Reporting Matt Loede
CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – It’s the afternoon of Saturday, October 6th, just three days removed from the end of the 2012 season for the Cleveland Indians.
Terry Francona has been collecting phone numbers and lists, and that day and the following he jumped on the phone with current Indians players, coaches, and those in the front office to let them know that he has accepted the position of the teams new manager.
“I made an initial phone call, and I called everybody on every list I could get,” Francona said. “I probably missed a guy, I don’t think so, but the lists were a little disjointed, and I probably talked to at least live about 20 guys.
“I left messages and got messages back from another 20. It wasn’t just players, it was strength and conditioning, it was medical, even guys that were not on the roster, just trying to touch base with a lot of guys.”
Before Francona could even begin his new job, he had another commitment already in place, that being a broadcaster with ESPN for MLB coverage.
He told the powers that be at ESPN on October 6th that he was going to take the job as Indians manager, and right away they tried to talk him out of it and into staying with the network.
“I was real up front with them, I told them I was either going to take this or come back (to ESPN),” Francona said. “They asked me if they could do anything to change my mind. Because of my relationships here (in Cleveland) this is where I wanted to be.”
Over the course of the next two days, Francona made calls and spoke to a number of players as well as those within the team, and went full force from a job at ESPN into the job as the new Indians manager.
Francona is aware of the short comings of the team, coming to a club that has lost 90 or more games in three of the last four seasons. He realizes that the team needs pitching, but also they do have a strong core up the middle – catcher, second base, short stop, and center field.
“You’ve got some pretty athletic guys there, which is good,” Francona said.
After that though, the new skipper knows there’s a lot of work to do.
“I understand right now you’re looking at some openings. Your looking at first, left field, DH, there has to be some decisions made on how do we best move forward.”
He sat down with general manager Chris Antonetti on Monday, October 8th in the main interview room at Progressive Field, as he gave his first press conference as the new manager of the team.
“This is a clean slate for everybody, this is a good thing, I would never judge on what anybody did in the past,” Francona said in the presser.
After the presser ends, with his dad, former Indian legend Tito Francona watching in the back of the room, he spoke to more television stations and the Indians beat reporters before being ushered out and back to the front offices.
Within three hours, Francona, along with Antonetti, team President Mark Shapiro, and the teams scouts flew to Goodyear, AZ where the Indians hold spring training and had team meetings and chat about formulating their plan for 2013 and beyond.
In that plane, with one ear with a headphone watching a playoff game between the Cardinals and Nationals, Francona and Antonetti shared ideas about the future, and came up with ideas about the roster already in place.
For the next three days in Arizona, all of the Indians scouts sat with the new manager and those in the front office to talk about what they felt about players on the team.
Francona returned to Cleveland on October 11th, and met again for three days with scouts, and also with those that worked directly out of Cleveland’s front office, again talking about moving past 2012 and into the future.
“We tried to not only have an understanding of the organization but also some strategy moving forward,” Francona said. “We tried to best honestly assess where we are and how we best move forward.
“Everybody had opinions on it, and it was really helpful for me, I feel I am catching up in a hurry.”
The former Red Sox and Phillies manager will wrap up his official time at ESPN with working the upcoming World Series.
In the meantime, he’s busy trying to put together a coaching staff, stating while there’s no “firm timetable” to getting it done, he would like to get it done by around the first week of November.
“Our first look was internal,” Francona said. “I think it’s safe to say we will have guys from the organization, and from outside the organization. There’s some that I think we’re closer to hiring than others, there’s still some areas we need to do some extensive interviewing.”
The new manager has to start putting together a roster with players and holes that last season collapsed after they played well enough to be 3.5 games back in late July.
He knows that the job will be on him to make the 2013 Indians a better team, and one that he feels will be able to take the field and compete night in and night out.
“However we end up, I think it’s our responsibility as a staff to make everybody better, and I am actually kind of excited about that,” Francona said. “Who knows how our team is going to look like in spring training, we don’t know that yet. However it is, we’re supposed to take what we have, and get every bit we can.”
Francona has spoken about players getting a “clean slate,” or “fresh start” as they report to spring training in 2013. It could give some players that may have landed in former manager Manny Acta’s doghouse a new opportunity to compete and make an impact.
“For the guys that have done well, I recognize that, and for the guys that need a fresh start, they will get it,” Francona said. “I try to do that every year anyway.”
It’s not only going to be a fresh start for some players, but for the former Red Sox manager as well. 2011 was a disaster for Francona, as his Boston team failed down the stretch to make the playoffs, failing on the final day of the year to close the door.
He now comes to a media market that doesn’t put the same expectations on the baseball team as they do in Boston, and it may allow Francona to do more managing instead of having to deal with a lot of off the field stuff, like he was in Boston.
“The last couple years in Boston, I felt I was getting further and further from the field, and my title maybe didn’t need to be manager, it needed to be ‘fire putter outer,’” Francona said. “I’m kind of looking forward to getting on the field a little bit and being a coach.
“Everything in Boston, there’s no little story, I like throwing batting practice, hitting fungos. I felt like I was getting more removed from that as we lost staff members.”
Not many people figured Francona would wind up with the Indians. Many felt that the Tribe’s talks with him were nothing more than a smoke screen and that Sandy Alomar would eventually wind up with the manager job.
A lot of baseball insiders felt that Francona would wait to go to a team with a much higher payroll, and one that was closer to winning a championship. Francona said those things were never an issue coming to Cleveland.
“I think people assumed I wanted to go to a team that maybe had a more expensive payroll, and that really wasn’t what I was looking for,” Francona said. “I might get more satisfaction of going to work with people who I wanted to work with, and then when you do reach the solution it means a little bit more.”
He will work with Antonetti and Shapiro, two men he has had long and fruitful relationships with. As many have paired Antonetti and Shapiro together over the years, you may now want to add Francona to the mix, as he will work directly with the two to try to make the Indians a winner again.
“We’re going to have to figure out where are we, and how do we best move forward,” Francona said. “That’s not easy, that’s why we just had those three days of meetings, a lot of opinions fly, and that’s healthy.”
There’s no question that Francona has already had the highest of highs of winning titles and the lowest of lows in being fired twice in his managerial career.
Now with a new start with the Indians, he wants to come in and do the best he can, and at the same time not change who he is as a person in the process.
“The biggest thing we can do as a staff is try to have an atmosphere where players want to do the right thing,” Francona said. “As far as the manager goes, if I am consistent, that’s the biggest thing.”
He will have plenty of support from the front office in trying to make the Indians a winner. Once the 2013 season starts, it will be up to him and his staff to put the team in the best position they can to compete and take that elusive next step forward.