Francona Actively Leading Indians in New Direction
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine Terry Francona and his impact on the organization and roster.
By Bob Toth
Just four months after the hiring of their new manager, the Cleveland Indians are already reaping the benefits provided by the presence of the experienced and accomplished Terry Francona as he leads the franchise in a new direction.
If you have yet to hear Francona speak about his feelings regarding taking the manager position in Cleveland and his excitement about bringing a winner to the long-suffering city, you are missing out. Time and time again, he has shared his joy about once again working for Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti as a member of the Indians organization and returning to the city of Cleveland that has several times played a significant role in his life.
He certainly does not sound like a manager who is taking the reins of a team that finished 68-94 last season.
One of the more frequent questions asked of Francona since his hiring was, “Why Cleveland?”
A lot of factors were at play when Francona decided that Cleveland was the destination for him.
For one, the Cleveland Indians organization has been a part of his life since his birth. Born April 22nd, 1959, Francona entered the world less than one week after his father, Tito Francona, made his debut in a Cleveland Indians uniform.
Francona’s father spent six seasons patrolling first base and the outfield for the Tribe. Tito was acquired by the Indians from the Detroit Tigers on March 21st, 1959, in what would be the second time in his career that he was traded for Indians legend Larry Doby. He would play in Cleveland until the end of the 1964 season and would play with nine different major league clubs over his 15-year major league career. Cleveland was easily his longest stop.
The younger Francona’s ten-year playing career also made a stop, albeit much more briefly, in Cleveland during the 1988 season. In 62 games, Terry batted .311. He served as the team’s designated hitter for 38 games and played another five games apiece at first base and in left field after his call-up in July. He was reserved primarily to a pinch-hitting role over the final month of the season. He played another 68 games prior to joining the big league club for the Indians Triple-A affiliate, at the time in Colorado Springs, and batted .323 with 32 RBI.
After his playing career ended in 1990, he went on to manage at Single-A and Double-A in the Chicago White Sox minor league system from 1992 until 1995. In three of his four seasons, his teams posted winning records.
In 1997, he was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies organization as the skipper of its major league club. But after four seasons and no finishes above third place in the National League East division, he was fired. The next season, he found himself work with Mark Shapiro in the Indians front office.
“I came to work here [in Cleveland] in 2001 when I was fired by the Phillies and Mark Shapiro reached out to me,” Francona said during a question-and-answer session at Tribe Fest. “By the luck of the draw, I sat next to Mark the previous year at the Winter Meetings and we just hit it off. I came here to work basically for him.
“It was a tough time,” Francona said. “I had just got fired and my self-esteem took a hit. I probably didn’t handle it as well as I should have. It was a year that I could learn and listen and look at the game without a lot of emotion and it really helped me moving forward. Through Mark (Shapiro) I met Chris (Antonetti) and we remained friends since 2001.”
It feels like it has been a long time since such a high profile person wanted to be affiliated with a Cleveland team, let alone call the city his home. For Francona, it was the only place he wanted to go and he had his mind made up.
“I’m the one who feels lucky. This is where I wanted to end up,” Francona said at Tribe Fest. “When the season was over and I saw that Cleveland made the decision to move on and Chris called me…this is where I wanted to be. If I didn’t end up here, I was going to go back to ESPN and work there. Going in, this was the place that I wanted to consider home. I don’t just want to be part of the short term solution, I want to be part of the long term solution and stay here.”
“My prior relationships with Chris and Mark, the fact that my dad played here, it’s a good story,” Francona said during the press conference formally announcing his hiring. “It’s almost a family feeling. I don’t think you can take a job because of that, but it still means a lot to me. But because of Chris and Mark and our relationship, I’m excited to tackle every challenge that comes our way and do it together.”
What Cleveland gets in Francona is a hard-working, energetic manager with a successful track record throughout his minor and major league managerial careers. His pre-existing relationships with the front office and his long-time affiliation with the organization give him plenty of reasons to be motivated to find the success on the field that he has had throughout his managerial career.
“As excited as we are about [Francona’s] accomplishments, I think what excites us most are what those accomplishments are built upon,” Antonetti said, when introducing Francona at the press conference announcing his hiring. “Terry is an exceptional leader, has boundless energy, is a relentless communicator, and brings a winning attitude.”
