The ceremonial first pitch at the Indians’ home opener might have seemed a bit schmaltzy on the surface, with the fathers of manager Terry Francona, bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr., right-hander Zach McAllister, first baseman Nick Swisher, and left fielder Michael “Dr. Smooth” Brantley making pitches to their sons. The only thing missing was James Earl Jones intoning, “build it and they will come.”
However, there was nothing schmaltzy about the embrace between Terry and Tito Francona, who was an outfielder with the Indians from 1959-64. It was a heartfelt embrace between a father and son who haven’t spent a lot of time together since Terry left the small town of New Brighton, Pennsylvania, as an 18-year-old for the University of Arizona, and then spent 33 years in professional baseball and one season as a highly entertaining color analyst on ESPN. Signing on to manage the Indians last October has brought Francona closer to home than ever before, as Cleveland is just around 100 miles from New Brighton, a two-hour trip on the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes.
“I didn’t take the job just because it was close to my dad,” Terry Francona said, “but it sure as heck is one big cherry on top of the sundae. He was there for the press conference to announce my hiring. He came down to spring training to spend some time. It’s just great to be around him. Even though he played for a lot of teams, everyone thinks of him as an Indian.”
One does not have to spend much time around the younger Francona to realize that managing in Cleveland looks like it is going to be good for his soul. His eight seasons as the Red Sox’ manager were mostly great ones. He led Boston to its first World Series championship in 86 years in 2004, reversing the Curse of the Bambino in his first season as skipper, then won another Fall Classic in 2007. However, the end of his tenure was brutal: The Red Sox had an awful 7-20 September in 2011 that knocked them out of what seemed to be a sure playoff berth. The day after the season ended, ownership decided not to exercise the club options on his contract for 2012 and 2013. Compounding matters was that the Boston Globe wrote a story strongly suggesting that Francona abused prescription painkillers, a charge he vehemently denies.
“I really appreciated having the chance to manage the Red Sox and be in Boston for eight years because it’s just an electric atmosphere there day in and day out,” Francona said. “However, there comes a time when change is needed. I think I needed a change and I think they needed a change, too. I didn’t see it at the time, and I was upset at what happened. However, now that enough time has passed and I can really reflect on the situation without emotions coming into play, a parting of the ways was the best thing for both sides.”
The broadcast booth was almost like a decompression chamber for Francona last season. He could still be around the game, but the job didn’t play on his emotions like managing.
“It was a blast,” Francona said. “When the game was over, that was it. I didn’t have to go home and sit until 4 a.m. if we lost wondering what we might have done differently, or really not be able to enjoy a win as much as I could because I would already start worrying about how we were going to be able to find a way to win the next day’s game.”
Yet the longer last year went on, the more Francona realized he missed those highs and lows of managing and the day-to-day grind of a baseball season that starts in mid-February and ends anywhere from the end of September until the end of October. Francona wasn’t necessarily going to jump at the first manager’s job he was offered, but he was definitely interested in doing it again.
As fate would have it, the Indians were looking for a manager after firing the well-regarded Manny Acta with one week left last season. The Indians interviewed just two candidates for the job, Francona and bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. They would up getting both men when they hired Francona; Alomar—considered a surefire managerial candidate in baseball circles—agreed to stay on as bench coach.
On the surface, it seemed odd that Francona would jump at the Indians’ offer before interviewing for other jobs. Cleveland went 68-94 last year and hasn’t had a winning season since losing to Francona’s Red Sox in seven games in the 2007 American League Championship Series. That ALCS ended in heartbreaking fashion; the Indians led the series 3-1 with ace CC Sabathia on the mound at home at Progressive Field for Game Five, but the Red Sox rallied.
However, after the Phillies fired him as manager following the 2000 season, Francona spent a year working as a special assistant in the Indians’ front office in 2001. He developed close relationships with Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti, who are now the club’s president and general manager, and remained friends with them over the years.
“It was really a no-brainer when Mark and Chris called,” Francona said. I have so much respect and admiration for both of them. I know what kind of people they are, and I know how good they are at what they do. It didn’t take a whole lot of convincing to take this job.”
Ownership then gave Antonetti the OK to spend more than $100 million on the free-agent market last winter; the Indians signed Swisher, center fielder Michael Bourn, and right-hander Brett Myers. However, Francona said his hiring and the Dolan family’s willingness to suddenly start spending money were mutually exclusive.
“There a lot of people who think I only agreed to take the job if we went out and signed free agents, but that’s a big misperception,” Francona said. “Before I agreed to take the job, Mark and Chris warned me that there might be some down years if we decided to rebuild or retool or whatever you want to call it. For me, it was a bonus that we went out and got the players we did. Obviously, I’m excited about it. I feel we have a pretty good ballclub.”
Whether the Indians can contend remains to be seen. Shaky starting pitching appeared to be their weakness coming into the seasons and the Indians have allowed 48 runs in their first eight games.
Regardless of what happens this season, Francona seems to be in the right place at his career. He is in a blue-collar Midwest city where the fan base is more passionate than rabid and the media can be tough at times but also more understanding and forgiving.
“Cleveland is so much like New Brighton and the whole Pittsburgh area,” Francona said. “You have good people who work hard for the money, and the way they’ve accepted me so far has been amazing. I’ve really been made to feel at home here very quickly. I’m very happy, and I have a good feeling about what we’re going to eventually accomplish here.
“I used to think when guys said that they were burned out and needed to step away for a year or two that they were full of shit. But they weren’t. I understand now. It was good to step back for a year, but it feels even better to be back.”
Many of the Las Vegas sports books made the Angels the favorites to win the World Series when the season began. However, many front-office types and scouts aren’t as sold, and the questions are even bigger now that right-hander Jered Weaver will miss at least a month with a broken left elbow.
“For me, they don’t have enough pitching to win it all,” one scout said. “They need a huge season from Weaver, and now he’s going to be out for a significant amount of time. I hate to hit the panic button two weeks into the season, but I think they’re in trouble. Now they’ve got C.J. Wilson as their No. 1 starter, and he is not a No. 1 starter. Ask the Rangers about that.”
It seems almost every closer in the major leagues is on shaky ground less than two weeks into the season. However, just two closers have officially lost their jobs, both in the National League Central: Carlos Marmol has yielded to Kyuji Fujikawa with the Cubs, and the Brewers switched from John Axford to Jim Henderson. A scout who covers the NL Central believes Axford will regain his job sooner than Marmol.
“Henderson is a good fill-in closer, but Axford is clearly their guy,” the scout said. “Axford gets a little out of whack, but he seems to be easier to fix.
“Marmol isn’t so easy to fix. When he goes back, everything goes haywire, and I have the feeling it’s tough to reel him back in mentally, too. It’s been obvious Marmol has been on borrowed time for a while, and Fujikawa has the stuff and the track record in Japan to be a good closer.”
Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks is showing that he is over the broken wrist that prematurely ended his rookie season last year. The three home runs he hit against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre last Sunday is proof of that. However, one scout warns it might be early to look at Middlebrooks as a future superstar.
“He has got big, big power, but he also has holes in his swing and he can be pitched to,” the scout said. “He needs to tighten those holes up and quit swinging at so many pitches out of the strike zone. He’s effective as he is now, but if he wants to take the next step in his career, then he’s going to have to tighten up his plate discipline.”
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