The Great Communicator

posted by Todd Walker -

Terry Francona has rebuilt Cleveland into a title contender

By Katie Baker, The Ringer

Link: https://theringer.com/2017-mlb-preview-cleveland-indians-terry-francona-6cbdea235e14

As Terry Francona shuffles through a carpeted event space in Cleveland’s InterContinental hotel, the Indians manager is doing a decent job of not letting on that he had his right hip replaced fewer than three months prior. Francona’s operation occurred just days after his team’s wild, rainy Game 7 World Series loss to the Chicago Cubs in early November, and this late-January appearance at Tribe Fest, an annual offseason event for Indians fans, is a test of patience and endurance. Every few steps, someone stops him. Passersby jostle him with affection. It’s not only that everyone wants to see Francona, it’s that once they do, they tend to act as if they’ve known him all along.

“Tito!” shout the old-timers who like to remind him that they watched another Tito Francona, his dad, during his 15 seasons in the major leagues, including six with the Indians. Francona the younger, now 57, is all too happy to indulge in stories from that era, like the one that begins with a 6-year-old Terry glimpsing ball boys hawking broken bats to fans and ends with Tito the elder having to apologize to all the teammates whose (unbroken) bats his kid had snagged from the clubhouse and sold. “I got, like, 50 bucks,” Francona says. “Tito, will you sign this?” asks a Tribe Fest attendee, holding up a program. “Got a pen?” Francona asks. The man looks stricken and helpless: He does not. (A woman with him seems appropriately irritated.) Francona, unbothered, tells him to hang tight, then cuts through the crowd and returns with a Sharpie.

“Tiiiiiiittoooooo!” yell the back-slapping younger dudes who may not know where the nickname comes from, but know plenty about the legend now carrying it: They know that Francona managed the 2004 Red Sox team that finally broke the Curse of the Bambino; that he’s currently the skipper of a Cleveland group that went from 68 wins before he was hired to 94 and an American League pennant last year; and, just as crucially, that he’s a chill dude whose funny quips about baseball, food, and life frequently make their way out of local broadcasts and into the general realm of feel-good viral sports media content.

Francona has managed the Indians since 2013 and has been an MLB manager since his days with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997. He won two World Series in Boston, in 2004 and 2007, and was, for a short time between dugout jobs, a face on Fox and ESPN. But last fall, as Cleveland earned its first division title since 2007 and moved through the postseason toward its matchup with the Cubs, Francona found himself back in the spotlight in a way he hadn’t been in years, all his candor and compulsiveness on full display. His thoughtful, creative decisions around both his bullpen and his batting lineup made him a compelling figure for baseball nerds on couches and a difficult opponent for competitors. His playoff run, speaking of competitors, featured narratively rich matchups against both his former team (the Red Sox) and the architects behind that former team’s run (Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, the former Boston executives who now oversee the Cubs). In a World Series defined in part by both fan bases’ hyper-woebegone psyches, Francona cut a refreshing presence. His good humor in such a high-stress environment has revived his widespread appeal, whether the topic of the moment is his deployment of pitcher Andrew Miller or a dramatic tale of emergency dentistry.

With the nearby Cleveland Cavaliers seeking to defend their NBA title this season, the city’s sporting culture (sans-Browns, of course) currently boasts an optimism that it lacked for so long. As this new season begins, the Indians are in the eminently winnable AL Central and feature a core of young talent supplemented by high-profile offseason acquisition Edwin Encarnación. Francona has called his bullpen the “funnest” he’s ever worked with. And thanks to last fall’s deep playoff run, young stars like shortstop Francisco Lindor now have the type of experience that many veteran players can only imagine. Given the renewed enthusiasm for the Indians, Francona is in for a long season of getting stopped by “Tito!”-screaming admirers wherever he goes.

Having finally extricated himself from several of them at Tribe Fest, Francona steps onto a dais and sits next to team president Chris Antonetti for a scheduled Q&A session with fans. After a few general questions about their feelings going into the season, someone gets to the good stuff, asking Francona about the famously enormous, disgusting wads of tobacco-spiked gum he hoards in his cheeks during games. Ball boys unwrap the gum beforehand and place it in the dugout in a giant bucket that says “Tito”; last year, first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. described the horror with which fans sometimes encounter already-chewed “Tito bombs” on the ground.

