Manager Francona is happy at the helm of rejuvenated Indians
CLEVELAND — The Detroit Tigers traveled to Cleveland last week for a big series against the Indians — at least as big as a series in May can be. But another matter loomed as large as the two teams jockeying for the American League Central lead. It was Cleveland's next series, when Indians manager Terry Francona would return to Boston for the first time in a different uniform since his ignominious firing after the 2011 season.
Seven years earlier, Francona managed a presumably jinxed Red Sox franchise to its first world championship in 86 years. They won it again in 2007. But things soured over four years, and Francona was fired after a collapse defined by indifferent players drinking beer, eating chicken and playing video games in the clubhouse while their teammates remained on the field. Rumors also were planted about Francona's former marriage and other parts of his life. It was ugly. He departed embittered and furious.
But with a new ballclub to pilot, Francona is rejuvenated, and he deftly handled the subject of his return. He knew it would be emotional, but he wanted everyone to know: “I'm proud to go back there as an Indian.”
After losing out to Mike Matheny for the Cardinals manager's job, Francona spent the 2012 season in the broadcast booth and writing a book. Meanwhile, the Red Sox were hitting bottom under Francona's successor, Bobby Valentine, who was let go soon after. Francona got the Cleveland job shortly after the Indians completed a 94-loss season and fired manager Manny Acta.
“It was probably good for me to be out of it,” the 54-year-old New Brighton native said. “It was healthy for me to step back. That's not the easiest thing to say. And then as the season wore on, I started missing it more and more, which is good. That was good. And when this job opened up, I knew it was the right thing. And I was hoping they thought the same thing.”
Generally expected to struggle again, the Indians rode into Boston on Thursday perched in first place, a half-game ahead of Detroit. Francona, lustily cheered during the Red Sox's 100th anniversary celebration last season, received another warm, heartfelt welcome as his new team beat his old team, 12-3.
“Last year, it was hard to go back, especially in a suit,” Francona said before leaving for Boston.
Asked if he was still angry at the Red Sox, he said: “No. Taking the year off helps. They've got a manager now (John Farrell), one of my best friends in the world. And I'm in a place that I love. So it's win-win. I would have scripted it a little different, the ending. A lot of people probably would. That's the way it goes.”
Francona is called “Tito” after his father, who was born in Aliquippa and grew up in New Brighton. The original Tito Francona was a fan favorite in his six seasons with the Indians, one of nine teams he played for over 16 seasons. But Terry Francona said the appeal of the job came down to Indians president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti.
“That was the reason, Chris and Mark,” Francona said. “That was enough for me to be totally in the right place. The other stuff, my dad's history here, that's kind of icing on the cake. It makes it extra special, but you can't take a job because of that. Where I was at in my career and probably life, having a relationship with Chris and Mark (were reasons) number one, two, three, four and five.”
In 2000, Shapiro, then the assistant GM, created a front-office job for Francona after he was fired as the Phillies' manager. A friendship also blossomed between Francona and Antonetti, then the Indians' baseball operations assistant (Pirates GM Neal Huntington was director of player development at the time).
“He brings so many things,” Antonetti said of Francona. “Most important, he provides an environment for people to be successful. I think that was evident of his time in Boston, not only the championships they won but how they did it.
“He's a great leader, a phenomenal communicator, and he really builds strong relationships with his players. He's universally respected by everyone.”
Indians reliever Rich Hill, who pitched for Francona in Boston, sounded a lot like Antonetti.
“He makes the environment extremely inviting for guys to come and enjoy what they do every single day and to the best of their abilities,” Hill said. “And that's all they ask for.
“All he expects, it's very simple. You go out there and play with conviction, you do the best you can every time you're out there, and that's it. It's as simple as that. The support and the overall confidence he brings to everybody in this locker room carries over to each other. It starts in spring training, and it carries over into the seasons.”
Francona is one of several new faces for the Indians. Fortified by the addition of veterans Mark Reynolds, Michael Bourn, Drew Stubbs and Nick Swisher, the Indians lead the AL in slugging percentage and trail only Texas in runs per game. They steal bases and catch the ball. The starters have been adequate, the bullpen solid.
“I thought Chris and ownership had an unbelievable winter,” Francona said. “They aced it. We're better. We have a lot of baseball to play, but our roster is better, significantly, than it was.”
On Opening Day, Francona famously got lost walking to Progressive Field even though he lives in its shadow. The Indians started 5-10. Since then, the manager and his club have found their bearings.
“It's a nice fit,” Francona said. “I live two blocks from the ballpark. I walk around a bunch and eat and have a beer and talk to a lot of people, and I'm comfortable. I grew up in a Midwest town, and this is very Midwest. I like it.”