Following the 2004 World Series victory that ended an 86-year drought of baseball championships in Boston, manager Terry Francona was invited to be a guest on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Because of copyright issues I can't seem to find a video/transcript, but here's the general idea: O'Brien praised Francona as a manager, quizzing him on how he knew to bring in Dave Roberts to pinch run for Kevin Millar in the 9th inning of Game Four of the ALCS. Francona replied that he had decided that if Millar reached first, he would send in Roberts to steal. Roberts was known for his speed, so the move wasn't exactly a surprise. As Roberts went for his helmet, he looked at "Coach Tito", as the players called him, for instructions. Francona just winked. O'Brien, incredulous, said something like, "You mean to tell me that you called for such an important steal with just a wink?" to which Francona responded, "With this group of guys? You've gotta keep it simple."
Today, the Indians will interview the most qualified candidate for their vacant managerial position, Terry Francona. While there's some competition internally from beloved member of the Indians organization Sandy Alomar, and potentially external candidates as well, if Francona is willing to accept the job, the Indians absolutely must hire him.
Francona doesn't require much of an introduction, especially to Indians fans. You saw him frequently during his tenure with the Red Sox (35-25 record against the Indians), and he was also a special assistant with the Indians in 2001. He also played one season with the Indians (1988), and of course his father Tito was an All-Star outfielder with the team beginning in 1959. Sure, his name doesn't incite quite the same sentimental reaction as Alomar's, but his ties to the team are real, and he already has a relationship with Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro.
As someone who has a long history of watching Francona both as a Red Sox fan and an analyst, let me tell you what the Indians would be getting should they hire him. Francona's previous managerial career showcased him as a strategic thinker, relationship-builder, media pro, and a performer under pressure. There are many aspects of Francona's brand of management that make him not only the best candidate for the Indians, but easily the best manager available on the market.
I assure you the foregoing isn't just the result of a starry-eyed love affair with two World Series trophies and a career .574 winning percentage with the Sox, but an admiration that's rooted in Francona's merits as a leader and one of the brightest minds in baseball. If the Red Sox had an opportunity to have him back, I'd rush down to Yawkey Way to cheer him home, but since the chances of that seem as likely as the Cubs winning the World Series, I'm giving my blessing for him to go to Cleveland (I know that Shapiro and Francona can rest easier now that I've done that).
The greatest assets Francona would bring to Cleveland is his skill at building trust and relationships. He's a players' manager and through creating meaningful bonds he gets the most of his players. He's managed the full range of players, but he's been most successful at developing young talent, something which would be a huge benefit to the Indians given their average player age this season was 27 and next year they will continue to rebuild. He's vocal about the relationships he developed in Boston with young players, especially Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. Other notable players to become regulars under Francona include Mike Lieberthal, Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, and Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Red Sox fell short of the World Series in 2003 because of the home run hit by Aaron [expletive deleted] Boone. He hit it off of Tim Wakefield, but the moment was created when then-manager Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in the game just one inning too long. When Francona was hired for the following season, it was evident something was different about him-he managed by methodically assessing his players' skills, especially the relievers. No more guessing about pitchers and leaving them in on instinct, as Little did.
As for strategy, you will undoubtedly be pleased to know that he hates bunting-which by itself is probably enough to convince some of you of his worth. He also rarely intentionally walks batters and uses the now-conventional wisdom on lineup construction, which is to say that he puts the high on-base percentages at the top. One thing that I've noticed over the years of watching him is that he respects veterans, rarely pinch hitting for them, unless there's a situation that really warrants it. Francona's not a busy manager and uses his bullpen responsibly.
Francona earns the buy-in from his players to try new things as well. In his early years, Kevin Youkilis played first base, second base, third base, and outfield because he trusted Francona's judgment. Francona also convinced Adrian Gonzalez to play right field during interleague play in 2011, so that David Ortiz could play first base to keep both sluggers in the lineup. I know these sound like small things, but they're key to understanding Francona's approach: he doesn't pull strings on the field unless he has to-his real work comes in the clubhouse. There certainly aren't many managers that have developed that level of trust with their roster-and it's that sort of trust that youthful organizations like the Indians need to gain a competitive advantage. Francona might even be the best manager to tame Chris Perez; after all, he spent years coexisting with Curt Schilling and Manny Ramirez.
Cleveland didn't have a great offense this year, but it was hardly a problem compared to a pitching staff which was, by ERA+, the worst in baseball, a quality borne out in their being second-to-last in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings and 26th in walks per nine. Addressing the rotation is one of Cleveland's biggest concerns this off season, so while there's a chance that pitching might show some improvement (especially if Shin Shoo Choo is moveable for arms), they could also use a manager that has experience getting the most from his pitchers. Admittedly, Francona has benefitted from having talented pitching coaches in Dave Wallace and John Farrell, the decision-making was Francona's, particularly when it came time to break with convention and use Keith Foulke on zero days rest six times in the 2004 post season or push Jon Papelbon into longer outings than closers typically handle.
Francona's ability to work with talented youngsters and handle complicated personalities fits the Indians' circumstances. Manny Acta was faulted for many things amidst the team's collapse, among them a stoic attitude, but the real indictment is that young players like Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Lonnie Chisenhall seemed to stand still on his watch. Acta, a talented manager but also one without a winning season to his credit, could hardly present himself to the impressionable young as someone whose methods have paid off. Francona can.
I feel like I'm endorsing Francona for President: Vote Tito 2012. Unfortunately, managerial politics require greater transparency than the regular kind, so I can't gloss over the fact that he was fired from the Red Sox in 2011 for losing control of his club. However, I can attempt to rationalize it. The behavior of players that caused ownership to take pause aren't the type of players the Indians have-they were veterans and high-paid free agents with a chip on their shoulders (and chicken in their bellies) who came from outside to disrupt Francona's system. Ironically, even though the ownership decided he was no longer the best fit, the players in question liked working for Francona and even apologized for their behavior.
The anecdote at the beginning of this piece is a favorite of mine, because it reminds you that Francona isn't a genius by any stretch, but knows how to manage. His 2004 team of "Idiots" didn't require grand gestures or complicated methods for communication, and he managed them accordingly. Francona won the World Series with just a wink, realizing that sometimes the best thing to do is keep it simple.
If the Indians don't hire Francona, it will be because Francona isn't as interested or the Indians balk at his salary (which would probably be around $4 million a season). But after a season of indecision and underperformance under Acta, it won't be because Francona isn't the best guy for the job-the organization is in desperate need of creativity with young talent and guidance in the new approach, and there's no better at that than Terry Francona.