Francona ready to resume kinship with Cleveland
Tribe's new skipper returns to tackle challenge of helping put Tribe on winning track
CLEVELAND -- This was not a decision that Terry Francona needed much time to mull over. When he answered his phone and Indians general manager Chris Antonetti, his good friend, was offering the chance to manage Cleveland, Francona already knew his answer
"When Chris called," Francona said, "I knew it was the right thing to do."
On Monday morning, less than two weeks since that initial phone call, the Indians held a formal press conference to introduce Francona as the 42nd manager in the club's long history. It is a high-profile addition for a Cleveland club that is facing a critical offseason.
As he gazed across an interview room in Progressive Field's lower level, Francona could see what made the job so attractive. At his side was Antonetti, his friend of more than a decade. Standing in the back was Francona's father, Tito, who played for the Indians six decades ago.
Francona's eyes were also wide open to the daunting task at hand.
"I know we have challenges ahead of us," Francona said. "But I look forward to tackling these challenges together as a unit, as a we, always. I'm genuinely excited to do that. To embark upon a challenge together has me so excited, but it's hard to express it."
There is no denying Francona's impressive resume: six seasons of 90-plus victories, five postseason appearances and two World Series titles. All of those accololades came during his eight-year run of managing the Red Sox, who dimissed Francona after the 2011 season.
In Boston, however, Francona had a large payroll and the kind of high-level prospects that quickly blossomed into stars on the Major League stage. With the Indians, Francona is inheriting a club that last season operated on a $65-million payroll and lost 94 games.
Antonetti made sure Francona understood the challenges faced in Cleveland.
"I just wanted to make sure I was very candid and honest," Antonetti said. "Terry's words were, 'I'm all in.'"
Francona found it surprising that -- given his resume and the possible managerial roles opening this offseason -- so many people asked him why he would accept the job in Cleveland.
"I did get asked that a lot," Francona said. "It was, 'What are you doing? Why don't you wait for a team that's guaranteed, almost?' That really did surprise me. Then I figured that the people that were asking didn't know me as well as they thought.
"I actually look forward to this challenge."
The financial aspects of Francona's contract were not disclosed, but Cleveland was able to lock him in with a four-year contract. Francona joked that the negotiations took about 10 minutes, and both he and Antonetti emphasized that his salary was not a sticking point at all.
Asked why the deal was for four years, Francona laughed.
"I don't know," he replied. "That's as much as they'd give me. I don't know what else to say about that. Maybe I should've asked for six."
Kidding aside, the length of the deal serves as a statement.
"I don't want to be a rental manager," Francona said. "I wasn't so much looking at coming in worried, but I want to be a part of the solution. So I want to stick around."
Francona raved about some of the young core position players on Cleveland's roster -- names like Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana came up -- and echoed the club's belief that a sound foundation is in place. He was quick to reiterate, though, that it is his relationship with the organization that proved paramount in his decision.
During the 1999 Winter Meetings, Francona headed for a workout and wound up on the adjacent treadmill as Mark Shapiro, now the Indians' president. They struck up a conversation -- and ultimately a friendship -- that led to Francona taking a front-office job with Cleveland during the 2001 season.
"If memory serves me right, I was going a lot faster," Francona quipped.
Through that role, Francona got to know both Shapiro and Antonetti well, and the trio remained close over the next 12 years.
"The large part of the allure was my relationships already existing here," Francona said. "I believe in that so much. It doesn't necessarily ensure that you're going to win every game you play, but I like the idea of going through whatever we have to go through with the people that are in place here."
Francona also liked the family feel, given that he played for the Tribe in 1988 and his dad suited up for Cleveland from 1959-64 and was an All-Star in 1961.
"We're so proud of him now," Tito Francona said.
Cleveland is hoping Francona can help the club avoid what it went through this season.
The Indians entered with high hopes for contending, but went a Major League-worst 18-45 from July 27 through the end of the campaign. That tailspin sent Cleveland from 3 1/2 games out of first place in the American League Central to 20 games back of the division-winning Tigers.
On Sept. 27, Manny Acta was removed as manager, and Antonetti phoned Francona that evening to ask if he would be interested in the job. Francona interviewed for the position on Friday, accepted the job on Saturday and hoisted an Indians jersey with his name stitched on the back on Monday.
This season was the fourth in a row with a losing ledger for the Tribe, which has not been to the postseason since 2007. That year, it was Francona's Red Sox who bounced the Indians from the AL Championship Series before sailing to a World Series triumph.
Francona was also at the helm for Boston in 2004, when the Red Sox ended their 86-year World Series title drought.
Over the course of his managerial career, the 53-year-old Francona has compiled a 1,029-915 record between stints with the Phillies (1997-2000) and Red Sox (2004-11). His 744 victories with the Red Sox are the second most by a manager in the club's long history.
"As excited as we are about those accomplishments," Antonetti said, "I think what excites us most is what those accomplishments are built upon, the foundation. Specifically, Terry is an exceptional leader, he has boundless energy, he's a relentless communicator and he brings a winning attitude."
This is not to say Francona has not endured his share of criticism.
In 2011, Boston went 7-20 in September in one of the worst late-season collapses in Major League history. The Red Sox went from first place in the AL East to losing the Wild Card berth on the final day of the regular season. It was a forgettable month that drew national attention and saw Francona part ways with his club at the end of the season.
There were reports of marital issues and a possible misuse of pain medication, along with the much-publicized breakdown within Boston's clubhouse.
Francona went to work as an analyst for ESPN and he said taking a year off from managing helped him regain his footing in many ways.
"I thought it was an important year," Francona said. "Quite frankly, I think maybe I lost a little bit of perspective. Taking a year back, it's not easy to accept the fact that you need to, but I think it was healthy for me to do it. To do this job, and to do it correctly, you've got to be all in, all the time.
"I think I was showing some signs of wear and tear. I wouldn't have interviewed here if I didn't think it was the right thing to do."
The Indians clearly feel they have the right man to help turn things around as well.
"I'm really excited with the leader that we have in place," Antonetti said. "From that standpoint, it's certainly exciting, but we both recognize that we have a lot of work to do."
That process begins immediately.
Francona and Antonetti were scheduled to fly to Arizona on Monday night for this week's organizational meetings with the scouting and player development departments. The manager and GM also plan on using the next few days to try to make some decisions about the makeup of Francona's coaching staff.
Sandy Alomar Jr., who interviewed for the managerial post, has been offered a spot on the staff.
Francona is excited to get started.
"I understood before we got into this what may be ahead of us," Francona said. "It doesn't scare me. I welcome the challenge."