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An Ode to Tito

Every baseball club faces seminal, franchise changing, moments in its history; sporadically littered throughout its history. Cleveland faced numerous such moments: Jacob’s Field Opening Day in 1994, signing Bob Feller (and even more importantly, Major League Baseball letting Cleveland keep Rapid Robert); I do not think it is hyperbole to claim October 6, 2012 as such a date. On that day: Cleveland hired Terry Francona as its 46th manager.

It is important to stress, in no uncertain terms, the Cleveland Indians faced dire straits following the 2012 season. The franchise generally struggled since the Dolans acquired the team in 2001; despite developing a promising core of young position players: the team never reached the heights of its promise after 2007. The team collapsed in 2008 and took years to recover from losing its new stars: C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore and others. Right before hiring Tito, the team finished 4th in the AL Central, and only won 68 games. The team had not posted a winning record since 2007 (five years prior) and had not come within 10 games of winning the division since 2008.

Terry Francona’s arrival immediately changed the direction of the franchise.

Francona’s first season saw the Cleveland Indians invest more in the team in total dollars than they ever have before or since. Say what you will about the signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn: but the team’s first playoff appearance in six years depended on their acquisition. Since the surprising 2013 season: the club has not posted a losing season. Cleveland captured three division titles, an AL Pennant, won three Cy Young Awards, and in 2017 posted arguably the franchise’s best overall season in its 122 year history.

In short: Terry Francona is among the most impactful managers in the history of Cleveland baseball.

Tito’s Place in MLB & Cleveland History

None of this should surprise anyone, but Terry Francona ranks among the best managers of all time and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Heck, Tito arrived in Cleveland ranking among the most storied managers in baseball history. Few managers win a single World Series: Francona won two while ending an 86 year title drought in Boston, one of baseball’s top media markets. However, Tito’s impact stretches beyond two great seasons.

To put his career in blunt terms: only 25 managers have won two or more World Series, 14 of them are in the Hall of Fame. Bruce Bochy will join them in short order, two more won Negro League World Series and have not been eligible for induction for over 90% of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s history. Francona’s 1,752 wins ranks 17th all time (and there are no managers really in spitting distance of his total). Francona also won the Manager of the Year Award twice (both in Cleveland).

Tito took sole possession of 2nd place on the Cleveland Manager all time win list. Tito bears many similarities to Al Lopez (who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977). Lopez presided over a similarly prosperous time for the Cleveland Indians, becoming manager in 1951, his teams never finished worse than 2nd (always to the dreaded Yankees). Lopez also won a single pennant, and managed one of the best teams in franchise history (he also set an American League record for winning percentage which still stands) in 1954.

Even if Tito never manages again in Cleveland, his mark will remain embedded in Cleveland for generations. His 9 year stretch was a highly successful one. As many point out: few teams post so many consecutive winning seasons. During Tito’s stretch only the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and St. Louis Cardinals posted winning records every season.

I Hope for a Return

All of this to simply say: I really hope Francona returns to Cleveland in 2022 and becomes the first manager for the Cleveland Guardians. Many dislike his traditional style, his lack of analytical use, and (yes) the bunts. But Tito proved himself to be a highly successful manager, and I do not believe it is a coincidence that the team performed better under Tito than Hale. As Dusty Baker shows: older managers can thrive in the current baseball environment (let’s leave Tony La Russa out of these discussions, for now). I would not at all be opposed to Tito remaining beyond 2022, and I feel the results speak for themselves.

That being said, Tito does not need to do much more to cement his place in Cleveland history as arguably our best manager in franchise history. If he does return, he will return as the winningest manager in franchise history (four ahead of Lou Boudreau). His current accomplishments are impressive without additional seasons.

Postscript

I began this essay in July when Tito announced he was stepping away from the team to focus on his health. I never quite finished it, and only returned to it in October. One more thing to briefly look at, there have only been eight managers in Cleveland history to manage for five full seasons (if you count Nap Lajoie). Of those eight:

Tito ranks 2nd in winning percentage behind Al Lopez

Tito ranks 2nd in Division Titles behind Mike Hargrove

Unlike Tris Speaker & Lou Boudreau, Tito lacks a ring, but Tito did give Cleveland more chances to win a ring. Boudreau & Speaker played before divisions, but when we consider 2nd place finishes: Boudreau never finished 2nd in the division, while Speaker finished 2nd three other times. Tito made the playoffs four times, which is around the same as Speaker (three 2nd place finishes and a World Series). Gut feeling: I’d rank the Top 5 Tribe managers:

  1. Tris Speaker
  2. Al Lopez
  3. Terry Francona
  4. Lou Boudreau
  5. Mike Hargrove

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