“It’s not a very good habit,” Francona, ever the affable masticator, replies, “but it’s better than chewing the inside of my cheek. I get so nervous I chew whatever I have. When I stop getting nervous, I’m gonna start doing something else.

“And I don’t know how to do anything else.”

The weekend of Tribe Fest, Francona and most of the Indians also assemble for a media session at a big sports bar in downtown Cleveland called Wild Eagle Saloon, the kind of place with not merely a pool table but also arcade equipment and multiple indoor bocce courts. Fried mac and cheese is served; Indians players play Pop-A-Shot basketball and loudly remark upon their teammates’ billiards skills. Francona, who missed MLB’s winter meetings to recover from his surgery, drinks a soda in a pint glass and tells a group of reporters that it’s been “the shortest offseason in history”; that he’s excited for Encarnación to be an “anchor in [the] lineup” this year; and that “there’s not a lot of difference between being smart and being dumb.”

That last part is in reference to the Indians’ first game of the 2016 postseason, when they found themselves guarding a 4–3 lead over the Red Sox with two outs in the top of the fifth inning. Francona opted to bring in Miller, an elite late-inning reliever the Indians had acquired from the Yankees before the trade deadline, to get the crucial, “high-leverage” out. While this appearance came several innings earlier than someone like Miller was conventionally used to, Francona had begun testing the versatile 31-year-old, whom he’d previously managed in 2011 in Boston, in this way during the last couple of months of the regular season, putting his best relief pitcher in the most important situation instead of the one conventionally considered the most important: the ninth. Late last summer, he told The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh that one of the reasons he was excited to trade for Miller was to be able to deploy him in creative ways. “I’ve always liked the idea of having a guy that you can kind of leverage,” Francona told Lindbergh. “When we got Miller, that was one of the most enticing things about it, is not only are you getting a really good pitcher, but you’re getting a guy that is willing to pitch any inning, which in my opinion makes him more valuable.”

That logic sounds straightforward, but in the world of baseball, common sense is sometimes at odds with decades of How It’s Done. (In 2014, when Lindbergh and statistician Dan Brooks came up with a metric to assess how strictly relievers were used in late innings, they called the study “Reliever Role Rigidity.”) Francona’s willingness to upset the natural order of bullpen management drew attention from sabermetricians and casual fans alike. It also inspired a few copycats, with the Cubs and Dodgers finding new ways to use Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen in the postseason. (The rising value of these sorts of versatile, dominant late-inning arms bore out this winter when Chapman, Jansen, and Mark Melancon all landed record deals.) Francona, as he frequently does, downplays his role in all of this; “I get too much credit” is one of his verbal tics. He says he made related moves back in his Red Sox days: There was the time in 2004 he deployed Tim Wakefield a game early, and he sometimes leaned on Jonathan Papelbon for more than three outs. He is also quick to point out that there aren’t too many MLB players of Miller’s caliber with whom to experiment in this way.

But using Miller in big moments last fall rather than just in late moments nevertheless became a strategy that will continue to reverberate throughout the league, for better and worse. (There will undoubtedly be some painful imitations.) Francona understands the risks involved when it comes to these types of unconventional decisions, and knows that even the victor will eventually be spoiled. “There’s going to be a game,” he told Lindbergh, “where we have [Miller] warmed up in the sixth and something goes awry, and we’re going to have arguably our best pitcher coming in in a situation where we’re down a run.” Months later at Wild Eagle, he says essentially the same thing: “Thinking back to that first [playoff] game against Boston,” Francona says, “I bring in Miller … [40] pitches later, I’m like, ‘Oh no, what am I doing?’ If we lose that game, things don’t look real well.”

Getting to the point where leverage and game-specifics dictated bullpen usage more than traditional, predetermined roles involved making sure that the relievers, generally a notoriously particular set of athletes, were comfortable veering off the beaten path from time to time. Cody Allen, whose closer title seemed likely to vanish after the Miller trade, but who wound up remaining in the ninth-inning rotation, says that Francona was able to acknowledge each player’s interests while getting them to buy in collectively. “No one cares what you know until they know that you care,” Allen says. “Just as individuals, Tito really, truly cares about all of us, and he wants personal, individual success for every single one of us. And he’s really good at trying to rally all of that and put it into a team atmosphere. He’s an unbelievable communicator.”

