By Bob Toth
A shocked and stunned Cleveland Indians’ fans base received its first good news of the 2012 offseason with rumors last Saturday that the team and Terry Francona had come to terms on a contract.
On Monday, the disbelief became reality, as Francona was introduced as the Indians’ new manager in an afternoon press conference.
The hiring of Francona brings a new level of excitement to Cleveland after what could only be described as a horrendously disappointing season on the field for the ball club. While questions still exist regarding what the front office will do to correct the on-the-field issues that the team had, at least one gigantic question about the team has been answered.
While Francona answers the concern regarding who will call the shots on the field, he certainly is not the answer to all of the Tribe’s woes moving forward this offseason.
Francona’s return to Cleveland provides the city with something that NONE of its professional sports franchises have had – a proven, decorated winner.
In the last 30 years, only one Indians’ manager had previous World Series managerial experience. John McNamara helped to lead the 1986 Red Sox to the World Series, but sported a 102-239 record (.427) in his Tribe years in 1990 and part of 1991. Sandy Alomar saw the World Series as a player. Manny Acta, Eric Wedge, Charlie Manuel, Joel Skinner, Mike Hargrove, John Hart, Doc Edwards, and Pat Corrales never managed a world championship game before leading the Tribe, and only two (Hargrove with the Indians twice; Manuel with the Phillies twice) saw the grand stage during or after their Indians’ tenure.
The same could be said of the head coaches throughout the history of both the Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Cavaliers. Neither organization has hired a coach who has had the previous championship success within their league that Francona has had in his coaching tenure in the Major League.
Francona brings something with him into the Cleveland dugout that no new manager to lead the Indians has ever had – two World Series rings. In the storied history of the franchise, few to don the manager’s cap have even had a pennant to their name elsewhere, let alone the rings for taking it all.
In his first season as Boston’s manager in 2004, Francona took the second place Red Sox to a World Series sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals. The Red Sox team he took over was led to a second place finish in 2003 by Grady Little. He inherited a team heavy on veterans. Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz were All-Stars for the ’04 team. Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, Johnny Damon, Doug Mientkiewicz, Kevin Millar, and Trot Nixon added further experienced depth and skill to the roster. Rookie Kevin Youkilis provided the team a lift, filling in for the injured Bill Mueller, throughout the middle portion of the season.
He repeated the feat in sweeping the Colorado Rockies in 2007 after overcoming a deficit to the Indians in the American League Championship Series. The 2007 Red Sox were composed in similar fashion as the 2004 squad, with veteran players like Schilling, Ramirez, Ortiz, and Wakefield still on the team and surrounded by newer acquisitions Mike Lowell, Coco Crisp, J.D. Drew, Josh Beckett, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. A blend of youth from their farm system, including Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, and AL Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia, rounded out the team for that season and the years that followed.
The roster on the diamond at Progressive Field in 2013 for the Indians will be undoubtedly different than that of the 2004 and 2007 Boston teams, due to the expansive payroll that both of those teams utilized to field the core of veteran skill players making up their championship rosters. Big names generally come with an even bigger price tag.
While Francona led the Philadelphia Phillies to just a .440 winning percentage over his four seasons in the City of Brotherly Love, his eight years in Boston more than made up for it. Every season for the Sox was a winning won for him, with no season win total lower than 86, and five seasons of 95 or more victories. He left Boston with a .574 winning percentage, improving his 12-year career percentage to .529, good for seventh-best amongst all active managers, trailing Joe Girardi, Davey Johnson, Charlie Manuel, Ron Roenicke, Mike Scoiscia, and Ron Washington.
The key for Cleveland over the next few years will depend on Francona and his personality. Will he be able to motivate a young roster to produce at its maximum? Several players throughout the season seemed to struggle with motivation and intensity, almost parroting then-skipper Manny Acta’s calm indifference on the field. Ground balls were not run out hard by some. Others stopped and stared from the batter’s box as would-be doubles turned into long singles. The team seemed to play uninspired. Others screamed at fans on video, broke bones punching inanimate objects, or were ejected from games defending themselves when their manager left them high and dry.
The primary difference between the 2004 and 2007 World Series teams led by Francona was the increased amount of contribution in 2007 by younger players developed by the club. The majority of the 2004 team was purchased or acquired from other teams around the league.
If Francona had any effect on the development of the current stars of the Red Sox roster like Lester, Pedroia, and Ellsbury, the very same players who burst onto the scene in 2007, then maybe he can lead the Indians on the same path. There are certainly a few names – Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, Justin Masterson, and Vinnie Pestano, to name a few – who have shown that the ceilings for their careers have yet to be established.
Francona is a part of the Indians’ family and has a special tie to the organization. His father, Tito, was an Indian from 1959-1964. Terry was an Indians’ player and a special assistant. He has friendships in the front office and has stated that the Indians’ managerial job was the only one that would have pulled him away from his commitment with ESPN.
While he may be the best fit for the Indians, Francona cannot be the only move made to get the team back into a position to play meaningful games in October. The Indians may need to get him a few more pieces to develop, because whether the player is developed within or is acquired externally, Francona has shown an ability to get the most from his players in the past.
These potential pieces, in addition to Francona, may all add up to be the solution Cleveland has been waiting for.
Photo: AP Photo / David Richard