In four years with the Phillies from 1997 until 2000, in his first gig as a major league manager, Francona won 285 games (.440 winning percentage), but his teams failed to finish above third place in their division.
After joining the Boston Red Sox for the 2004 season, Francona posted eight consecutive winning seasons. His teams won no fewer than 86 games and finished with 90 or more wins in six of his eight seasons, including a 98-win season in 2004 when he helped reverse the curse of the Bambino in Boston.
That 2004 team earned a spot in the postseason by claiming the American League Wild Card spot. After sweeping the Anaheim Angels 3-0 in the Division Series, they went head-to-head with their division rival New York Yankees, pushing the AL Championship Series to seven games before claiming the AL pennant. A sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series won the team and the city their first championship since 1918.
The 2007 season was a near carbon copy for the Sox. This time, they won the AL East outright, then again swept the Angels in the first round AL Divisional Series. A seven-game AL Championship Series versus the Indians was claimed by Boston, who would then sweep the Colorado Rockies to claim their second World Championship in a four-year span after ending an 86-year drought.
The Red Sox reached the playoffs in three other seasons under Francona. In 2005 as the Wild Card, they were swept in the ALDS by the Chicago White Sox, who would go on to win the World Series. In 2008, again as the Wild Card, they would lose in seven games in the ALCS to the Tampa Bay Rays. The Game 5 matchup at Fenway Park paired new Indians pitchers Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka against one another; Justin Masterson earned the win in relief. The 2009 Red Sox would be the last Boston team led by Francona to reach the postseason; the Wild Card Red Sox were swept in the ALDS by the Angels.
In his eight seasons in Boston, he amassed a .574 winning percentage while winning 744 games and losing 552.
His 1,029 career wins are seventh-highest amongst active managers (trailing Jim Leyland, Dusty Baker, Bruce Bochy, Davey Johnson, Mike Scoiscia, and Buck Showalter). He has a career winning percentage of .529, also good for seventh-best amongst active managers, trailing Joe Girardi, Johnson, Charlie Manuel, Ron Roenicke, Scioscia, and Ron Washington.
Francona comes to Cleveland with something that no new manager for the team has ever had – two World Series rings. He is the first Indians manager with World Series experience since John McNamara (1986 Red Sox) led the Indians in 1990 and the beginning of 1991.
One of the most dramatic impacts the hiring of Francona has had on the Cleveland Indians has been the team’s newfound ability to bring higher-profile free agents in to what otherwise might have been an impossible sell after such a disappointing and devastating 2012 season.
Nick Swisher is by far the most prominent of the players to join the Tribe. In his press conference, he on several occasions referenced the role that Francona had on convincing him that Cleveland was the city he should call home for the next five years. His excitement about the opportunity to play closer to home and to play for Francona were impossible to ignore.
“You don’t hire a manager like Terry Francona if you don’t plan on winning,” said Swisher during his own introductory press conference on January 3rd. “I thought it was a big, big thing when Cleveland brought him over here.”
Late Monday evening, word broke that the Indians had come to terms on a four-year, $48 million dollar deal with free agent center fielder Michael Bourn, previously of the Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, and Philadelphia Phillies. Pending a physical, the deal with Bourn reportedly has a vesting option for a fifth year that would push the total contract to $60 million. He instantly adds a legitimate leadoff hitter to the batting order and a dynamite defender. The two-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner posted a career-best 6.0 WAR last season, sixth-best amongst all National League position players in 2012.
Other such notable signings, including Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers, come into the fray at a price not typically paid by the Indians for veteran corner infielders or middle of the rotation arms on an otherwise young and previously inexpensive roster.
The front office is spending, but spending wisely, and is able to do so after getting several expensive contracts off of their books in the offseason.
Even the minor league invitees to Spring Training have more flair than in the years preceding Francona’s arrival. With the weekend’s acquisitions of Matsuzaka and designated hitter Jason Giambi, the team brings to camp two notable, once high-profile players who are veteran and playoff-experienced. The same can be said for other potential reclamation projects added via minor league contracts, including Kazmir, Matt Capps, Rich Hill, Ben Francisco, and Ryan Raburn.
