Francona Brings Hope and Excitement to Tribe Fest
By Steve Eby
Indians fans walked out of Progressive Field and the first ever Tribe Fest with all sorts of things.
There were bobbleheads, baseball cards, autographs and jerseys. There were also caricatures, free haircuts, photo opportunities and memories for fans young and old—all for the reasonable price of $10. What I walked away from Tribe Fest with, however, could not have a price tag put on it.
I walked away with hope and excitement for my Cleveland Indians.
It’s something that I haven’t felt about the Indians for far too long. I consider myself to be very optimistic about my Tribe, but my optimism over the last couple seasons was always guarded.
I had too much baseball knowledge to honestly think that the team that was on the field was actually going to compete for an entire season. There was always hope, but even when the Tribe was contending into June and July, the pieces didn’t seem fit to compete for the long haul and the Detroit Tigers were still really good.
I talked the talk and walked the walk by attending my share of games, but I was always skeptical of whether the Indians could keep it up. But as I walked away from Progressive Field with my father on Sunday, I felt differently.
The lines for the batting cages, clubhouse tours and autographs were far too long for my patience level, so I sat at the “main stage” and listened to Tom Hamilton interview Terry Francona. At 3:30, I moved to the Terrace Club for the “Tweet-Up” and listened to Mark Shapiro and Francona again. I have listened to Shapiro talk multiple times before, but this was my first real time with Francona. I walked away at the end of the day thinking one thing: Terry Francona is legit.
I knew he was a legitimate manager when he was hired—two World Series rings will give a man a lot of credibility. But his attitude was contagious and Francona could not hide his excitement for being a Cleveland Indian.
“Since I came back to Cleveland,” Francona said, “(I’ve met) so many genuinely nice people. Everybody this weekend has been coming up to me and saying ‘thank you’ and ‘we appreciate you coming back’, but let me tell you something…I’m the one who feels lucky. This is where I wanted to end up. When the season was over and I saw that Cleveland made the decision to move on and Chris (Antonetti) called me—this is where I wanted to be. If I didn’t end up here, I was going to go back to ESPN. Going in, this was the place that I wanted to consider home.”
When was the last time a manager or head coach ever considered Cleveland “home”? When was the last time that it was “Cleveland or Bust” for the most decorated coach available in any sport? What was it about Cleveland that was so attractive to a man who could have had any available managerial job that he wanted?
“For where I am in my career and my life,” Francona said, “coming back to a place and working with people that I respect and genuinely like. Where I am in my baseball career and with the way things ended in Boston, coming here and working with people that I respect (as much as I do) was my number one priority. I wanted to be aligned with people that I not only care about, but respect.”
The people that he respects so much are Shapiro and Antonetti. Francona spent the 2001 season in the Tribe organization as an advisor and became great friends with the two most powerful men in the organization. It was a year that Francona looks back on with fondness and gratefulness.
“It was a year that I could learn and listen and look at the game without a lot of emotion. It really helped me moving forward.”
It must have helped. Three years after leaving Cleveland Francona was hoisting a World Series trophy for the first time, breaking the Red Sox’s 86 year championship drought. Tribe fans dream at night about the possibility that he may be able to do it again.
“There will be nobody in this town that cares more about winning than me; and when it does happen it will be pretty cool.”
So what can Francona do to bring a championship caliber team to the shores of Lake Erie? According to him, it starts with a mindset.
“The best thing that we can do as a staff is to try and create an atmosphere,” Francona said. “From day one of Spring Training—the players are working the right way. If you have players that care, are outworking the team we’re playing and they care about playing the game correctly then we’re heading in the right direction.
“If we have the talent we think we have, then we’re going to be ok. Just as it can go the wrong way, it’s amazing how things can snowball in the right direction. Guys start caring about each other and build loyalty.”
The talent that he’s talking about are the players on the revamped roster. Shapiro gushed over the signing of Nick Swisher, but Francona was heavy on the pitching talk. He was asked specifically about Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez—the two “ace” Tribe pitchers who combined for over 30 losses a season ago.
“With Justin Masterson I’m buying into the person,” Francona said. “I was with him in Boston…I’ve known Masty since he was right out of college. He battled shoulder problems last year and it probably got in the way and bothered him all year. I think he’s ready to go. I think he’s excited and I think he can be that force that we desperately need to put us on his shoulders.”
His familiarity with Jimenez was not as great as Masterson, but his reply was just as impressive.
“I don’t know him nearly as well,” Francona said. “What we did when I got the job was name Mickey Calloway the pitching coach and the first thing Mickey did was to fly to the Dominican Republic as Ubaldo was just starting his throwing program. We’re trying to wipe the slate clean and get him with a good base. When he started throwing his bullpens Mickey and I went back just for a little bit of positive reinforcement.
“Everybody who has seen Ubaldo pitch knows he’s never going to be in the manual for the perfect delivery. But he had gotten so many little, extra moves with his arm that he wasn’t very ‘clean’. Mickey tried to just clean it up and simplify it a little bit to get him back to where he was (with Colorado).”
Francona mentioned that newly acquired Brett Myers was being counted on for “200 innings” then listed the other options to fill out the rotation. Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Zach McAllister were all listed as viable options, but another name was thrown into the mix…a name that has flown under the radar for the most part.
“Scott Kazmir is a guy to keep an eye on,” Francona said. “Everybody’s seen him pitch when he came up with Tampa and this kid had electric stuff. He pitched in Winter Ball and his velocity is back up at probably 92/93. That’s not the end-all/be-all, but that’s certainly an indication that this kid might have another run inside of him because he was filthy.”
Kazmir was signed as a minor league free agent in December and has not pitched in the Major Leagues since 2011, where he only threw in one game. Regardless of who wins the job, Francona wants the candidates to step up and take it in Spring Training.
“There’s going to be a lot of other names like Scott Kazmir. We want our young guys to do well, but we certainly want them to earn their spot in the rotation. They need to knock the door down and let their pitching say ‘hey, I deserve to be in this rotation.”
Francona addressed the offense as well, and fielded specific questions about the large amount of strikeouts that the Tribe acquired over the offseason.
“Last year the Indians barely struck out at all. They were third from the top of the league in fewest strikeouts, but they didn’t score enough runs. What I care about is how many runs we score. The idea is to score runs. With a guy like Mark Reynolds, you’re going to have to sit through some nights where there’s some swinging and missing, but if he hits 35-40 homeruns then we’re going to score some runs…We’re going to try and cut down to a point with certain guys, but with other guys it might be something that comes with their production. As long as we’re getting the production, we can handle the strikeouts. If we’re not getting production then it becomes an issue.”
Francona knows baseball. That was obvious long before he was a candidate for the job. He has two World Series rings and has been involved in the game for long enough to have credibility and command respect. What I didn’t expect to see, however, was the passion for the fans and the city of Cleveland that he clearly has.
“We’re going to lose some games,” Francona said. “You’re going to go home disappointed some nights. You’re going to be mad at me sometimes. That’s part of being a fan. But if you’re proud to say that you’re an Indians fan then we’re doing something right. We’re going to strive really hard to do that and we’re going to get it started in about three short weeks. We’re really excited to do that.”
I can’t wait. Francona made me excited to be an Indians fan again and that was worth far more than my price of admission to enter Tribe Fest. As Shapiro put it, Francona has a “unique, infectious energy and positive attitude” and I caught it. Tribe fans everywhere have something to look forward to and will hopefully have a lot of wins to hang their hats on very soon.
“It’s hard not to be enthusiastic when you see people who care so much,” Francona concluded. “I can’t wait to get started.”