Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians: A perfect match, but for how much longer?

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Terry Francona relaxed in Cleveland. You could see that from the start.

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Terry Francona relaxed in Cleveland. You could see that from the start.

The edge he had in Boston was gone. He knew the front office had his back. What’s more he knew he could manage. He’d found that out in Boston when the Red Sox won two World Series with him in the dugout.

A year away from the game convinced he still had things to prove. The season he spent at ESPN after getting fired in Boston was fun, but he always felt like he was invading a locker room when he went down to interview players. He wanted to put on a uniform again. He wanted back on the inside.

The Indians gave him that chance in 2013. He’s repaid them many times over.

Francona brought them to within one game of the World Series title in 2016 and eight straight winning seasons. Not to mention three division titles and five trips to the postseason.

As time went on Francona’s health suffered. On Thursday the team announced that Francona was stepping away from the manager’s job to have surgery on his left hip and left foot. Bench coach DeMarlo Hale will manage the team for the final 63 games of the season.

A manager has to be with his team day in and day out. Francona’s body would no longer let him do that. He managed just 14 games during the 60-game sprint in 2020 because of blood clots and other problems. This year he missed just four, including two for his daughter’s wedding, and Saturday and Sunday because of an ear infection and head cold.

But in January he spent two weeks at Cleveland Clinic to have surgery on his left big toe because of a staph infection. He has been wearing a walking boot on his left foot since spring training and hates it. He was scheduled to have more surgery on his left foot after the season. Now he’ll have his left hip on Monday, wait five to six weeks and have a rod put in his left foot to combat the staph infection. That will require another 10 weeks of non-weight bearing activity and more time on crutches and in a walking boot.

Before the All-Star break, Francona said the January surgery was to see if he could get through the season.

“I desperately wanted to manage this year,” said Francona on Thursday, “and I just got as far as I could. I don’t regret the decision. The organization has been so good to me and it was important that I try. I honestly gave it my best shot.”

Francona is a fooler. He looks like one of the kids in your high school class who sat in the back of the room, cracking jokes and making fun of the teacher. But he never missed much.

Will be be back next year? It’s hard to say. He’s 61 and on Sunday became the second-winningest manager in Indians history, breaking a tie with Mike Hargrove.

What he liked about the Indians was that everybody had a say when the front office got together. All the smart young general managers in-waiting would talk about how to value Player A and Player B. Francona said he’d say something and was surprised he wasn’t laughed out of the room.

At least that’s the impression he gave.

During the 60-game sprint in 2020 when he was recovering from blood clot surgery, Francona would sit in the stands with Antonetti and Chernoff watching the games. Asked what they’d talk about, Antonetti said, “You don’t get many chances to sit next to one of the best managers in the game and pick his brain about the game that’s going on.”

Antonetti, a smart guy, recognized that this was a chance to see Francona in his element. He wasn’t in the dugout watching him pop one piece of bubble gum in his mouth after another, but it was close.

Maybe Francona wasn’t the smartest guy in the room at those front office meetings. But he wasn’t far from the top. He just didn’t show it.

Few Indians managers have been better than Francona in 2016. He lost starters Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco in September. Then Trevor “Drone Boy” Bauer was attacked by one of his pet flying machines. He had two starters in Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin. He had a skinny “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” lefty in Ryan Merritt. That was it except for a killer bullpen and a good, but not great offense.

While fans and the media were panicking, Francona kept things calm and cool in the clubhouse. Andrew Miller, a reliever who was about to make history, was asked what the Indians were going to do. He simply said, “Like Tito said, we’ll figure it out.”

What Francona did was turn his pitching staff around. He was short on starters so he maxed out his bullpen. If the Indians had won the World Series instead of finishing a game short, they would have built statues of Miller, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen. Kluber, the two-time Cy Young winner, was the only Indians pitcher who threw more innings than Miller in that exhilarating postseason run. Allen didn’t allow a run … in the whole postseason. In terms of innings pitched, Miller, Allen and Shaw shared half of the top six spots that postseason with starters Kluber, Tomlin and Bauer.

The heavy workload cost Miller, Allen and Shaw in the years ahead, but they all got paid. Since then almost every manager has taken Francona’s postseason approach and made it their own. Tampa Bay, led by Francona disciple Kevin Cash, uses its own version during the regular season, which was thought to be an impossibility a few years ago. But the Rays have made it work.

What I remember most about the World Series was how much fun Francona had. In the postseason the manager does a daily press conference with the entire press corps. Then he usually does a private one with the local beat writers.

In the World Series, a pressure point for any manager, Francona entertained the writers with stories about losing a tooth while chomping on his mix of tobacco and bubble gum during a playoff game. It happened during the ALCS against the Blue Jays and the Indians somehow found a dentist at midnight in Toronto to replace the tooth.

Then there was the ice cream story. Before Game 5 of the World Series at Wrigley Field, Francona had met his daughter for dinner, but didn’t feel much like eating. When he returned to the hotel, the hungries hit at 3:30 a.m. He tried to order room service, but the kitchen was closed. The only thing available was dessert. So Francona ordered $44 of ice cream, plus some fruit and a Diet Coke because he was watching his waistline.

“I had a brownie sundae,” said Francona. “I had two orders of chocolate, and two orders of vanilla with chocolate sauce. And then to keep it healthy, I ordered the berries. Oh, and a Diet Coke.”

Francona was enjoying himself. He was also deflecting attention from his team that had a 3-1 lead in the World Series, something the franchise hadn’t won since 1948.

The Indians are still looking for that World Series title, but the reason for Francona’s enjoyment wasn’t simply a ploy to protect his players. He was actually enjoying himself.

That came from something he took pride in – preparation. About an hour before game time, Francona will walk to the dugout and tape several sheets of statistics on the walls where he’ll be standing during the games. He doesn’t really need them because the numbers are already logged in his head. They’re there just in case.

In 2004, when the Red Sox reached the World Series, much was written about the untested Francona matching wits with savvy Tony LaRussa, manager of the Cardinals. Going into the series, Francona felt calm and untroubled.

“Theo Epstein (Red Sox GM) and the rest of the front office had done such a good job of preparing for that series that I just felt ready,” said Francona.

Boston swept St. Louis to win its first World Series since 1918. The Curse of the Bambino was over.

The Indians are still waiting for their World Series drought to end. They hope Francona can be the manager to do it.

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