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Nightengale: Why Terry Francona is a Perfect Match for Indians

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Manager Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians before a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on June 26, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Flickr/ Keith Allison

Indians manager Terry Francona got up Wednesday morning, drove his scooter to Progressive Field at 10:30, changed into a swim suit, and swam.

Lap after lap. Every stroke he took, every kick he made, he was thinking about every possible scenario that could arise in Game 2 of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs.

When he stopped thinking, and realized his body could go no longer, he finally stopped.

It was noon.

Finally, his body relaxed.

It lasted for all of a few hours, right until he put his uniform on, stuffed a wad of tobacco in his mouth, and started chomping, the nerves returning, stronger than ever.

“I don’t think it matters how old you are, how much experience you have,’’ Francona says, “it’s OK to be nervous. It’s still a big deal.

“Hey, it’s the World Series.’’

And if it costs him another mouthful of teeth, after sitting in a Toronto dentist chair at 1 in the morning during the ALCS last week, winning the first World Series in this town since 1948 is well worth the dental bills.

“I think he’s lost five teeth already this year,’’ Cleveland GM Mike Chernoff says. “We’ll win a game 1-0 in 13 innings, and all he’ll do is talk about after the game how pissed off he is about losing another tooth.

“That’s Tito, that’s what makes this culture so fun around here. He’s made such a huge difference on this entire organization.’’

You want to play a game of cribbage, go to Tito’s office, and you’ll find him behind a board, taking on Jason Kipnis or Mike Napoli.

You want to play word games, take your shot, just like Chernoff’s 5-year-old son, Brody, does.

“Cherny’s kid is 5,’’ Francona says, “and he already uses bigger words than I do. It’s unbelievable.’’

“He’s the same guy every day, no matter what the situation, where we’re at, who we’re playing,’’ Cleveland closer Cody Allen says. “You’ll find him in his office playing cards with some of the players 30 minutes before the game. The clinching game in Toronto, he’s in there trying to win money from guys.’’

The beauty of Francona’s genius is that he includes everyone in the process. When raised eyebrows Wednesday by putting slow-footed DH Carlos Santana in the leadoff spot in Game 2, it was actually an idea hatched back in spring training. Still Francona ran it past the Indians’ analytics department, seeking their approval. He’ll take ideas from anyone from veteran scouts in their 70’s to teenage interns in their baseball operations department.

“One of the biggest things he’s done here,’’ Chernoff says, “is that that’s broken down every potential barrier there could be between different departments. Everything we do now from the front office to the field staff to the business side, we do it as cone cohesive unit.

“Tito makes it a really safe place to be yourself. He likes to think of himself as a regular guy, and that leadership style makes it a safe player for everybody to interact freely.’’

And, oh, by the way, the man can manage.

Francona became the first manager in baseball history to win each of his first nine World Series games, and his 36-19 postseason record (.655) is the highest winning percentage by any manager with at least 50 postseason games. If Cleveland wins the World Series, he’ll become only the fifth manager to win with multiple teams.

“Tito is the best,’’ Kipnis said. “You are not going to find one guy in here who doesn’t enjoy playing for him. And you’re not going to find one guy who doesn’t want him to be their manager the rest of their careers.

“Once you have Tito, you really don’t want anybody else to ever manage you.’’

It’s the same sentiment wherever you turn in the clubhouse, from Napoli to 22-year-old Francisco Lindor, to journeyman outfielder Rajai Davis to backup catcher Chris Gimenez.

Cleveland Indians player Francisco Lindor. Photo: By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, via Wikimedia Commons
Cleveland Indians player Francisco Lindor. Photo: By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, via Wikimedia Commons

“He’s a genuine person, and you can talk to him about anything,” Napoli said. “He’s going to tell you the truth. He wants you to do good, he wants to talk to you, and that’s for everybody in the clubhouse. It’s nice to come to the park every day knowing that’s your leader and he has your back.”

Says Lindor: “Since Day 1, he has let me be me. He has never told me to be someone different or to be how he wants me to be. He emphasized that when I got called up, and adds, “I want you to be yourself, but at the same time, respect everyone here. The only way you’re going to earn respect from your teammates is if you show that you want to win and play hard.

“And that’s exactly what I’m doing.’’

It’s the Indians’ success, reaching the postseason two out of four years since Francona’s arrival, that suddenly has caught everyone’s attention. This isn’t a huge market like Boston with superstars and future Hall of Famers, where he won two World Series titles.

Yet, after ending the Red Sox’s 86-year World Series drought in 2004, he now has the Indians – and their $90 million payroll, ranked in the bottom third of the majors – three victories away from ending their own 68-year dry spell.

If the Indians win it, the Hall of Fame officials might as well start working on his plaque now.

“You know, I wouldn’t think that even means much to him,’’ said Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro, who hired Francona in 2012 before departing for Toronto last winter. “What would mean the most is that he’d win for the franchise where his dad played. He loves his dad. He respects his Dad, and what he did before him.

“I think that’s one of the big things that brought him to Cleveland, his love for his dad.’’

Tito Francona, 82, played six years of his 16-year career with the Indians. This is the first clubhouse where he brought his son. There’s a huge picture of the two of them in Francona’s office, wearing Indians uniforms. Terry was 3. When he became an adult, he took on his dad’s name to use as his own nickname.

“Hey, I don’t feel responsible for the fact my dad couldn’t win,’’ Francona says, “that was his fault.’’

And that’s his sense of humor.

When he was asked about Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s expensive taste in wine, he countered by saying his personal favorite is a bottle of Boone’s Farm.

The only thing Francona makes more fun about than his playing ability, is his bald head and pronounced nose. He didn’t even know he became the first manager to go 9-0 in World Series games, instead watching CNN and Fox when he got back to his downtown apartment.

“He’s everything we wanted when we hired him,’’ Shapiro said. “We probably knew he would impact us positively. But none of us could have known the magnitude of the impact.

“Nobody knew how driven he is, how willing he is to drive the culture of us getting better every day, from top to bottom. It’s unbelievable.’’

Now, he has the Indians on the brink of the unimaginable, taking a battered team with only three starting pitchers, a team hitting just .219 this postseason, to three victories away from the World Series championship.

“We always said that if we could do it with this group,’’ Francona said, “it would be so special because this is as close to a family feel as you can get to a professional setting. No one should be thanking me.

“I’m the one who needs to be thanking them.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale

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