That tailored approach wasn’t limited to the bullpen. Holding a pool cue in his hand at Wild Eagle, Trevor Bauer, a former hotshot pitching prospect with Arizona who has enjoyed a career resurgence since being traded to Cleveland, says that Francona understands there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “A testament to him is that he takes the front-office, analytical stuff, and is able to transform that into something players understand,” the famously quirky Bauer says. “Some people understand the analytical side, some people don’t want that. They communicate in different ways. He does a good job communicating with each player however is effective for them.”

This can mean saying nothing at all. On his way out of the bar, Francona pauses to try his hand at throwing a ping-pong ball from a stair landing into a small metal urn behind the bar. It’s a long way, and as the ball peters out and lands short, Francona laughs and the players mock-cheer.

Not all of Francona’s “unbelievable” communication, as Allen describes it, involves tactful sit-down meetings about high-stakes personnel decisions. Sometimes it’s just dudes hangin’ out. Antonetti points out that Francona arrives at the ballpark every day “ridiculously early,” and not only to pore over lineup decisions until game time. Often, it’s so that he can pore over lineup decisions all morning — then have time to hang out and play cards with players all afternoon. “You see pictures of his dad,” says pitcher Tim Cooney, describing Francona’s office. “You see the gloves he has from his dad, and the pictures, and the memorabilia. He talks about it all the time, so it’s pretty cool to listen to some of those stories. When my dad comes into town, he likes to go in there and sit down and shoot the bull with [Francona], just like [Francona] does to any of us.”

And some of it, maybe much of it, has to do with popsicle almost-overdoses and misplaced teeth. Francona sometimes acts like he’s performing an improv drill in which an audience member shouts out an item and the performer has to turn it into a bit. Consider this 2015 soliloquy about the grape popsicles found in the clubhouse:

I had 17 the other night. No, that’s not a lie. They’re healthy, so if one’s good, 17’s gotta be real good. I woke up in the middle of the night and I was like borderline, like it was coming up. But I was so tired that I just laid there for about an hour and I was like, ‘Don’t throw up, don’t throw up, don’t throw up.’ I should have got up and threw up. And then I woke up in the morning and I was like, ‘****’. So I started counting the sticks. They’re so good. Obviously I don’t get tired of them. They’re so ******** good.

Even during stressful playoff moments, Francona is reliably good for a laugh. In Game 3 of the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays last season, Bauer’s finger fell off on the mound — at least that’s how it looked to horrified viewers as cameras began zooming in on the considerable stream of blood flowing from Bauer’s pinkie as he held the baseball. Bauer had hurt himself a few days earlier playing with one of his drones, and his Game 2 start had been pushed back to give his wound more time to heal. It was one more crazy blow to the starting rotation in a season that had grown increasingly full of them: The Indians cruised through much of the year with a top rotation, but entered the playoffs hobbled by injuries to Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. (“Write it down,” Indians beat reporter Paul Hoynes wrote after a line drive broke a bone in Carrasco’s pitching hand. “On Sept. 17, the Indians were eliminated from serious postseason advancement before they even got there.”)

To hear Francona tell it, though, Bauer was the least of his Game 3 concerns. The manager was more focused on the fact that he had lost a lower tooth veneer right before the game started. “I’m chewing,” he later told reporters, referring to his preferred gum-bacco amalgam, “and it felt crunchy. I was like, ‘Uh oh.’ So I undid my tobacco” — undid my tobacco!!! — “and there’s my tooth.” He found a random dentist willing to reinstall the chomper late that night in downtown Toronto. The Indians somehow won amid all this commotion and would ultimately close out the Blue Jays in five games.

And before Game 5 of the World Series against Chicago, amid all the talk of long-awaited trophies and curses and viewing parties in nursing homes and bullpen management, Francona turned the topic at a Wrigley Field press conference to his questionable tactics for addressing insomnia. He had ordered $44 worth of room service ice cream at 3:30 a.m. “I had the brownie sundae,” he said. “I had two orders of chocolate, and two orders of vanilla with chocolate sauce. And then to kind of keep it healthy, I ordered the berries. Oh, and a Diet Coke.” The hotel asked him how many people the order was for, presumably so they could include enough spoons.