None of these big free agent names would have come to Cleveland this offseason if not for Francona. The Indians would not have opened up their wallet had he not come to town. Even the minor league invitees would have likely opted for opportunities elsewhere, rather than trying to fight for a spot with a young, retooling, or even rebuilding Indians team that may have looked much further away from contention than the current roster does. Much of this can be attributed to the passion Francona has exhibited for the game of baseball and the effort he has already put into the coming 2013 season and getting to know his new roster.
“I had to remind myself, when I took this job, it was what, two weeks after the season, the Indians players, they were tired,” Francona said recently in an interview with Bob Costas. “They had just got done with a grinding season. And I’m calling them like ‘Hey, let’s go. Let’s get after it’. And I had to remind myself, ‘Hey, let’s slow down’. But I was so excited to get back into it.”
“The day [Francona] got the job, he did a press conference; the next day he was out in Arizona to meet with our scouts, to meet with our staff, and to see our minor league players,” Shapiro said. “Then he was on a plane to the Dominican to talk to our players down there and then he’s been back and forth all winter long.”
Francona joked that he shared the same belief system as Shapiro in regards to how to build the ball club, but that their educational levels were not quite the same. While he may not have the same level of education as the Tribe’s brain trust, his baseball managerial IQ seems to be off the charts.
He understands the importance of making sure each of the 25 players on the daily roster feels appreciated, rested, and a part of the team. He even seems to understand that the guys on the shuttle back and forth from Columbus throughout the year as replacements for those primary 25 guys need to have that same sense of appreciation when they arrive to the club. He preaches respect, camaraderie, loyalty, health, and the importance of playing the game the right way.
“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. We need to do things correctly…and we will. On the (practice) field, we’re going to spend all of our energy making sure that the players spend all of their energy trying to play the game right.”
He knows that in a market like Cleveland, where money is far less available to spend, every mistake is costly and amplified and cannot be solved just by throwing more money at it like other ball clubs may be able to do.
“Having a big budget allows you cover up some of your mistakes,” Francona said during his press conference. “You have to limit your mistakes.”
Francona comes primed and ready to devote more of his focus to the coaching aspect of the game after years of being under the spotlight in Boston and having to put out the almost-daily fires towards the end of his stay. He believes in properly developing young players, much like he was able to do with his 2007 Boston team. If Francona can develop Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, and Justin Masterson like he did with Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury, there may be good times on the horizon for Cleveland.
“When guys come through your system and come to the big leagues, you’re going to get to know them much better than guys you sign through free agency,” Francona said. “Dealing with players is fun; dealing with young players is real fun.”
“I’m kind of looking forward to being able to get onto the field and maybe making an impact with guys, as opposed to maybe putting fires out,” he said during his interview with Costas. “Maybe being a little bit more of a coach again. I miss that. So I’m excited.”
“We want our young guys to do well,” Francona said. “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’.”
The year away from the on-the-field aspects of baseball seem to have rejuvenated Francona. His opportunities working last year for ESPN, like his experience in 2001 in the Indians front office, allowed him to see the game of baseball from a different perspective while eliminating the emotional toll and the daily grind of the coaching position.
“I can’t tell you, I felt like an outsider for the first time in my life in a clubhouse, and I hated that,” said Francona during an interview on ESPN 850 WKNR’s The Really Big Show on February 7th. “I’ll run over to the ballpark and everybody is there, and I’m part of it. I’m not an outsider. I can walk in, and that’s all I’ve ever done my whole life. And I love it. I absolutely love it. I don’t get tired of it. It’s just the way it is. I’ve never wanted to do anything else in my whole life.”
The city of Cleveland may be the perfect fit for Francona to continue his once-successful managerial career – away from the big market, media-giant cities he has spent his entire coaching life in. But Francona and all his intangibles may just be the perfect fit for the Indians as well.
“There will be nobody in this town that cares more about winning than me,” Francona said. “And when it does happen, it will be pretty cool. This is the place I wanted to end up. When we win here, it’s going to make it extra special.”
Photo: Marvin Fong /Cleveland Plain Dealer