Francona A Proven Winner
Bob Toth | On 26, Jan 2014
The Cleveland Browns have dominated the airwaves in the city over the majority of the last month while the team searched for its new head coach, less than one year after the hiring of recently dismissed coach Rob Chudzinski.
On Thursday, the team announced the signing of former Buffalo Bills and New York Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as the new head coach for an organization that has consistently struggled and of late has become the butt of jokes around the nation.
One of the key qualities that Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslem III was looking for in his coaching search was a proven winner. While Pettine has yet to lead a professional team as a head coach, the same could not be said about the Cleveland Indians’ dugout leadership provided by manager Terry Francona prior to his hire last offseason.
When the Indians brought in Francona in October of 2012, the team was in need of an established manager in the clubhouse and not just another guy cutting his teeth in the big leagues for the first time. Prior to Manny Acta in 2010, the Indians had not hired a manager with Major League experience since John McNamara led the 1990 Cleveland squad.
The Indians were the sixth different team led by McNamara, who had seven full seasons of .500 ball or better in his 16 years of managing prior to Cleveland. He took the Boston Red Sox to the World Series in 1986 after a 95-66 regular season, but they fell to the New York Mets in seven games. The Indians were 77-85 in 1990 and started 25-52 in 1991 when McNamara was replaced with first-time MLB manager Mike Hargrove.
The addition of Pettine to the Browns continues a long line of inexperienced coaches to guide the team on the field. Since the Browns returned in 1999, only one head coach at the start of the season had any previous NFL head coaching experience (Eric Mangini – New York Jets from 2006-2008). Terry Robiskie, who was the interim coach after the resignation of Butch Davis in 2004, had coached three games with the Washington Redskins in 2000.
Prior to Mangini’s hire for the 2009 season, the Browns had not hired a coach with previous NFL coaching experience since Nick Skorich in 1971. He had coached the Philadelphia Eagles ten years prior and after a 10-4 record in his first season, compiled a 5-20-3 record in his last two years in Philly. He took the Browns to back-to-back playoff appearances in his first two years before falling to 7-5-2 in 1973 and 4-10 in 1974, ending his time on the shores of Lake Erie.
The Major League front office in Cleveland has chosen to go with a much more proven voice in the dugout, even if that voice has to work its way out around a mouthful of Dubble Bubble and chewing tobacco.
Francona came to town extremely familiar with the franchise, having grown up with a link to the city thanks to his father Tito Francona’s six years in a Tribe uniform, starting just one week after Terry debuted in the world.
Years later, the younger Francona would take his first turn in an Indians’ uniform himself as a player. He suited up for Cleveland in the second half of the 1988 season, primarily as the team’s designated hitter, and batted .311. He concluded his ten-year big league career with a pair of seasons in Milwaukee with the Brewers.
Francona followed his playing career with minor league managerial stops with the Chicago White Sox organization. In three of his four seasons there, his teams finished with winning records.
In 1997, he took over for Jim Fregosi, who had been with the Philadelphia Phillies since 1991 and had led the team to the National League pennant in 1993. Francona improved the Phillies one game in his first season, then seven, and then two more, but the team finished no higher than third place. A disappointing 65-97 fifth place 2000 season, with budding stars Pat Burrell, Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu, and the traded Curt Schilling and veteran Ron Gant, led to his firing at the end of the season.
His self-esteem wounded, he re-joined the Indians in the front office after Mark Shapiro reached out to him. The two had previously established a relationship at the Winter Meetings the previous year when the two hit it off after sitting next to one another.
In 2004, Francona returned to the dugout to take over the Boston Red Sox, replacing former Indians’ coach Grady Little. Francona took the successful Red Sox team that had fallen in the eleventh inning of the seventh game of the American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees the previous season on an Aaron Boone clinching home run and improved their record another three wins to 98-64.
The improvement was good enough for an AL Wild Card spot and another encounter with the Yankees. With a 3-3 series tie again, the Red Sox prevailed in the rematch, 10-3, and would sweep the World Series from the St. Louis Cardinals to break the 86-year “Curse of the Bambino”.
Francona would be the skipper in Boston for eight years, winning fewer than 95 games just three times and never posting a losing record. He would earn a second piece of hardware in 2007, sweeping the Colorado Rockies after a hard fought seven-game ALCS battle with the Indians.
The team that Francona would field for 2013 was much different than the one he inherited when he took the managerial gig in Cleveland.
Like the 2013 Browns and their second-youngest roster in the league, the Indians fielded a young, but talented, group of ball players who showed some potential but were unable to consistently achieve at high levels under the management of Acta from 2010 to 2012.
Acta was just 41 years old when he began his first season in Cleveland. He had been let go by the Washington Nationals the year prior after a 26-61 start to the season. In his previous two years in the nation’s capital, he had posted consecutive losing seasons, including a decrease of 24 games in 2008 on the way to a 59-102 record.
His success in the minors as a manager was slightly better. In eight seasons, he posted winning records four times.
The Major League game is different than that of the Minors, though, and it was clear that the Indians needed someone who had the big game experience like Francona had. Acta led the team to a disappointing 69-93 record in 2010, only to improve to 80-82 in his second season. The team stumbled back to 65-91 under Acta in 2012 before his dismissal. The team had been in first place until the final week of June and within two games of the lead on July 5th, but a 5-24 August erased all chances and Sandy Alomar Jr. managed the final six games of the season.
Acta’s young age for a manager was thought to be an advantage for him with a youthful Cleveland roster. It was believed that, coupled with his understanding of life for Latin American players, he would be able to relate to the Indians’ roster and upcoming prospects. Instead, he was often criticized for appearing disinterested and for not being a stern enough manager for the young team.
Francona was working for ESPN when Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti came calling the second time.
The Indians’ organization, appearing more committed to the future with Francona at the helm, uncharacteristically spent money following the 2012 season and supplemented the talent on the roster with playoff-experienced veterans like Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Scott Kazmir, and Jason Giambi.
Acta, ironically enough, would end up working for ESPN on their Baseball Tonight telecasts throughout the 2013 season.
The Indians can be criticized for poor drafts, not retaining their own big players, not maximizing trades, and not spending money, but the ownership and front office recognized the importance of having the right guy in the clubhouse and opened up the checkbook for him and others.
Francona repaid the team by posting his ninth consecutive season with a winning record, finishing 21-6 in September, winning ten straight games to conclude the regular season, and walking off eleven different times at home during the season. The Baseball Writers Association of America rewarded him with his first career Manager of the Year award.
Down the street from the Indians’ offices at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, the Cleveland Browns’ team will take a different approach, hoping that another rookie head coach will be able to get the best out of the young roster, supplement effectively through the draft and the unspent salary cap money, and finally turn around an organization that has become a perennial laughingstock in the NFL.
Francona is just the guy that the city of Cleveland and the Indians’ organization needed. He has paid his dues around the league. He pulled in two championship trophies in a highly scrutinized job in an even higher stress sports town. He turned a 68-94 Cleveland team into a 92-70 team in just one season and brought playoff baseball back to Progressive Field, even if it was just a one-game American League Wild Card Series.
Cleveland needed a winner and the city has that in Tito. If anyone can do it, the proven Francona can.
Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images