On Tuesday evening, the University of Utah baseball team put on its annual fundraiser in downtown Salt Lake City at the Sheraton Hotel. The event not only featured a reception, dinner and auction, but headlining the night was Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona.
Other baseball celebrities who have attended this banquet include Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Bruce Hurst, Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith, Tommy Lasorda, John Farrell, Jim Palmer and Ned Yost.
This was Francona’s third appearance at the banquet as the guest speaker (2005, 2008). Francona and Utah head coach Bill Kinneberg played college ball at Arizona together and have been friends since 1977. Since their playing days they have stayed in close contact with each other and they have followed each other’s baseball journeys.
“We’re good enough friends that we could pick up the phone, it could be a day, it could be a week and it’s just like it was yesterday,” Francona said. “He knows I care and I know he cares, and when the season starts you kind of get going and doing your own thing. But he knows I’m paying attention to what they’re doing and I feel the same way.”
The Indians and Utah are both coming off impressive 2016 seasons. Francona led his team to the World Series, and for the second time in his career, he was named the American League Manager of the Year. The former manager of the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Red Sox, who he led to two World Series titles, watched Utah closely as it made its Pac-12 championship run.
“There was probably three weeks to go, and we were like, ‘They’re going to do this’,” Francona explained. “We were following it and getting excited. When you go to the Pac-12 it’s not an easy transition and to win it, I thought it was a tremendous accomplishment.
To have a person like Francona, who has made it to the biggest stage in baseball take the time to visit with Kinneberg’s Utes meant a lot to those involved in the program. With baseball starting up next week, the banquet was not only a time to get excited and receive words of motivation before it is time to take the field, but also a time to reflect on a historic season with those who were invested in the team.
“We’ve always stayed in touch and kind of the reason that I wanted him to come this year was to kind of celebrate our championship because he followed us,” Kinneberg said. “I got texts from him every night after our ball games. He’d get in from his game and find out what our score was, so he was as involved as any fan was.”
The reigning Pac-12 Champions have expectations they want to meet again this season, but all together they really want to focus on just getting better each day according to Kinneberg. There is some new faces and talent to work with, as well as returners who will add that veteran leadership experience to the team— something that will be extremely valuable as Utah hopes to continue their success from last season.
“I want to be in a [NCAA] regional again at the end of this year,” Kinneberg said. “That’s kind of our ultimate goal and from that point on hopefully we move on from there too.”
Utah will open their season Feb. 17 on the road against California State University, Bakersfield at 7 pm. Then on March 10, Utah will make their first home appearance of the season as they take on New Mexico State at Smith’s Ballpark.