When the Indians host the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Wild Card Game tonight in the Tribe’s first playoff appearance since 2007, Cleveland manager Terry Francona will have come full circle. As the nemesis when his Boston Red Sox overcame a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Tribe for the AL pennant, Francona has seen what Progressive Field is like in October.
While it is safe to expect a huge and boisterous crowd at Progressive Field on Wednesday, the days of sellouts for all 81 home games are long gone. The Tribe’s manager, however, is pragmatic about the numbers. While Cleveland did not have the best attendance during the regular season, Francona—who finished with an above .500 record for the ninth straight season—understands the fragility of the economic times in Ohio and the recent performance of the Indians since the near-pennant campaign six years ago.
“We are trying hard as a team to play good baseball and we are trying hard as an organization to be worthy of fans coming out and watching games,” Francona said. “In the off-season it is easy to do something when they ask you, like those commercials (promos featuring Francona and Swisher mentioning the importance of playing in Cleveland and Ohio) or whatever but when the season starts you try pretty much to play the kind of baseball that makes people want to come out.”
“I think for the most part, it is a fun team to watch,” Francona added. “It is a tough economy. There is no getting around it. Cleveland got hit pretty hard. The fans we have are loyal.”
His time in Boston ended ignominiously and a job in broadcasting ensued. But for Francona, while the time in the booth for ESPN was fun and revitalizing, a return to the dugout was always in the cards.
“I needed to step back: managing will wear you out,” Francona said. “I talked to five or six guys about it (returning to managing). Some guys came back, some guys didn’t. Some guys found their niche (away from coaching); some guys just never had a job open up that they wanted. There are not many good jobs out there. Somebody has to want you. But when this job opened up, I knew I was coming back. To get away for a year made me appreciate some things more.”
But the return to postseason play after ending the season with 10 straight victories is rejuvenating not just the city but also the Tribe’s manager and his players.
“I am enjoying myself,” Francona said. “It is a good group. I have grown real fond of this group in a hurry. It doesn’t mean there haven’t been bumps in the road, but it is fun to see how good we can get. The answer is not there yet. We still have got a lot of baseball.”
With Danny Salazar, slated to start against Tampa Bay to open the postseason, the regular season meant pitch counts and some over-protection for the rookie not long removed from Tommy John surgery and pitching in the Minor Leagues. Francona is happy with his progression this season and will trust the right-hander in the Tribe’s first playoff game against a confident team that will be playing in October for the fourth time in the last six years.
“The challenge is—and he is not one to complain about it—he is coming off Tommy John (surgery) and we need recognize that, be cognizant of that,” Francona said. “We all are on the same page organizationally, in the middle of a game when you know he can get guys out but the kid has a long career, sometimes you have to give yourself a kick in the pants and do the right thing. He is tremendous.”