The baseball manager is, in many ways, an anachronism. The sport, the way it’s played especially today, could almost be handled game to game without him, or so it seems.
A pitching coach is needed to walk out and talk down his pitcher, perhaps, though even the catcher could handle that. A veteran with a C on his uniform to decide his starter has lost gas. Any one of the nine, or even a Designated Arguer in the dugout, to kick dirt and hurl insults at the umpire in the event of some affront. All this is done, though, by a man some 20 years his oldest player’s senior, all while still dressed like he might take the field himself and cover outfield in a pinch. It’s a bit of silliness to see the oldest man on the field look like a retiree off to a Halloween party as if he’s trying to grasp his youth. None look more silly, yet more comfortable than Terry Francona. The Cleveland Indians lucked into him in 2013 and now, halfway through his fourth year, Francona could be the driver of something truly special in Cleveland.
The most amazing thing about Francona is his ability to be of the team, not above it like one would think a manager would be. Throughout the 2000’s the Indians had Eric Wedge and later Manny Acta, two men who were disciplinarians of a sort, grumpy and businesslike in their approach to the game. They didn’t look like the type to mingle, to have nicknames for their players, to manage personalities and people very well. Perhaps that’s why, even in those heights of the Wedge Era, the team seemed tight in a way, ordered and businesslike. Perhaps that’s why it was so fragile when things started to go the wrong way. When your ace tightens up in the playoffs there isn’t a pressure release valve
Francona is just the opposite. Even as he has an ace who might be a robot and a clutch of other sterling hurlers with hothead tendencies, somehow he’s drawn them all toward each other in mentality. Somehow there is a peace when Carlos Carrasco takes the hill, rather than a subtle worry he will go headhunting as when he was new to the team. Danny Salazar is a firebreather, but even as he walks two men in a row, this year he remains composed. Trevor Bauer no longer looks petulant at the idea of a hit. True, all men grow in baseball on their own, but the guidance, the faith their leader places in them surely has given each of these pitchers a direction and given the team a nigh unstoppable battery. They see he bleeds as they bleed, he hates the losing but loves the winning as much as any of his players. Is that joy so wrong for a manager? In this case, it most assuredly is not.
Francona’s versatility has been on full display this season. In his stretch running the show in Boston, we became used to his channeling the spirit of Earl Weaver. It becomes much easier to wait for that three-run home run though when the two men in the middle of the order will retire with moe than 1000 home runs. The Indians don’t do things that way, not since the days of Pronk and Grady and V-Mart, seemingly an age ago. They’re a speed team -- first in the AL in stolen bases in large part from the baseball-elderly Rajai Davis, but with additions from Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and a bit of a help from everyone in the lineup. Even the seemingly cement-footed Mike Napoli has chipped in a few robberies. Combine that with an iron-clad defense and best in the league pitching, and Francona is in a world quite the opposite from his days as a Bostonian.
But he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s having the time of his life if anything, rather than Xeroxing 162 copies of the lineup card and sitting back, he’s fiddling, flipping players about, seeing what works where and learning new things about his team every night. He never faced the prospect of not having his best hitter for more than half a season, but if anything the absence of Michael Brantley has only edged on his evolution to this pseudo-small ball, wishing for the National League type of skipper.
It’s not all perfect and brave new worlds, though, it never is. But even in the face of Bryan Shaw being cemented in the eighth inning despite his repeated failings, or the constant presence of Yan Gomes in the lineup despite his historically bad offensive first half, this loyalty is why the team works. This expectation from the manager that you will have the chance to pick the team up your next time around, this is where teams grow together from just a collection of millionaires and hundred-thousand-ites to a unit. Even in baseball where you are put on an island 90 percent of the time and commanded to perform, having the 25 men in the dugout pulling for you, willing to lift you when you fail, that helps you out.
I feel confident Shaw will turn it around sooner rather than later. Baseball, and relievers, are rich in their fickleness. Gomes is a different story, there’s something wrong there, but I still have to believe Francona knows something we don’t. He’s earned that right, at least partially. If Gomes continues to struggle and flail as the season wears on, and the team suffers for it, a conversation will have to be had, and perhaps it becomes Roberto Perez Time.
When watching Francona in the dugout, I’m reminded of a cow from the Indian subcontinent. He stands there, chewing his tobacco-gum hybrid blend, thinking, considering, plotting, expressionless through it all. He has no worries, is in control of this life and perhaps the next. If a devout Hindu saw him, Tito would be hard-pressed to not be held as a religious icon of some kind. This calmness, the barest hint of a grin in his eyes and around his mouth, it exudes a joyful, peaceful positivity. The glasses give him a professorial bent, much more so than that of the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, who more looks like a policeman poorly going undercover at a Bon Iver concert. With Francona at the mound, you already start each game spiritually centered and a step of the other guy ahead mentally. Seeing him at the top step, whether you're a pitcher that just got shelled, a batter facing a Golden Sombrero, or just a guy having an alright game, Tito with a look can make a man compete as best he can.
It’s taken four seasons, a light churn of the roster a few times, and quite a few hiccups, but the Cleveland Indians are as Terry Francona a team as one can be. At their best, the Red Sox under his watch were playful, dominant, fun, but ever being crushed by the weight of expectation Boston lays upon them. Out of that pressure cooker, Francona has found a freedom to work as he pleases. He undoubtedly enjoyed the winning in Boston, but I would hazard to say working in Cleveland is more of a joy for him. There’s no insanity of expectation, there’s many a lever for him to pull, and he’s got a wonderful crew of men to command. He may not be the best manager the team has ever had, but he’s the best manager this team, in particular, could hope for. May it be for many years more.