CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Terry Francona recalled his rookie year as a player in 1981, when a players’ strike eliminated more than a month of the season. Though drastically different from the 2020 season’s situation, that was the most relatable memory for Francona when asked about his thoughts on the upcoming year.
“I don’t remember playing in those games thinking, ‘Boy, this doesn’t mean anything,’” Francona said. “I remember being as nervous as could be and thinking that it was the greatest thing in the world. It is what you make it. I believe in our group and that’ll be one of our challenges.”
Francona has been in Cleveland for approximately three weeks now, preparing for the start of a much different season than what he’s accustomed to. Not only does he have to figure out how to construct a 30-man roster in half the amount of time he usually has during camp, but he also has to come up with the safest and healthiest ways to evaluate his players through masks and enforcing social distancing whenever possible.
“We’ve tried to walk through every possible scenario, and I guarantee you there’s a hundred that we’ve left out,” Francona said. “We’re trying to be extremely respectful to the situation because we all feel if we’re not, we’re going to lose. And by that I mean, guys are going to get sick and it’s not going to work. … I tried to explain to the trainers today, I said, ‘Hey, be patient with us. We all want to do the right thing. We all care about baseball and sometimes we get a little ahead of ourselves. So just be patient with us and explain it to us and we’ll do it.’”
Francona noted that he understands he probably falls into the “higher risk” category because of his age (61) and medical history, but he said when he learned that baseball would resume, he never considered opting out of managing this season.
“The trainers and the doctors have been terrific,” Francona said. “I would rather manage and be around the guys and be around the game than not. I’d be miserable if I didn’t do it.”
With players set to report on Wednesday and the first on-field workout slated for Friday, the Indians are in the process of working through schedules to make sure everyone can be spaced out, while still getting the repetitions they need. When asked whether summer camp could at all resemble a regular setup for Spring Training, Francona said, “Not close.”
“First of all, we're going to play three exhibition games at the end [of camp],” Francona said. “I've never been a big fan of intrasquad games, but we're going to have to become fans of intrasquad games because we're going to need to play. That first week, we'll have a lot of sim-type games. We'll work into the intrasquad-type games and then we'll get into, finally, when we play another team. We're just going to try to get our guys ready the best way we know how. And if we have to make changes, we will. Again, there's so much to balance right now. It's not just baseball. It's the safety of the players. It's the cleanliness of the clubhouse. It's giving guys time to clean it in between the groups. There are lot of things to think about right now.”
Among the changes this year, there will be a universal designated hitter this season and a runner will be sent to second base to start extra innings. Players may be spread throughout the stands -- instead of fans filling those seats -- to promote social distancing, and everyone in the dugout will wear a mask. Instead of a 162-game marathon, everyone has to flip their mindset to prepare for a 60-game sprint. But despite all the challenges the year may bring and the different appearance this it has, Francona is confident that his team will still have the same level of enthusiasm for this season as all others. The second a season was put in place, Francona said players were texting him, letting him know how excited they were to get back to playing. And that, alone, may be a difference maker in the success of his club.
“We’ve never gone through anything like this,” Francona said. “I do know that there are a few ways you can look at it. We can either look at it that we’re coming into August and we’re tied for first place with four other teams, or you can shrug your shoulders and roll your eyes and be like, ‘Yeah, there’s nobody in the stands’ and whatever. I can’t imagine our guys acting like the second.
“We’re gonna have to come up with some of our own enthusiasm and fall back on the things that we believe in as a team, more now than ever, because there aren’t going to be people in the stands. We talk all the time about valuing what it takes to win more than the other teams. That is never going to be more evident than now, and the teams that handle it the best probably are going to give themselves the best chance to win.”