Francona’s Influence Gives Tribe a New Feel
Mike B. | On 05, Jan 2013
There is a new feeling around the Cleveland Indians.
It isn’t a feeling of cockiness, but confidence. It’s a feeling of pride in what has been accomplished since the end of a 94-loss season in 2012, and also a focus on the work that is left to be done. It’s a feeling of comfort and trust, while starting so many things different and new.
However you try to describe the feeling, it is one created by new Manager Terry Francona.
Francona was hired on Oct. 6 after the end of a difficult and disappointing season for the Tribe. Cleveland’s 2012 season floundered and left a roster in despair at season’s end, but it also provided Francona a chance to recharge after eight seasons managing the Boston Red Sox. Francona spent the 2012 season as an analyst on ESPN, a break from managing between Boston and the Philadelphia Phillies for 12 seasons, Francona was ready for a new challenge—steering the small-market, tight-budget Cleveland Indians.
While many players, coaches and managers have bypassed Cleveland for bigger opportunities, Francona doesn’t understand why.
“You’re probably better asking other people,” Francona said on Thursday at the press conference to announce the signing of Nick Swisher. “This is the place I wanted to come. This was my destination, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask.”
Francona has played a major role in the retooling of the Indians’ roster that features 15 new members on the 40-man roster since the final game on Oct. 3. His help in the acquisition of Swisher might be the biggest impact to the roster for the 2013 season and the length of Francona’s four-year contract with Cleveland. Prior to Christmas, Swisher and his wife visited Cleveland, the Indians and went to dinner with several Tribe brass.
“We were just ourselves,” Francona said. “We took him to dinner and gave him the tour. Sure, we had the highlight video, but that was the fun part for me. We were just ourselves at dinner. We had fun. There was no awkward getting to know you period. We hit the ground running. The hard part was letting him go. I wanted to sign him that night.”
The Indians took the Swishers to Lola’s on East 4th Street. Along with Team President Mark Shapiro and General Manager Chris Antonetti, they were accompanied by several Buckeye alumni, including Jim Tressel. While the food was great, the conversation and camaraderie was better, including Swisher standing up and imitating swings.
“The cool part for me is when this is over, we’re going to show up in the morning and be the same way,” Francona told Antonetti after the dinner. “I think Swish knew this was more than just one day for us.”
In addition to his work recruiting Swisher, Francona has been active working with Antonetti to retool the roster while getting to know the players already on it. Francona has made a point to visit and call several key players on the Indians. He hopes to create a comfort with players as quickly as possible.
“I was in Boston so long, I knew everybody and I was comfortable,” Francona said. “It’s bugging the heck out of me, and I want to have that feeling here, now.”
Since his hiring in October, Francona has been working to build those relationships. Jason Kipnis said he’s called him five times this winter. Francona went to see Ubaldo Jimenez pitch in the winter league and met with Michael Brantley.
“I’ve done some pretty extensive travelling,” Francona said. “I went to the Domincan Republic and then to Florida, so I got a chance to see some guys face-to-face, which is great. When I go to Spring Training with Michael Brantley, it’s not, ‘Nice to meet you,’ it’s picking up on a conversation.”
Brantley potentially could be in several different roles on the 2013 Indians. While Francona admitted Thursday he has considered lineups, he wouldn’t reveal any of his ideas. With the trade of Shin-Soo Choo to the Cincinnati Reds, Brantley seems to be a likely leadoff candidate. A year ago, Brantley hit in every position of the batting order from first to seventh, but often in the fifth spot trying to produce runs. His lack of walks — and thus low on-base percentage — pushed him out of the leadoff spot after the first month of the season.
After replacing Grady Sizemore in center field in 2012, Brantley might be forced back to left field with the acquisition of Drew Stubbs. Stubbs is known to be a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder with an above average arm. However, Francona said he would keep the dialogue open with Brantley considering the move.
“I told Michael this, let’s wait and see how our roster shapes out at the end because we don’t know if this is the end of our roster or not,” Francona said. “And then when we know what our team is going to be, I’ll sit down with him and try to come up with the best decision. He definitely wants to play center field — and I respect that a lot — and I told him I do respect it. When we have our full team, we’ll sit down and figure out what is best for our ballclub.”
Whether he is on the road talking to his new team, at home or in Cleveland, Francona and Antonetti have a continuous dialogue via phone calls, emails and texts. The two have been friends and colleagues for more than a decade in baseball, and some of the conversations bounce between their personal lives and their baseball lives. The respect he has for his budding ballclub already is established with the front office.
“Where I’m at in my career, it’s very refreshing for me,” Francona said. “I like the way we’re going about it and it’s fun for me. I’m energized. I’ve known Chris a long time, so it’s a good feeling. I walk into the office and I feel like I’m among old friends. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have challenges. I know that. But, going through challenges with people you respect and care about, I can handle that.”
Francona’s conversations, candidness and confidence all are with one goal in mind: to get better and be ready for the 2013 season, one that he is excited to begin.
“We just have to try and get better,” Francona said. “I said that the very first day I got here. We’re doing our best to do that. Trevor Bauer is a good, young pitcher, and adding guys like Mike Aviles, we’re trying to get better. It will be fun to go prove it on the field.”
When the Indians do take the field in Goodyear, Ariz., in just more than six weeks, it certainly will be with a different look, but also a different attitude and feeling — one created in major part by Francona.
Photo: AP Photo/David Richard