Created on Thursday, 18 July 2013 Written by Bob Finnan RFinnan@News-Herald.com @BobCavsinsider,writer
The Indians' $117 million free-agent spending spree in the offseason was crucial in rebuilding the team.
One could make a case the most important offseason acquisition, though, was the signing of Manager Terry Francona to a four-year contract on Oct. 6, 2012.
Francona's presence has the Indians thinking playoffs once again. It's been six years since the Tribe have lost to Francona's Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.
They are 51-44 at the All-Star break, an encouraging 1 1/2 games behind Detroit in the Central Division. It's their best first-half finish since 2007.
If they are not able to overtake the Tigers, who won an AL pennant last year, the Indians are in the running for a wild-card spot.
Francona, 54, became a cult hero in Boston in 2004 when the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918. He followed that up with another championship ring in 2007 before things soured in Beantown.
He spent the 2012 season as an ESPN baseball analyst.
Francona's ties to the Indians are deeply ingrained. His father, Tito, played for the Tribe from 1959 to 1964. As a youngster, Francona hung around old Municipal Stadium. He was born in 1959, the year his father batted a robust .363 for the Indians.
After Francona was fired as Philadelphia's manager at the tail end of the 2000 season, he joined the Indians' front office as special assistant to baseball operations under Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti. Shapiro is now the Tribe's president and Antonetti is the general manager.
That relationship forged a bond with the two most influential baseball decision-makers in the organization. The night Manager Manny Acta was fired on Sept. 27, 2012, Antonetti called Francona about the job.
Luckily for the Indians, he was receptive to the idea.
"I knew it was right for me," he said.
Francona trusts Shapiro and Antonetti, so much so, he has a clause in his contract that allows him to leave if they are fired.
"There's two main reasons I'm here today — Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro," Francona said on the day he was hired. "We've kept in touch for the last 12 years. I value not only their friendship, but their guidance and their leadership. I know we have challenges ahead of us, but I look forward to us tackling these challenges as a unit, as a ‘we.' I'm genuinely excited to do that."
Extolling Tito's virtues
One can see what kind of belief Francona has in Shapiro and Antonetti. Indians first baseman Nick Swisher, perhaps the team's biggest player move in the offseason, has that kind of devotion in Francona.
"He's the best thing ever," he said. "His communication skills are off the chart."
Swisher said knowing Francona has his back is more important than people realize.
"This game is tough, man," he said. "You get put in the gutter a lot in this game. It's nice to know there's always someone there saying, ‘It's going to be all right. Things are going to get better. We're going to get through this together.' It's nice to have someone of that authority telling you things are going to get better and you're going to get it together."
Indians right-hander Justin Masterson, a member of the AL All-Star team along with teammate Jason Kipnis, vividly remembers the day he heard Francona was coming to Cleveland.
He said he immediately thought better times were ahead. Certainly, the Indians wouldn't hire Francona and not surround him with legitimate talent.
"He's not a miracle worker," Masterson said. "But he gets people to play. It made me feel more was going to happen, knowing what he brings to the table. I knew they weren't going to stop there."
His gut feeling was right.
Tribe spends major money
The Indians' first major coup occurred on Dec. 23, 2012, when they signed Swisher to a four-year, $56 million deal. Fans started to get the feeling the Dolans were willing to spend some money.
They signed infielder Mark Reynolds (one year, $6 million) and pitcher Brett Myers (one year, $7 million) before they made their second big splash. Center fielder Michael Bourn agreed to a four-year, $48 million contract. Fans, and the rest of the league, were starting to take notice.
The free-agent acquisitions, coupled with the young talent already in the lineup, gave fans renewed optimism. The additions have paid off between the lines, too, as the Tribe is only three games out of an AL wild-card berth at the break.
"That's our goal," Bourn said. "We've been through some ups and downs. We have to keep fighting as a unit. I think we'll be fine.
"You wouldn't be working toward anything else. We have a tough road to climb with Detroit. We think it's possible. We have to continue to grind and be around at the end and see what happens."
Swisher said it's still a bit early to start predicting playoffs.
"We're not just playing this game to play it," he said. "That's everyone's thought process. We're in it to win it.
"We think we have a great team. Hopefully, in October, we'll be right in it."
Right man at helm
The players certainly think they have the right man in charge. It's important to them that the man called "Tito" has their backs.
"We're a team, and that means a lot," Francona said. "The cooperation we get throughout the organization is phenomenal. That doesn't mean we aren't going to have some challenges ahead. But I love what I'm doing and who I'm doing it with."
Francona, 1,080-959 (.530) in 13 years as a manager, said earlier in the season he wants to finish his managerial career in Cleveland.
Infielder Mike Aviles, who like Masterson and reliever Matt Albers also played for Francona in Boston, said the manager is a unique guy.
"Everyone knows it starts at the top," he said. "The biggest thing for a team is trust. As the team grows, you trust each other. We have a manager who will always have your back, no matter what is going down.
"It takes it easier to trust him and embrace his philosophies as a manager. His biggest thing is to play hard. It makes it easier to trust your teammates because of the aura he brings to the field every day: Have fun, chill and just enjoy what you're doing. It's a kid's game. He's the biggest kid in here. That's the side we see. He likes to joke around. He likes to be relaxed. When you have a guy like that running the whole thing, it helps with team chemistry."
Aviles said one will never see Francona throw one of his players under the bus in the media.
"Whether he agrees with you or not, he has your back," he said. "From a player's standpoint, you can't ask for a better situation. There's a reason why people want to play for him. There's a reason why people will go through a wall for a manager like Tito. He's always got your back. He's there to defend you. That lets me relax a little bit."
Of course, having talent is important, too.
"Everyone has the talent in the big leagues," Aviles said. "But sometimes you have to trust your teammates, your coaching staff and your manager. Once you figure out how they interact with everybody, you build that trust. Then, when you're on the same page, that's what brings good teams to great teams. We're on the verge of being a really, really strong team."
Masterson said Francona built that reputation long before he came back to Cleveland.
"Under his tutelage, it's even better," he said. "I don't think there's a single person who wouldn't enjoy playing for him. He's not going to make everyone happy. He's probably rubbed a few people the wrong way. When you get right down to it, though, most people respect the way he goes about doing things.
"He's someone that anyone in this world would want to play for. To have a manager that you know will tell you straight forward what's going on — if he's not happy about something, he's going to tell you, but not spread it to the world — he keeps it in-house."
Having won two championship rings with the Red Sox certainly doesn't hurt in his dealings with Indians players, who would love nothing more than to win a ring of their own. Following Francona is a nice start.
"Anyone who has won at anything deserves the highest amount of respect," Bourn said. "He's done it twice. He knows what it takes to get there."