When it was announced that Terry Francona would be the next manager of the Cleveland Indians, not only did Clevelanders know they had at long last snatched their big blue marlin off the shores of Lake Erie, but for the first time in franchise history, the Tribe had hired a manager who had previously won a World Series.
After finishing a disappointing 68-94 during the 2012 season, 20 games out of 1st place in the AL Central division, a miserable season punctuated with an 18-45 swoon after July 27th, winning only five games in the month of August, (their worst month in their 112-year history), Indian fans were in need of encouraging news to give them a sense of hope during the cold harsh winter that brighter days of fresh starts and a new beginnings lie ahead at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
Francona’s roots to Northeast Ohio have been widely reported. His father, Tito, played for the Cleveland Indians from 1959-64, Terry himself had a brief tour of duty with the Tribe, playing 62 games in 1988; and he additionally worked in the Indians’ front office as an advisor in 2001.
At least on paper, Tito’s managerial credentials are striking: He ended the Red Sox infamous 86-year draught by winning two World Series (2004, 2007), and with his four years managing the Philadelphia Phillies (1997-2000) and eight more with the Red Sox, this New Brighton, Pa. native racked up a remarkable.529 winning pct, 4th among active mangers with at least 1,000 games.
But other than his impressive resume, how well do Clevelanders really know Terrance Johnathan Francona, age 53, and the 42nd manager in Tribe history?
What do Indians fans need to know about their new skipper who everyone likes to call Tito?
With that question in mind, I reached out to some of the people who knew Francona the best over the last decade: the Boston media, including Dan Shaughnessy, sports columnist and associate editor for The Boston Globe, who has just finished writing a book with the Tribe’s new manager, titled, ``Francona: The Red Sox Years’’ , which hits the bookstores on January 22, 2013. ``Terry worked hard on this book’’, Shaughnessy told me, ``it’s going to be a big hit, you guys are going to love it.’’
But readers shouldn’t brace themselves for a tell-all-book peppered with sharp knives aimed at Francona’s most bitter enemies and critics. Shaughnessy told me that ``Terry was very careful not to write anything that would be hurtful to players or write anything that would come back to bite him.’’
Other thoughts that Shaughnessy shared with me during our brief phone conversation:
On Francona’s dealings with the Boston media? ``He’s funny and available. He has pet peeves. He doesn’t like people talking when he’s talking. He’s doesn’t like cell phones going off during press conferences. He has stories about everything; he’s like a Forrest Gump type guy. Terry is real baseball guy. All year long he said to me he wanted to manage again. The players are going to love this guy. ‘’
On his health? ``He’s very fit, very strong, but there’s a limit to what he can do. He’s had to deal with a lot of medical issues through the years, which have all been pretty well documented.’’
How successful will Francona be with the Tribe ? `` He believes in Mark Shapiro (president) and Chris Antonetti (GM) and what they are doing. You’ve got to have a roster and a payroll. It takes talent. Since the Indians took him on, he’s been harder to find. He’s been going at it 24/7 right from day one.’’
On the Red Sox’s epic collapse in 2011, finishing 7-20, which led to his firing? ``If you look at what happened to the Red Sox in 2012, [the Red Sox finished the year with a 69-93 record, their first losing season since 1997, and their first season with 90 or more losses since 1966] it’s a miracle he kept them afloat as long as he did. Francona remained the same person since I first knew him; he was the same guy all eight years.’’
When I asked others what Cleveland should know about Terry Francona, here are some responses that came back:
• ``In my years of covering Terry and now the one season we shared as teammates at ESPN, I have a great appreciation and respect for Terry's ability to connect with people. He brings such a human touch and a willingness to "let you into his world" that you immediately feel like he's with you and your with him. This is a wonderful and necessary trait for successful managers in today’s clubhouse environment. The Indians have got themselves a very smart baseball man with the touch required to relate to today’s player.''
-Karl Ravech, host of ``ESPN's ``Baseball Tonight''
• ``I had no idea about his personal stuff with his wife. I worry about him. Circulation problems are the reason he wears the loose jersey. Despite looking like he’s in great shape, he’s actually a physical wreck on the inside. I really care for him without getting too close to a person. He always served our [media] needs, was expansive with answers and always tried to use the right word. It was a pleasure to deal with this man for eight years. His communication with the players while in Boston was exemplary. I would give him my highest endorsement as manager.’’
-Bob Ryan, sports columnist, The Boston Globe
• ``I was the Globe beat writer covering the 2004 Red Sox, which was Tito's first year with the team. Once he warmed up to the new environment (about midway through spring training), he was a pleasure to work with: professional, accessible, informative, cooperative, punctual, witty. The results that year spoke volumes about his ability to juggle the many demands of managing the Red Sox. I considered his 2011 season to be an aberration, a year when he had a lot of personal things going on that contributed to him losing focus and ultimately his authority over many of the players. Clevelanders should know they are getting a first-rate baseball guy who almost certainly is eager to remind everyone he also can be a first-rate manager.’’
-Bob Hohler, investigative sports reporter for The Boston Globe, who covered the Red Sox during their magical 2004 World Series run.
• ``It seems like most good managers fall into one of two schools – they are either great in the clubhouse or they are exceptional tacticians. The beauty of Francona is that he is both. No manager will spend more hours at the ballpark than Francona. It isn’t uncommon for him to get to the ballpark at 10 or 10:30 in the morning for a 7 p.m. game. Francona will pour through every scouting report given to him, and is exceptional at knowing all of the matchups.
Francona loves interacting with his players, and is equally adept at being a father figure, a friend or, when needed, a disciplinarian. He is exceedingly loyal and will never sell a player out to the media. If Francona has an issue with a player, he will never divulge it in the media. Instead, it will be done behind closed doors, and almost always, he will say nice things about that player publicly.
Terry also handles the media well, enjoying the give-and-take on a daily basis. If you want to second guess Francona, be sure you are fully prepared for the argument. He has a reason for everything he does in a game, and therefore, he expects reporters to have a sound argument and full knowledge of the facts when they question him.’’
-Ian Browne, Boston Red Sox beat reporter for MLB.com.
• ``Francona is a player's manager. He will not throw them under the bus under any circumstance and tries to anticipate possible problems and avoid them. He needs talent to win, of course, but his players will work for him.''
-Ron Borges, sports columnist for The Boston Herald
• ``Funny, sincere, loyal, knows baseball''
Michael Silverman, Boston Red Sox beat reporter for the Boston Herald
October 18, 2012