Nick Francona goes from hell of war to Angels' front office
By MIKE DIGIOVANNA | Los Angeles Times | Published: February 25, 2014
TEMPE, Ariz. — The summer in Helmand province, an arid region of southern Afghanistan known to be a Taliban stronghold, was the worst.
Hunkering down for eight months in a mud-hut compound with no running water was challenging enough for 1st Lt. Nick Francona and his U.S. Marine Corps rifle platoon. The 120-degree heat of July and August was unbearable.
"You take your body armor off, and steam comes out," Francona, now 28, said. "We'd pour water bottles over our heads to rinse off, but I think I took one hot shower the whole time I was there. You knew you had to rinse off when the flies were swarming around you."
A hot desert sun beats down on Francona as he recalls his deployment, but there are no flies buzzing overhead.
In his first season as the Angels' coordinator of major league player information, Francona, the son of Cleveland Indians Manager Terry Francona, is dressed in khakis and a polo shirt and taking in the tranquil sights and sounds of spring training in Tempe Diablo Stadium.
Francona is a 2008 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business whose career path resembles those of many who have parlayed an Ivy League education into a major league front-office job. But Francona took a detour first, to war-torn Afghanistan as the commander of a Marine brigade's scout-sniper platoon in 2011.
"He spent almost a year of his life defending the country in one of the most dangerous places you can be," Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. "It's a fascinating story. We could spend the rest of the afternoon talking about it."
Francona, who aspires to be a GM, is thoughtful, humble and soft-spoken but seems uncomfortable with a spotlight.
Though he'll man the team's instant-replay video monitor this season, a role that could thrust him into the public eye, he has been in his entry-level position for only three months and doesn't want to attract too much attention to himself. Perhaps that is why Francona will gladly recount the grueling 21/2-year process to become a Marine officer but draws the line at discussing details of combat missions.
He is proud that no member of his 30-man platoon was killed under his command, but three Marines had their legs blown off, numerous others were shot and several incurred shrapnel wounds. Ten were awarded Purple Hearts.
"You have to become very comfortable with risk and understand what is good risk, what is bad risk," Francona said.
Bad risk would be when a platoon leader tries to commandeer a mine-detecting device from a subordinate and lead a search for improvised explosive devices, as Francona once did in Afghanistan.
"We were getting ready to go on a patrol, and he grabbed the metal detector and was going to take point," Justin Weed, 26, a former Marine corporal who served in Francona's platoon, said by phone from his home near Austin, Texas.
"I had to take the metal detector away from him and say, 'Listen, sir, this is not the type of stuff officers do. They don't walk point on patrols.' That's pretty much the most dangerous place you can be. But that's the type of guy he was. He would do anything that needed to be done."
The most frustrating part of the mission, Francona said, was that it was impossible to gauge the success of it.
"You don't have clear-cut battle lines," Francona said. "The enemy doesn't wear uniforms. You can't just say, 'I'm standing on this hill, I won, now I'm in charge.' You don't have formal surrenders."
Francona didn't grow up with a desire to be in the military but was a sophomore at a New Jersey high school when hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
"A couple of kids at my school lost parents. It made it a little more personal," Francona said. "Each generation has a defining event, and that happened at a very formative time in my life. It changes your outlook on things."
Shoulder surgery after his freshman year of college ended his hopes of pitching in the big leagues. During an internship at a Washington, D.C., think tank, Francona worked closely with a former Army Rangers officer.
"He opened my eyes to the idea that this is a path you could take," Francona said. "Just because you went to a good school doesn't mean you should get a free pass on serving your country."
After college, Francona enrolled in officer candidate school, a 10-week "boot camp" for potential officers. Next came six months of leadership training at the Basic School in Quantico, Va.
After completing a scout-sniper platoon commander course, Francona was assigned to a platoon in Twentynine Palms for 11 months of training.
"It was a little overwhelming at first, because your task is to lead experienced guys who are closer to you in age than 18-year-olds out of boot camp," Francona said. "How can I lead snipers when I haven't deployed? It's humbling when you have to learn from them and rely on them while still demonstrating you're capable of leading them."
Weed, who served four years in the Marines, was also with Francona in Twentynine Palms.
"He didn't come in saying, 'This is the law, this is the way it's going to be,'" Weed said. "He more or less had suggestions and leaned on his officers for ideas. 'Hey, what do you guys want to do for training? What works? The book says this, but what are we going to actually do to prepare to go back to Afghanistan?'"
Francona's platoon was part of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, an infantry unit that deployed to Afghanistan from March to October 2011, spending most of that time amid the poppy fields of the Helmand River basin.
"Every minute he was gone, I hated it, but I was proud of him," Terry Francona said. "He got out of college, and rather than trying to strike it rich, he decided he should serve his country."
Nick carried an M-4 assault rifle, which he used "a handful of times," but he declined to elaborate.
"My concern was making sure guys were where they were supposed to be, coordinating aircraft, like attack helicopters or planes to drop bombs, and [medical evacuations]," Francona said.
Francona was poised under pressure.
"We got into some pretty bad situations, but he was definitely calm, focused, when we took casualties," Weed said. "He did a great job."
Francona's active service ended in July 2012. He went to work for a D.C. law firm but decided last summer that he wanted to work in baseball. Francona's resume caught the eye of Dipoto, and not just because of the last name.
"He's a super guy, incredibly intelligent, versatile, and he's a leader," Dipoto said. "He'll be a big part of what we're doing in replay and advance scouting."
Francona will work with Jeremy Zoll, advance scouting coordinator, and Jonathan Strangio, baseball operations coordinator, sifting through statistics and scouting reports to determine how the information can best be applied on the field.
In some ways, it's like his Marine Corps job.
"Over there, you get a ton of information from hundreds of sources, whether it's satellites, drones, guys on the ground," Francona said. "I had to go through that and determine what I could turn into actionable intelligence."
The instant-replay portion of his job, Francona said, will be "pretty straightforward." If an umpire's call should be challenged, he will inform the dugout.
Could Francona be a little overqualified?
"Just a touch," Dipoto said.