Before Game 7, he charmed his audience with more hotel bed high jinks: He’d dreamed about someone breaking his ribs only to wake up in pain from falling asleep on top of the remote control. He also discovered that he had peanut butter on his glasses. All this was trademark Tito: funny and frank, highly meme-worthy, but also undoubtedly strategic, meant to shield his players from any more pressure than necessary. After all, riffing on his own lack of sleep could help spare his players from fielding questions that might keep them up at night, too.

“I think my parents deserve a ton of credit,” says Francona, standing in a back kitchen at the InterContinental, taking a break from the Tribe Fest chaos and reflecting on how his childhood somehow felt normal. “When my dad wasn’t hitting well, I didn’t have to walk on eggshells. When he got a hit, I didn’t get ice cream. I would sit sometimes and wait for him when I was real young, with my glove and his glove, and he’d hit balls to me when he came home. It took me a while to realize that as they were coming harder and harder, he was getting tired.”

Francona loved to eavesdrop on his dad’s baseball strategy conversations and hang out at the ballpark whenever Tito Sr. would let him. As ever, many of his memories are food-related: He remembers that his father would give him a dollar for concessions and that, during their days in Atlanta, it led to some early tough lessons in allocating scarce resources. “Do I get a Chick-fil-A sandwich?” Francona says. “If I get a Chick-fil-A sandwich, I can’t get a Coke.” He’d pocket candy from the various bins and jars in the clubhouse, not knowing that an attendant was sending his dad a bill.

All this time spent around ballplayers led to parallel obsessions with baseball and cribbage. Francona is fiercely uncompromising when it comes to both, and it’s no coincidence that Brad Mills — Francona’s bench coach in Cleveland, and a man who has played and worked alongside him for decades — mostly refuses to engage him in a casual game of cards. “He frustrates the daylights out of me,” says Mills, who accuses Francona of playing much too fast. “I like to enjoy playing. He loves to frustrate me. He’s always been that way.”

Mills and Francona were teammates at the University of Arizona, and then with the Montreal Expos; at one point they lived together while assigned to a minor league team in Des Moines. And they have worked together, on and off, as coaches ever since. They were both on the Red Sox staff when the 2004 team battled back from an 0–3 ALCS deficit to the Yankees and went on to sweep the World Series and become part of Boston civic lore (“There were people, like, hanging off bridges” to greet the 2004 Red Sox team at the airport, Francona says), and they were there still when the 2007 squad repeated the championship sweep. One of Francona’s early coaching positions was managing the Double-A Birmingham Barons the season a guy named Michael Jordan played for the team. But managing that personality was nothing compared with the cast of characters on the Red Sox.

The Boston Globe praised Francona’s willingness to let Johnny Damon grow out his hair and give Pedro Martínez time off and let Manny remain Manny, but the shine didn’t last. Mills left to manage the Houston Astros in 2010, lasting a tumultuous season and a half. Francona found himself preoccupied during games in 2011 by thoughts of his son, Nick, who was deployed to Afghanistan with the Marines. (“It was the worst six months of my life,” Francona says. “I caught myself taking my phone down to the dugout, like, who is gonna call? When he left, it was as unsettling a time as I’ve ever been through.”) At the end of the season, the Red Sox and Francona parted ways in such an awkward, over-the-top fashion that his departure literally included a weird goodbye press conference that team owner John Henry had to miss after falling down the stairs on his yacht.

And in a gossipy, utterly memorable article that became a standard-bearer for a certain type of postmortem sports shivving, The Boston Globe painted a vivid picture of the Red Sox clubhouse as a garbage heap of empties and fried chicken bones presided over by a distracted pushover. The Red Sox had just come off one of the worst collapses in history, losing 18 of their last 24 games and getting knocked out of the playoffs on the last day of the season. The Globe blamed, in part, “a lame-duck manager, coping with personal issues, whose team partly tuned him out” and “players who turned lackluster and self-interested.” The famous players’ coach had lost his players, the piece charged, and his knack for getting along with everyone had set everyone back.

