A new start with the Mets' Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas has been a homecoming of sorts for Tony DeFrancesco. He may live and work more than 2,000 miles from where he grew up, but for the first time in a professional career that began in 1984, New York City is attached to the Bronx-born skipper, who has spent his entire managerial career west of the Mississippi River.
There is a sense of irony that a through-and-through East Coaster has found his success on the other side of the country. But that's exactly the way things have played out for DeFrancesco, who has won 1,659 games and counting as a Minor League skipper. The 55-year-old has also become one of the PCL's most successful managers, compiling a 1,121-908 (.552) record, four league championships and one Triple-A title since he moved to the Minors highest level in 2003.
The one-time catcher credits that success to lessons from his early years on the job and learning how to deal with players at various stages of their careers.
"When I was a young coach and manager a long time ago, I was tough on the kids," DeFrancesco said. "I was very demanding. I felt their performances were a direct reflection on me. If they weren't hitting the cutoff man or not executing the hit-and-run, I'd feel responsible to an extent I probably shouldn't have. But having gone through that and learning along the way, things change.
"I'm in a whole different phase of my career now. I've been dealing with players in the upper levels [of the Minors] for a long time. It's fun to keep motivating these guys and help them make adjustments on the fly. At this point, these kids are close, so it's all about continued growth, competition and learning how to deal with the ups and downs of a game that is largely based on failure."
Drafted by the Red Sox in the ninth round of the 1984 Draft, DeFrancesco got as high as Triple-A during his nine seasons as a Minor Leaguer. He retired in 1992 and began his managerial career with the A's Rookie-level Arizona League club in 1994. Over the course of the next 23 years, DeFrancesco amassed 19 winning seasons, helming Fresno to a Triple-A National Championship in 2015.
Several of the players on that Grizzlies club, including a 20-year-old shortstop by the name of Carlos Correa, went on to become key members of the Astros' World Series-winning squad last year. In addition to Correa, DeFrancesco has helped a number of Houston regulars take the final step toward the Majors, including Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Dallas Keuchel. It's a point of pride for him to see the organization he spent the last seven years with finally reap the benefits of a long and sometimes painful rebuild.
"I'm so happy for those guys," DeFrancesco said. "When I got there in 2011, [Astros general manager] Jeff [Luhnow] was coming in and starting from scratch. That was the first of three straight 100-loss seasons, but he made some great transactions at the Major League level and really put an emphasis on scouting and player development. To watch that club transform from a 100-loss team to winning a World Series was very rewarding. Having a hand in helping the process was equally as special. I'll be getting my own World Series ring this year, which is something I'm very excited about."
In 2012, in the midst of guiding what was then Houston's Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City, DeFrancesco was summoned to the Majors and named interim manager after the club fired Brad Mills on Aug. 19. His first win as a big league manager came five days later against the Mets at Citi Field, which is approximately 40 miles from where he grew up in Suffern, New York. DeFrancesco led the Astros to a 16-25 (.390) record during his time in Houston and although he was not retained, he does have the distinction of being the last manager to guide the club as a member of the National League. The Astros made the switch to the American League in 2013.
"The Majors was a whole different animal," he said. "You've got to deal with the media, the front office and trying to motivate players who were going through a horrible season and having a tough time of it. I had a lot of individual and team conversations, which I found very rewarding, personally. I really enjoyed my time up there and hopefully another opportunity arrives, but for now, I'm happy where I'm at.
"I think a big thing that experience did for me was, it showed me how different Triple-A is from the Majors. Those guys are up there for a reason, and the ones who are trying to make it or trying to stick need to make the adjustments down here. It's helped me understand more how to help them."
DeFrancesco was named the 24th manager in Las Vegas history in January. (Steve Spatafore)
Another seminal moment in DeFrancesco's life came during Spring Training in 2014 when he was diagnosed with cancer. He spent six weeks undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments at the MD Anderson Center in Houston and went home to recuperate. Given a clean bill of health, DeFrancesco returned to the Oklahoma City on May 27, 2014. It gave him a new appreciation for his life, his family and what he's been able to do for a living.
"Baseball is a big part of my life, but I found out family and friends are No. 1, and baseball comes next," DeFrancesco told The Oklahoman in 2014. "Once somebody tells you have cancer it changes your life. ... This was all new to me. Cancer affects so many people in this world, and I was one of them. This will make me a stronger person with a different outlook on life. ... But putting on a uniform has been a big part of my life. Hopefully I can continue to put on a uniform the next 10 to 15 years."
Despite leading the Astros' top Minor League club to a winning record in six of his seven seasons at the helm, the organization parted ways with DeFrancesco at the conclusion of the 2017 season. It wasn't long before Mets general manager Sandy Alderson came calling, which gave the native New Yorker another opportunity to continue managing in the PCL. He was officially named the 24th skipper in Las Vegas history on January 9.
| "Moving around is part of the game. I spent almost 20 years with Oakland and then another seven with Houston. I'm sure I'll be moving on again at some point down the road, but I'm in a good place now."
-- Tony DeFrancesco
"Moving around is part of the game," DeFrancesco said. "I spent almost 20 years with Oakland and then another seven with Houston. I'm sure I'll be moving on again at some point down the road, but I'm in a good place now and have already made some great relationships. Sandy, [special assistant to the general manager] J.P. [Ricciardi] and the whole front office have made me feel welcome from the start. [Mets manager] Mickey [Calloway] made Spring Training really enjoyable. I'm just here to help and do my part and hopefully support them when they need it."
One thing DeFrancesco brings with him from his time with the Astros is a focus on analytics, which has become a driving force in the way players are developed and viewed. Although an old-schooler at heart, the Seton Hall University product has embraced the data-driven trend that has spread like wildfire around today's game.
"My time with the Astros really opened my mind to the way the game is evolving and has evolved," DeFrancesco explained. "Some of the older coaches, myself included, finally bought into it after seeing the benefits of the analytics. Things like launch angle, defensive shifts, spin rate, exit velocity ... it really matters. It's another tool to help prepare these players, and it's something I find very useful.
"The game is really changing, particularly with the analytical tilt. Sandy and the rest of the Mets' front office have made it a prime focus in their player development, so hopefully I can help add to that, having been doing so with the Astros these last few years."
DeFrancesco's love for helping players take that final step on their way to the bigs remains as strong as ever, but the allure of a Major League job still shines bright. Just because he's happy doesn't mean he won't dream.
"Anyone in my position wants to be a big league coach or manager," he said. "I think I've found a nice calling here [in Triple-A]. I love handling the ups and downs of things and just getting guys ready to perform at the Major League level. It's one of my best assets as a manager, but, yes, ultimately I would love to get back up there. Hopefully, one day I'll get that chance, but for now, I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing."