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.
“At times I took things personal,” DeFrancesco said. “I thought maybe we didn't train him good enough. Now you realize no one is going to play this game perfect. You're always instructing, but it's not life or death when a play isn't made.
“At this stage of my career, at this level, coaching is more about motivation. Players know how to play the game. We just try to get them focused on the right thoughts so they can succeed.”
RedHawks hitting coach Leon Roberts played in the majors 11 seasons. He's been in pro baseball more than 40 years. Last year was his first season to work on DeFrancesco's staff.
“He's not an over-scrutinize-type of guy,” Roberts said. “A player can relax if he's not being scrutinized every five seconds: ‘Why did you make that pitch? Why didn't you hit the other way?' Tony doesn't put too much pressure on them. He lets guys play.”
DeFrancesco's playing career influenced the way he manages.
The Boston Red Sox selected DeFrancesco, an All-American catcher at Seton Hall, in the eighth round. He played in more than 500 minor league games but never advanced past Triple-A.
Early in his career coaches tinkered with his approach at the plate. One spring, Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski offered advice. Looking back, DeFrancesco wonders if he should have stayed with his original swing.
“I've found out over the years too much change early in a player's career has them thinking too much,” DeFrancesco said. “It's very hard to go out and compete when you have too many things going through your head. Just trying to hit a baseball is one of the hardest things to do.”
A Triple-A manager's job description has changed compared to DeFrancesco's playing days. In the 1980s, most minor league teams didn't have a hitting coach or pitching coach. Roving instructors on occasion would stop by.
Nowadays, minor league teams have specialized coaches throughout the organization. Video tapes help maximize strengths and reveal weaknesses that need addressing.
“The game has evolved,” DeFrancesco said. “There's so much information for players it can get overwhelming. Sometimes you just have to go back to the basics — see the baseball and hit it.”
Pursuing the dream
It's not uncommon for pro baseball coaches to spend years in the minors before they earn a promotion to the majors. Roberts said Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Earl Weaver is a good example.
Weaver managed 12 years in the minors before finally getting his opportunity.
“Tony is sort of in the same boat,” Roberts said. “You just have to bide your time and have players put up good years for you. You keep waiting for an opportunity, then hope to impress somebody during the interview process.”
Weaver won 1,480 games with the Orioles. He led Baltimore to four World Series. But Weaver is a rare exception. And Weaver was a major league manager by age 38.
DeFrancesco would trade managing in Triple-A to serve as a bench coach or first- or third-base coach in the majors. He was Oakland's third base coach in 2008 but was reassigned to managing Sacramento the following season.
To pad his resume, DeFrancesco two years ago managed winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Next winter, he plans to manage in Venezuela.
Regardless what level he manages, DeFrancesco said it's rewarding work. The satisfaction is watching players such as Nick Swisher and Eric Chavez experience productive major league careers.
“This is what I do for a living,” DeFrancesco said. “I enjoy every day I go to the ballpark. Down the road maybe there's a different direction that I'll go, the front office or some other capacity. But right now I enjoy managing. It's a passion that I have.”
Career professional baseball coaches make sacrifices. Unless they live in the hometown city — rare in the minors — coaches spend eight months a year away from their families.
DeFrancesco's family lives in Mesa, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. His daughter, Genevieve, is a freshman at Arizona State. His son, Anthony, is a freshman in high school. The past three decades, his family has watched him leave for spring training every February.
“That's the downfall of the job,” DeFrancesco said. “It's one of the best jobs in the world, but you miss a lot of family time. I'm hoping my wife and kids will come out this summer. Last year, they made two or three trips at the end of the season. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
It also sheds light on why the celebration in the visitor's locker room at Citi Field last August meant so much — not just to Tony but his entire family.
“He's a very good manager with a lot of experience and success at Triple-A,” Luhnow said. “Now he's had some success at the big league level as well. He still has a very bright future.”
DeFrancesco's brief stint as the Astros manager enhanced his exposure. Whether that leads to a major league coaching job or the ultimate goal of being a major league manager remains to be seen.
“The 41 games I managed will be a memory me and my family will always cherish,” DeFrancesco said. “Hopefully, one day I'll get another opportunity.”