The DeFrancesco family opened a bottle of champagne. Tony DeFrancesco, his father, mother, sister, friends and other family members raised paper cups in a makeshift celebration.
Long after players had departed the visitor's clubhouse at Citi Field, the DeFrancesco party took photos to commemorate the occasion. Named Houston's interim manager late last season, Tony and the DeFrancescos savored the Astros' win over the New York Mets.
After spending nearly two decades as a minor league manager, helping players advance to the majors, DeFrancesco finally got his long awaited opportunity.
“To get to the majors was the ultimate goal for a guy who has grinded it out in the minor leagues,” DeFrancesco said. “I was very thankful and humbled. For years, I put in a lot of hard work and dedication to the game. It brought a lot of emotions.”
To most baseball fans, two teams with zero playoff aspirations was a meaningless game in late August. For the DeFrancesco family it was a memorable accomplishment — Tony's first major league win.
Not far from where he grew up, too.
Born in the Bronx, DeFrancesco was raised in Suffern, N.Y., located on the New York-New Jersey state line northwest of New York City.
DeFrancesco, who turns 50 later this month, was a finalist for the Astros' vacancy but Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow chose Bo Porter. DeFrancesco is back managing the Oklahoma City RedHawks, who play their home opener Friday night at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark against Memphis.
“Bo is the right guy for the Astros,” DeFrancesco said. “This is where they think I'm the better fit right now. With everything Jeff Luhnow did for me, I'm going to back him 100 percent. I'll do whatever I can to help this organization.”
The Astros were 16-25 under DeFrancesco, including a 15-15 finish. It was a solid showing considering Houston lost a major league high 107 games.
“He knows where we're at as an organization,” Luhnow said of DeFrancesco. “It's a win-win for us to have someone at Triple-A who has been with a lot of our kids. It gives us someone that we really trust. Tony is an important part of our organization.”
Minor league success
DeFrancesco is in his 19th year as a minor league manager, his 10th in Triple-A. He spent most of his coaching career in the Oakland A's organization. This is his third year managing the RedHawks, Houston's Triple-A affiliate.
DeFrancesco should reach 1,300 career wins sometime in May. His teams have finished with a losing record only twice the past 13 seasons in Double-A and Triple-A.
“I don't care if you're playing backgammon or cards, you're trying to win,” DeFrancesco said. “You want to put players in a position to succeed. Whether you're in lower leagues or playing a pickup basketball game, everybody competes.”
Developing a winning mindset throughout the organization is pivotal for the Astros, who have lost a combined 213 games the past two seasons.
There are signs talent is on the way. Last season, the Astros owned the best combined winning percentage in the minors.
“We're here to develop players,” DeFrancesco said. “We'll never sacrifice a player for a win. But if we have a chance to win a ballgame we're going to do everything we can to put ourselves in position, whether it's to lay down a sacrifice or make a pitching change.”
Managing at the minor league level has some restrictions. The big league team sometimes informs a manager to play a certain player at a certain position or start a certain pitcher.
The challenge in Triple-A is a diverse roster. Some players have been demoted from the majors. Others are climbing through the system, one stop shy of reaching their ultimate goal.
Pitcher Jordan Lyles made 25 starts last season with the Astros. Three more top-20 Houston prospects — shortstop Jonathan Villar, center fielder Robbie Grossman and pitcher Jared Cosart, who all spent most of last season in Double-A — open the season with the RedHawks.
“With young guys there's going to be more pats on the back and more instruction,” DeFrancesco said. “With older guys you're trying to keep them motivated, tell them, ‘Your opportunity will come, keep playing hard.' Either way, the Astros want guys who will make an impact.”
During seven seasons managing Sacramento, Oakland's Triple-A team, DeFrancesco led the River Cats to six division titles, four Pacific League Coast titles.
“Winning and development go back and forth,” DeFrancesco said. “But if you develop a winning player, then you develop a guy who can go up there and compete. He's handled different situations and had some success. Those memories are the ones they build on when they get to the big leagues.”
Evolving managerial style
DeFrancesco is a different manager than when he debuted with Oakland's rookie team two decades ago.
Back in those days, DeFrancesco was a stickler for fundamentals. Players were scolded if they missed the cut-off man or failed to execute a sacrifice bunt.