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Rays-Guardians matchup full of mutual admiration from the top

Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash, Cleveland’s Terry Francona share mutual affection and a desire to kick the other’s butt.
Rays manager Kevin Cash, right, played for Guardians manager Terry Francona, left, in Boston and coached for him in Cleveland.
Rays manager Kevin Cash, right, played for Guardians manager Terry Francona, left, in Boston and coached for him in Cleveland. [ [AP Photo/Phil Long; JEFFEREE WOO | Times] ]
Published Oct. 6|Updated Oct. 7

BOSTON — When Rays manager Kevin Cash needs advice on how to handle an unusual or challenging situation with the team, Terry Francona is usually the first person he calls, as one would with a mentor and dear friend.

When Francona, the longtime Cleveland manager, wants a laugh, Cash is often the person he makes fun of, though the teasing words are really terms of endearment given the respect and affection he has for his former Boston backup catcher and Cleveland bullpen coach.

They text and talk often, including Wednesday morning to joke about the noon starts for the first two games of their weekend Wild Card Series matchup, and whether they’d have time to meet in downtown Cleveland after the Rays arrived Wednesday night.

Against that fraternal background, the two will lead their teams into a best-of-three battle starting Friday.

“He’s one of the most special people in my life, and they’re either going to be happy or we are. That’s hard. There’s no getting around it,” Francona, 63, said last week. “When it’s all said and done ... I’m really proud of him, and he knows that. But it’s hard when you care that much about people and then you’re kind of fighting to beat their brains out.”

Cash, admittedly the less entertaining and sentimental of the two, acknowledged that the matchup will “be exciting” and especially fun for his wife and three kids, who are also close to Francona. “My family’s coming (to Cleveland),” he said. “They will look at it as, ‘We want to go see Tito.’ They could care less what’s at stake.”

Though there probably won’t by any scoreboard or vehicle-related pranks as in the past, Cash said the higher stakes won’t change the level of repartee he and Francona share before and during games.

“I look forward to that,” Cash said. “The facial expressions and stuff, it keeps it fun and keeps it loose in a pretty tense environment.”

Current Rays Harold Ramirez, left, and Yandy Diaz previously spent time in Cleveland.
Current Rays Harold Ramirez, left, and Yandy Diaz previously spent time in Cleveland. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The teams have more in common than the bond between their managers.

Both succeed in relatively small markets and with lesser payrolls. And they have a good working relationship.

“Despite the antics between Tito and Cashy, we have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the Rays organization and its leadership,” Guardians president Chris Antonetti said via email. “They do an incredible job of perennially building contending teams and preparing them to be successful each night.”

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The teams also play a similar game on the field, emphasizing pitching (strong starters and dominant relievers), defense and speed while finding ways to score without hitting a lot of home runs.

“In a lot of ways, I think we’re similar,” said Cash, 44.

Current Rays Shawn Armstrong, Yandy Díaz, Corey Kluber, Francisco Mejía and Harold Ramirez also played in Cleveland for Francona. And Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro has worked for both managers, spending 2014-17 as the assistant hitting coach on Francona’s staff.

The connections change the dynamics of the matchup.

“It’s definitely different,” Quatraro said. “You talk about people that had a profound influence on your career and personally gave me the opportunity to go to the big leagues and learned a lot from those people. So, yeah, it’s a different feel than playing against Toronto or the Yankees or somebody that you develop more of a animosity toward, or whatever the right word is, because you see them all the time.”

But not, Quatraro said, the level of competition.

“I definitely have a tremendous amount of respect for Tito and what he’s done in the game,” he said. “But do I want him to win? No. I want to win in two games and get the hell out of there.”

Francona reiterated Wednesday the internal battle he will have this weekend, given how much he thinks of Cash and Quatraro. “I’m going to love Cashy and Q tomorrow and the next day and the next week,” he said in Cleveland. “Just for about three hours both of us are really going to want to win bad.”

But Francona also showed his sense of humor about the situation. For example, could it be an advantage that the Rays have already been on a nine-game road trip?

“If they’re out of underwear, yeah,” Francona said. “Nobody wants to be out of underwear.”

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