Thursday, October 11, 2012

Easy to like Francona

You know it’s bad when the manager of a baseball team is the face of the franchise.

But that’s exactly the situation in Cleveland after Terry Francona accepted the Indians’ invitation to manage their team for the next four years.

From a perception standpoint, be it local or national, Francona will be the man until the club can develop the kind of player or players who can grab the spotlight from him.

It’s not his fault. After all, he arrives in Cleveland as one of the most decorated and beloved managers in the history of the Boston Red Sox. In giving Red Sox fans two World Series championships, he became an icon. His departure from Boston was less than cordial, but nothing lasts forever.

Following his introductory news conference in Cleveland a few days ago, it is easy to see why the Indians liked him and wanted him. He has a commanding presence that can, at times, be disarming and charming at the same time.

The new Tribe skipper does not lack from confidence. Oh no. He’s out there. There is not a shy bone in his body.

And the Indians’ brass hopes some of that confidence, some of that brashness, some of that personality rubs off on the players. Oftentimes, the trickle-down theory works.

Francona most likely will be the exact opposite of his predecessor. Too often, it seemed as though the Indians didn’t play hard for Manny Acta, whose inability to stop a runaway train ultimately cost him his job.

The first words out of Francona’s mouth after General Manager Chris Antonetti introduced him provided an early clue as to what the next four years are going to be like.

Antonetti spoke glowingly of his new manager’s accomplishments. Enough to make the man blush. Instead, he rose and said, “After that introduction, I don’t think I got enough money.”

And for the next roughly 28 minutes, he looked relaxed and seemed to have a lot of fun working with his new media friends in Cleveland.

He made it very clear as to why he chose to accept this job. “The two main reasons I’m here today are Chris (Antonetti) and Mark (team President Mark Shapiro),” he said.

“I wouldn’t have interviewed here if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. A large part of the allure was my relationship with the people here. There was no introductory process. When Chris called, I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Taking this job was a no-brainer, he said. “Negotiating (the deal) took about 10 minutes,” he revealed. “(Four years) was as much as they would give me.”

After parrying a few questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the roster, Francona made it clear he’s not beginning his glide toward retirement. “I didn’t come here to go to pasture,” he said. “I’m not afraid of a challenge, either here or at ESPN.”

Spending the past baseball season as an analyst at ESPN has proved therapeutic for Francona and only fed his desire to get back into the dugout.

When it was suggested he had a much larger payroll with which to work in Boston, he rebutted, “A large payroll does not guarantee success. It makes you an analyst.”  How can you not like a man who pokes fun at himself?

What about the difference in money the two teams spent on their rosters? The Red Sox’s payroll last season hit $160 million before the late-season purge, while the Indians checked in at $66.5 million.

“I didn’t ask (Indians) ownership to go out and spend money,” Francona said. “We’ll work together and figure out how to handle the challenges.”

And there will plenty of those come next spring training in Goodyear, Ariz. From the lack of power to the highly questionable starting pitching to the suspect defense to the losing atmosphere that has permeated the clubhouse for the last several seasons.

The new manager faces a substantial task. He no longer can write names like David Ortiz or Manny Ramirez or Dustin Pedroia or Kevin Youkilis on his lineup card. In Boston, he had an abundance of talent.  All he had to do was make certain his players were happy and enjoying themselves.

The best part of taking over the Indians is there is only one direction it can head after the stinker (68-94) they put up in 2012. Finishing at .500 in 2013 would be considered a major accomplishment.

One thing is certain: With Francona now running the dugout, the Indians will not wear the forlorn look that dogged them as a team in the last half of this past season. He seems to be the kind of manager who will make certain every man is held accountable for his actions.

He said his one of his first goals will be to forge an identity for the Indians. “My job is to get the most out of every player,” he said in somewhat clichéd fashion.”

He later went on to say he did not want to be “a rental manager. I want to be part of the solution. I want to stick around.”

All nice words spoken with sincere confidence. But unless Francona is given the bullets to place in his gun, he might as well keep his finger away from the trigger because the only sound he’ll hear if he pulls it is a click.

It is now incumbent upon Antonetti to change the culture of this team to fit the personality of the man he has chosen to take it in a new direction. If he wants to justify hiring a high profile guy like Francona, he has to go out and back it up with sound moves. Radical changes need to be made.

Cleveland baseball has a chance to make a comeback. The first step has been taken with the hiring of Francona.

Good choice. Surprise choice (that he even wanted the job). And, as it turned out, the only choice.

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