NASHVILLE (92.3 The Fan) – New Indians manager Terry Francona has been use to being in the spotlight.
His time with the Red Sox saw him win a pair of titles, yet it seems all folks from Boston want to do is slam him for the way things ended in September 2011 when the team missed the postseason.
Now 15 months removed from that collapse, time in the world of broadcasting at ESPN, and now back in the clubhouse as a Major League manager with the Indians, Francona’s perspective on things have changed just a twinge being back in the game after a year away.
The 53-year-old has a presence, and walking around the lobby at the Opryland Hotel and Resort the past few days, he doesn’t get very far without someone in the world of baseball reaching out to him that he’s known from the past.
Seemingly reborn now as the manager of the Indians, Francona is getting set for his first spring training with the Tribe, and his mission for now is clear – get the Indians out of the rut of being close, but just not good enough to be a real contender in the American League.
Wednesday he spoke to the media in Nashville, a group that included a lot of interested national writers as well as a number of Boston writers looking to get some insight as to why the Indians, and how he felt now about the end of his time with the Red Sox.
Q: What’s it been like for you kind of the last couple of years, from Boston to ESPN and now back to the game. Describe what it’s been like the last couple of years for you.
FRANCONA: Uneven. A little bit of a roller coaster. I think you go back to September of ’11, and that was tough, man. I don’t care what city you’re in. When you go 7 and whatever, 20, if you’re the manager, you’re wide open for criticism. That’s just the way it is.
And the way things ended was difficult. I thought stepping back was probably a smart thing. It’s not necessarily the easiest thing in the world to tell yourself you need to do that, but it was, I think, really healthy for me. I know I get back into it now feeling like I’m better prepared to do the job correctly because it’s got to be almost 24 hours a day to do it right, at least I think so. I was pretty beaten up by the end of that last year.
Q: Now that you’ve had a chance to go through some of the organizational meetings with Chris and with Mark, how hard is this going to be to get the guys you want in place to kind of get things rolling to where you’re comfortable with where you roll out on opening day.
FRANCONA: You know what, that’s a great question, and I don’t have an answer to that yet. I mean, we have had‑‑ we have had considerable time on, okay, how do we want to get better? What are our options? What is out there? Internally, where were we at? That’s probably the biggest thing, where are we at internally?
The one thing, I think we all agree, we need to get better. We want to try to do it in a way that makes sense, and that’s not always easy to do. Those things don’t necessarily come hand in hand. We’re trying to be realistic and trying to, again, there’s teams out there that have proven you can win without a payroll. Tampa Bay has done it consistently. They’ve also made tremendous decisions.
Oakland did it by just loading up with arms, and then all of a sudden, the offense they get is flush instead of‑‑ if you’re down 9‑3, that home run in the ninth doesn’t mean anything.
Baltimore showed that, if you put a pitching staff together, you put a bullpen together, you can win. You can compete. It can get done.
Q: when you were with the Red Sox, a lot of times your team would beat middle to small market teams to a free agent. You were on the other side of that yesterday with Victorino. What’s it like being on the other side of that?
FRANCONA: You know what, it’s kind of hard to fault a guy like Shane Victorino for going to Boston. When guys get to be a free agent, they earn that right to go wherever they want, and it’s a great baseball town.
Again, I have a lot of respect for him and the way he went about his decision. So it’s kind of hard to fault somebody for that.
Q: How much more have you learned about the team that you have right now from when you got hired to now, certainly talking to them and everything, and reading more about them?
FRANCONA: Take every day since the day I got the job, and I’ve either talked to people or read stuff or watched video, so a lot. Even about the player development system. So it’s good. I kind of hit the ground running. Chris and I left that day for good year the day I got hired, and it’s been nonstop ever since.
Q: You’ve had other guys like Choo and Cabrera, who not through you necessarily, but always being mentioned in trade rumors kind of thing. As a new manager with the team, how do you sort of deal with that and those guys, they hear it a lot? I don’t know whether you felt compelled at some point to reach out and plan the landscape for them.
FRANCONA: No. Again, there’s a couple things. I’m here in Nashville. I’m new. I’ve been trying to make inroads with guys since I got the job here. Actually, chew called me yesterday just to say hello. I appreciated it. It was great.
We can’t help what’s out there. In this day and age, look how many people are around here right now. That’s just the nature of the beast. I’m sure it affects some people more than others.
My talks with Asdrubal have been a lot of texting because he’s down there in Cuba. But it’s been upbeat. I don’t sense a panic on anybody’s heart. I understand the question. As a team, when you lose 90 something games, you have to listen. You have to figure out a way to get better. But we value those guys a lot, and they know that.
Q: If you characterize sort of given an opportunity to sort of put that in perspective, where you see maybe moving those guys from your perspective, how would you sort of characterize it? That you really like him if you listen, kind of deal.
FRANCONA: You want both. You want to make the team better, but you don’t want to lose your good player. That’s the way everybody feels.
Maybe I view it different. I felt like yesterday was a good day because during the middle of the day I got to spend a half hour with Matt LaPorta, a guy that had been designated, still in the organization. Got a chance to reflect about ten days after having a pretty tough conversation with Chris, and is he in a position to have a productive conversation with him.
So all this stuff is flying around the meetings, and I’m walking up to Chris’ suite, and I’m feeling good because I had a meeting with Matt LaPorta, and I’m feeling great about it. That’s maybe where I’m at at a stage in my career that this is a challenge that’s really exciting for me. It’s a little different from where I came. I acknowledge that. It doesn’t mean it has to be not a good situation.
Q: Cleveland fans don’t want to hear about another ‘rebuild’. What message do you want the fans to know? Can you compete right now?
FRANCONA: We’ll always compete. Again, we’re in December right now. We don’t know what our team is going to look like. And everybody expects, when the Winter Meetings are over, that’s your 40‑man roster. That’s not realistic either.
Again, if you’d have asked Oakland last year in June‑‑ who here thought Oakland was going to win last year? Nobody.
Baltimore competed all year from day one, but people didn’t see that during the winter. It can happen. Once you get good and start developing confidence and play the game the right way, things happen, and it snowballs. Just like it goes the other way, sometimes it goes for the good.
That’s our job is to show up‑‑ my job is whoever we have is to try to make them the best they can be. I don’t spend a ton of time worrying about what could be or what should be. Kind of get energized how are we going to make whoever we have better? That’s what I get a kick out of.
Q: What’s your take on the pitching rotation now?
FRANCONA: I think it’s huge that we can see Ubaldo. (Pitching coach) Mickey (Calloway) has already made one trip. Mickey and I are both going down there next week. We get him back to what he was in ’11 and we get Masty, that would be a huge step in the right direction.