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How the Indians helped turn Terry Francona into a managerial star

09.29.12 at 2:53 pm ET
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BALTIMORE — Terry Francona will interview next week for the position of manager of the Cleveland Indians, a job that became vacant when Cleveland decided to fire manager Manny Acta earlier this week.

“I’m excited and I’m honored that they would give me an interview,” Francona told the Associated Press. “I know Sandy Alomar is also a candidate. He’s a good friend of mine. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I will do my homework over the next week.”

On the surface, it might seem somewhat surprising that the Indians would represent an appealing destination for Francona. After all, in his eight years with the Red Sox, he lived constantly in the middle of pennant races, reveling in the nightly packed houses and intense passion for baseball that defined his job in Boston. He inherited a team that was built to win a World Series, won a title in his first year and, in each of his subsequent campaigns, had a squad that on paper seemed primed to compete for such a job.

That being the case, the potential fit of Francona and the Indians — a team that may have some distance to reach contention after four straight sub-.500 seasons and three out of four seasons (including this one) in which the Tribe has surpassed the 90-loss plateau — might at first seem curious. It shouldn’t.

Francona endured a beating at the end of his four-year tenure as manager of the Phillies. He was fired at the end of the 2000 campaign, and as he’s mentioned on many occasions, his self-esteem took a beating in the process. His tires were slashed in the parking lot at the old Veteran’s Stadium at the end of that season, and he was widely caricatured as an ineffectual manager.

Still, he enjoyed a solid reputation in the game, and so after that 2000 season, there were opportunities to interview for various uniform jobs. But the Indians offered something different.

After the 2000 season, Francona was hired by the Indians as a special assistant to the general manager. After spending his baseball life in uniform, he got an opportunity to see the game from a different vantage point while working closely with members of the Indians front office during the 2001 season. He scouted, he offered talent evaluations, he sat in on draft discussions and interacted with numerous people throughout the Indians organization — particularly Mark Shapiro (who was being groomed to take over the job of general manager in 2001) and Chris Antonetti.

“It’s the best thing I ever did. It gave me a chance to step away from the emotion of being a manager, which is hard. You look at things from a different perspective, where you don’t have emotion involved. It was really good,” Francona once reflected. “It gave me a chance to sit back and look and maybe reflect and have a chance to do things next time and maybe improve.”

That year working with the baseball operations department in Cleveland, in turn, helped to position Francona to become a managerial star, comfortable in working with one of the more progressive front offices in the game. He became a bench coach with the Rangers in 2002 and then Oakland in 2003 before finding what both he and the Red Sox came to view as the perfect fit at the perfect time when he interviewed for the job in Boston after the 2003 season. (The Boston front office, it is worth noting, enjoyed considerable intellectual and structural affinity with the operation in Cleveland.)

The affinities in Cleveland likely run a bit deeper than that. A number of Francona’s formative experiences in baseball took place in Cleveland, where his father Tito Francona played until Terry Francona was five years old. Cleveland is close enough to the region of Francona’s upbringing in Western Pennsylvania that Tito Francona regularly made the two-hour trip to Jacobs Field when the Red Sox visited there.

In other words, there are a number of factors that could make the Indians job appealing to Francona, and that could make Francona appealing to some of the familiar and still-close members of the Indians organization, where Shapiro is now club president and Antonetti is the GM. At the least, it is worth recalling that his emergence as arguably the most successful manager in Red Sox franchise history reflected in no small part on his year with the Indians.

Read More: chris antonetti, Cleveland Indians, mark shapiro, Terry Francona
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