Francona’s rough departure from Boston wouldn’t have much in the way of negative lasting effects, though; the baseball world has gotten pretty good at recognizing undervalued assets. When Antonetti says that Francona’s “track record in Boston and his reputation certainly preceded him” when he was hired by Cleveland, he means it as a positive. Lindor, the 23-year-old shortstop who was an All-Star last year in his second MLB season and is considered one of the league’s most exciting young stars, did have a couple of preconceived notions about Francona before he began playing for him. “He seemed like he was just an easygoing coach,” Lindor says, “that was always chewing gum and making the right decisions.” His hunch was pretty on-target. “He’s very easygoing, and very special,” Lindor says, “in the sense of, he lets us be who we wanna be, and it’s cool. It’s a blessing to have him as my first big league manager.” Allen echoes this. “He gives you the freedom to be yourself,” the pitcher says. “This game’s hard enough, and if you’re trying to be somebody you’re not, it makes it even harder.”

But Francona’s people skills are only part of his success, and the rest is a lot like how he describes the game of cribbage: “It’s counting — it’s some luck, a lot of luck. You try to be better than the cards you have. The people who are really good, you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re lucky.’ They’re not lucky. It’s fun.” Mike Barnett, a longtime hitting coach who worked with Francona as far back as the Michael Jordan era in Birmingham and who is now a replay coordinator on Cleveland’s staff, says he’s always been amazed by Francona’s ability to let a baseball game determine its own shape before stepping in. “Three innings in,” Barnett says, “he’s like, ‘What are you gonna do? You can’t overmanage.’ But the thing that was always so interesting to me is once you got to that fourth, fifth inning, he knew exactly what he was going to do in every different scenario. Up a lot, down a lot. Up a little, down a little. Tied. So there was never any panic.”

Likewise, Francona says that it’s hard to predict much at the start of the season, that “you don’t really know yet” how everything will unfold. Still, Antonetti points out, “he is always a good two, three, four steps ahead of most everyone else.” What’s clear is that the Indians are starting out with a pretty decent hand, at least in the AL Central. The Tigers have never consistently lived up to their own hype, and while the Royals won the World Series in 2015, they have struggled since. (The Twins have struggled, period.) The White Sox’s trades of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton suggest that they’ve punted toward the future. Projections from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus place the Indians not only atop the Central, but near the top of the MLB in 2017. And while it’s a certainty that none of this is certain, at this point in his career, Francona has the confidence and experience to adapt to all sorts of situations and build a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. He can trust his instincts and play the odds even if he knows doing so won’t always work out.

It’s not just in the way he uses Miller. It’s in the way he platoons players at the plate to effectively, as The Ringer’s Michael Baumann put it, “[turn] Coco Crisp and Brandon Guyer into two halves of Kris Bryant.” (Allen calls the front office’s unheralded trade for Guyer “a huge acquisition for us … probably one of the better trades in all of baseball.”) It’s in the way he coaxes Carlos Santana, a longtime middle-of-the-order bat, to try leading off. (Back in Boston, Francona did the same thing with Kevin Youkilis.) It’s in the way he gives credence to advances in statistical analysis. (“It’s my responsibility to know every number,” Francona says. “It’s disrespectful for me to guess. But we also have to know our guys, know what makes them tick, what’s going to work, and buy into them, even when the numbers don’t support it.”)

Antonetti says that when Francona came in to interview for manager in 2012, “it would have been very easy for someone of Tito’s accomplishments, his résumé, his success, to just say, ‘Hey, this is me, here I am.’ And he approached that process the exact opposite. He actually took the time to write out six or seven pages of things that were important to him.” Judging by the things Francona says and does, those things include a young corps, an active front office, and a long leash. Francona got the job, and in his first season, he won AL manager of the year. The Indians earned a wild-card berth, then broke their new manager’s heart.

Last season, when they blew a 3–1 World Series lead, might seem like the real dagger, but it wasn’t to Francona. “It’s different every year,” he says to the group gathered around him at Wild Eagle. “You never know what your emotions are going to be. In [2013], when we lost to Tampa in that wild-card game? I was devastated. I mean, I was — we had won 10 in a row, we played a two-and-a-half-hour game, then we gotta go home? It crushed me. I could barely talk to the team.”

As he talks now, his players crowd around the nearby bocce court, giggling at some bad shot or another, indistinguishable from the bar’s usual rowdy crowd. “Then this year, we lose the World Series,” Francona says, “and I have an obligation to go in and talk to the players, because I know they’re gonna be hurting.

“But I was actually OK. We had given more than I thought we had.”

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