game apiece, and Francona, the Indians manager, is eager to discuss his friend’s successes. He is also eager to discuss his failures.
Francona enjoys few other topics as much as Cash’s futility at the plate. When Tampa Bay played in Cleveland in 2016, Cash’s second season with the Rays, Francona colluded with the scoreboard operator. As the visitors took the field for batting practice, they were greeted by a message:
“Kevin Cash: A tribute to a legacy
.183 AVG .248 OBP .273 SLG”
A year later they 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.”
The Rays did not play in Cleveland this year because of the way the pandemic altered the schedule. Still, Francona says, he probably would not have engaged in any Jumbotron high jinks. He saw a graphic about six months ago that stopped him in his tracks: a list of managers ranked by their hitting prowess. “They had Cashy as 30th, but they had me as 29th,” he says. “And that really hurt my feelings. So I may cool it a little bit. I hope Cashy didn’t see that.”
Cash has retaliated only once, in 2018, when he swiped Francona’s motorized scooter, drove it onto the field for batting practice and offered to pay players for direct hits. “It still has a big dent in it,” Francona laments now.
The two met in 2007, when Francona was skippering the Red Sox and Cash joined the team as a backup catcher. He played sparingly behind team captain Jason Varitek, but Francona noticed how easily Cash fit in.
“He was on the same footing almost as [perennial All-Star DH David] Ortiz,” Francona says. “You’d hear Ortiz yelling at somebody, and [Cash] was yelling right back. He’d just wear out [Rookie of the Year second baseman Dustin] Pedroia. And this was a guy that played maybe once every 10 days. He just had that ability to carry himself where he was one of the guys and he could take it as well as give it.”
Francona also noticed Cash’s skills behind the plate. If Varitek went down with a minor injury, Francona says, Cash “could catch a week, and he might not get a hit, but we had a good chance to win every game.”
Even then, Francona liked to keep Cash humble. There was one stretch when Varitek was out for a few days, and Francona would text Cash each morning to let him know whether he’d start that night. After a few days of this, Francona appended his usual missive—”You’re catching”—with, “F---.” (Without the dashes, of course.)
Cash spent two years in Boston, then a season with the Yankees. The next year, he signed with the Astros, who traded him back to the Red Sox in July. He spent a final season, 2011, at Triple A with the Rangers, then hung it up. Cash played his last game on Sept. 3 of that year. Twenty-seven days later, in the wake of a logic-defying collapse, the Red Sox fired Francona.
He did color commentary for ESPN for a year, then took the open Indians job. His first call was to Brad Mills, his close friend since college and his Boston bench coach. Francona’s second call was to Cash.
“I wanted to get him in the organization,” Francona says. “I knew he was a star. I didn’t think we’d have him very long, because of how good he is.”
Francona installed Cash as bullpen coach. He loved that Cash had played in the majors but had never been a star, so he understood how hard the game was. And even as a rookie coach, he was self-confident enough to call out Francona from time to time. If Francona spoke harshly, Cash would pipe up: “You don’t mean that.”
Occasionally his feedback went the other way. That first year in Cleveland, catcher Carlos Santana tried to pick off a runner at second with two outs. After the game, Francona put his arm around Santana and gently said, “Los, let’s not do that again in that situation.” Cash gaped. “When we were in Boston, I did that,” he said. “You grabbed me by the shirt and said, ‘Don’t ever f------ do that again, dumbass!’”
The next year, it was Cash who convinced Francona to move righty Carlos Carrasco, who had been demoted to the bullpen, back to the rotation. Cash had worked with him on changing his mentality and being aggressive from the first pitch. He got pitching coach Mickey Callaway on board and mapped out a plan based on the schedule—the Indians had a few off days coming up and could afford a short start. Then he went to Francona.
“Finally he talked me into it and we never looked back,” Francona says. “A lot of times I get credit for it, and it wasn’t really my idea.”
So he was unsurprised that September when he learned that the Rangers wanted to interview Cash for their open managerial position. Cash asked his boss for advice. Francona suggested he work through everything he believed about the game, so that he would not be intimidated by the interview. Cash spent the whole month toting around a legal pad and rewriting his manifesto. He and Francona would go over it daily. Cash did not get the Texas job. But then the Rays called.
“I’m proud of him,” Francona says. “He’s on his way, and he’s gonna be doing this for a long time, because he’s really good at it.”
Francona has to go. The Rays are playing later, and he watches every game. He wants to support his friend. He also wants to refine his insults.