“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.”