Managing father's former team, veteran skipper seeks return to playoff glory
Hanging on the wall behind Terry Francona's desk at Progressive Field is a picture from his past. The large black-and-white photograph was installed while the Indians were away at Spring Training, and it awaited the manager for his official return to Cleveland.
A 4-year-old Francona is sitting on the top step of the Indians' dugout at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, wearing a miniature Tribe uniform in the moments before a father-son game during the 1963 season. Standing behind him is his dad, Tito, then an outfielder for the Indians, flashing a wide smile.
That image greeted Francona when he stepped through the doorway to the manager's office.
"It meant a lot to me," Francona said. "Somebody took the time to do that, because they knew it would mean something to me. Little things like that mean a lot."
Perhaps it is providence that paved Francona's path back to Cleveland.
Looking back on it now, the signs were always there. Tito suiting up for the Tribe six decades ago. His son playing for the Indians in the 1980s. Terry working with Indians president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti in Cleveland's front office in 2001. Terry's Red Sox defeating the Indians in the American League Championship Series in '07, which was the Tribe's most recent playoff appearance.
While it seemed stunning at the time that Francona took on this challenge in Cleveland, maybe everyone should have seen it coming.
Now, in his first season at the helm for the Indians, Little Tito has helped changed the culture on the field and behind the scenes, guiding the club to its first postseason berth in six years. Cleveland has improved by 21 wins over its discouraging showing a season ago, but the combination of Antonetti's shrewd roster makeover and Francona's managerial style has helped patch a sinking ship.
"I have no doubt," Antonetti said, "that we would not be in the position we are without Tito's leadership."
It was that same leadership that was questioned at the end of the 2011 season with the Red Sox.
Francona took over as Boston's manager in 2004 and, in his first season, ended the franchise's 86-year World Series drought in dramatic fashion. The Red Sox won it all again in '07 under Francona's watch, but his eighth and final year in Boston ended in disappointment and controversy. Boston's September collapse that year was historic, and Francona's tenure ended bitterly.
Indians infielder Mike Aviles, who was on that 2011 Red Sox team, said Francona's approach never wavered.
"He was cool during that, too," Aviles said. "That was one of the reasons why I had an absolute blast playing for him the last two months in 2011. We were all frustrated, like, 'What's going on?' And our manager is calm, cool, had no worries. It was, 'Hey, I have trust in you. I have faith in you.' We could feel that."
Francona admits to harboring hard feelings over how things ended in Boston, and he spent the 2012 campaign away from the game as an analyst for ESPN. Two years later, though, during his managerial revival with the Indians, he has learned to look back on things with a focus on the good times.
The fact that Francona is so relaxed and content now in Cleveland certainly helps.
"Me and Chris talk about it sometimes, just because we're so close," Francona said. "I'm probably to a point now -- because I'm so happy here -- that it's easier to think about or talk about. It was pretty raw for a while, but I'm in such a good place here.
"It's probably easier to look back now on some fonder memories and forget some of the things that weren't so fond."
As fate would have it, should the Indians survive the Wild Card Game, it would pit Francona and the Indians against his good friend John Farrell and the Red Sox.
"You might be getting a little ahead," Francona said with a smile.
In the wake of Cleveland's 94-loss showing a year ago -- leading to the dismissal of former manager Manny Acta -- Francona accepted the vacant managerial seat. Francona was quick to say that anyone who thought it was not a fit did not know him as well as they might have thought. The opportunity to reunite with Shapiro and Antonetti was a no-brainer for Francona.
"Just because you haven't won or haven't won recently doesn't mean they're not good people," Francona said, "or [they don't] know what they're doing. I think that whatever has happened good, like for me, I think these people in this organization have helped bring it out."
Of course, Francona's players say the same about him.
Working with a roster devoid of any clear-cut superstars, Francona and his coaching staff have helped squeeze every last ounce out of Cleveland's regulars and role players. It has been a team-wide effort -- "pulling on the same rope," as left fielder Michael Brantley describes it -- that has helped the Indians swiftly turn the page on last summer's nightmare season.
Hiring Francona also played a role in Antonetti's effort to reel in some of his targets over the winter. Nick Swisher may not have picked the Tribe had there been another manager installed. Francona's affinity for Jason Giambi, his belief in castaways such as Ryan Raburn and Scott Kazmir, his insistance that the Indians try to trade for Aviles -- it all aided the overhauling of the roster.
"If Tito doesn't come here," Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano said, "I don't think we make the moves that we made. I think when the front office made the commitment to Tito, they were also making a commitment to fill out this roster. He was definitely the first domino to fall."
When Francona hears that type of praise, he shakes his head.
"I think I've probably gotten too much credit at times," Francona said. "It makes you feel good if somebody says that, but I think I've received too much credit. I think organizationally, there are so many outstanding people already in place here."
There is no denying the altered atmosphere around the Indians, though.
Whether it was Francona dressing up in a baby costume to take part in the team's "Harlem Shake" video during Spring Training, or allowing his players to have a live chicken on the field during batting practice in early September, he has created a fun environment during the down times. When it comes time to work, however, Francona is fully prepared.
"He has an unbelievable work ethic," Antonetti said. "He gets to the ballpark ridiculously early to be able to prepare. What that allows him to do is not only be exceptionally well prepared for the game, but it allows him to have the freedom and time to interact with players and coaches."
Francona is constantly in the clubhouse, and down the hall, he had a section of a cinder-block wall removed to allow for a window in his office. In that sense, he has literally and figuratively torn down the wall that separates the manager from the players.
That has led to a high level of respect and admiration from his team.
"The biggest kid in this locker room is Tito," Aviles said with a laugh. "There's a reason why everybody loves playing for him. He brings a certain passion. He brings a certain knowlegde. He's the kind of guy you can talk to. He's just a good all-around person.
"When you get a guy like that at the helm, there's nothing you won't do for him."