Hot in Cleveland: Terry Francona is back doing what he does best with Indians

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Of all the people to remind Terry Francona how much he missed managing, it was Eric Hinske. Francona doesn't know why him, why then. It was the middle of the season, and he was walking through the Atlanta Braves' clubhouse before a game, and he ran into Hinske, one of his old charges on the 2007 Boston Red Sox championship team, and Francona wondered, at that moment, what the hell he was doing wearing a sport coat and makeup instead of a baseball uniform.

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After a difficult end to his Boston days, manager Terry Francona is back where he belongs. (Getty Images)

This game: It is Terry Francona's addiction. After his nasty divorce from the Red Sox, he jumped right back in, interviewing for the St. Louis Cardinals managing job, and when he didn't get that, he said he needed time to gather some perspective, which meant staying on the periphery as a broadcaster. And soon enough, because he was trying to be more honest with himself – because he was trying to shake off the stink of that final season in Boston – he realized this search was for naught.

"I don't have any perspective," Francona said. "I live and die with this game. And that'll never change. I like what I'm doing, and it means a lot to me. I'm OK with that."

Francona is standing along the third-base line, eyeing his Cleveland Indians. They're 15-14, lead baseball with 44 home runs and a .476 slugging percentage, and if ever they were to run into some starting pitching, they could find themselves a viable threat to Detroit and Kansas City in the American League Central. For a manager whose only experience has come in Philadelphia and Boston, this is a welcome change. Not the Indians' embarrassing home crowds, per se – worse than the Marlins' – but the return to a sort of purity that doesn't exist inside East Coast bubbles.

"Here, it's more baseball," Francona said. "In Boston I got to a point where I thought I was putting out fires more than being a baseball coach. And some of it was my fault. I was getting stubborn. My fuse was a little shorter than it needed to be. And that helps nobody. Sometimes you've got to check yourself, too. Taking a year lets you do that when you're not emotionally invested. Because once the season starts, man, it's hard. You're so emotional about everything."

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Tethering that emotion is what Francona believes he's doing better now than before, and certainly the environment around him helps. When the Indians announced his hiring, flabbergasted executives around baseball wondered whether he knew what he was getting himself into. It being Francona, the answer was a resounding yes. Not only did he know, he loved it.

It wasn't just an escaping Boston. His two championships with the Red Sox still define his managing career and leave him a hero forever in Boston. He also holds tight to the shameful way in which the team smeared him going out the door, accusing him of an excessive reliance on pain medication and letting marital troubles affect his job. Francona's book on his tenure in Boston spilled all of the gory details of the Red Sox's 2011 beer-and-chicken meltdown. He held himself plenty accountable but didn't blanch at giving others their due culpability.

For all of its pitfalls – miserable revenues, lower payroll, bottom-half farm system and underachieving core – the move to Cleveland brought Francona back to a place of peace. Following an unsuccessful four-year tenure managing the Phillies, he joined the Indians front office in 2001 and spent a good chunk of time working with a 26-year-old baseball-operations assistant named Chris Antonetti. Francona was 42 and had no idea what he was going to do next, so he did a little bit of everything.

With Kenny Lofton in his last season with the club, the Indians were looking for a young center fielder. So Francona was asked to scout some of the best prospects at the time – Peter Bergeron, Milton Bradley, Alex Escobar and Jason Tyner among them – and send reports back.

"Tito jumped right in," Antonetti said. "I think he was in the upper deck of Veterans Stadium. He calls me up. 'I'm up here bearing down. Trying to get a feel for Bradley's routes in center field.' He hadn't scouted before, and he was going to cover it from all angles.

"That's one of the things that makes him who he is. He's perfectly willing to take a convention like sitting behind home plate and flip it."

After Francona left the Indians, he and Antonetti kept in touch, catching up at the Winter Meetings and wherever else they would cross paths. When Mark Shapiro took over as Indians president, Antonetti ascended to general manager, and after firing Manny Acta with six games left in the 2012 season, one of his first calls went to Francona.

[Also: Cleveland's Mark Reynolds gets revenge after getting beaned]

"He is a brilliant, brilliant baseball guy and a brilliant motivator of people," Antonetti said. "He understands people. He understands baseball players as well as anybody I've been around. He has that unique ability to establish a connection with guys that goes beyond the surface."

To familiarize himself with everybody before spring training, Francona asked the team to give him pictures of everybody in the clubhouse, from big offseason signings Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to players brought in from minor-league camp. He didn't want to cheat – to steal a look at the back of a player's jersey to figure out his name. He wanted a face with each name, and at that point Francona could pull from his memory bank a point of interest to strike up a meaningful conversation. His interaction with players was among his greatest attributes in Boston – and ultimately, he believes, one of his weaknesses.

"Once players have my trust, they have it," Francona said. "And it probably ended up working a little bit against me at the end. My voice was losing some of its power. Sometimes it's time to move on. I just didn't like the way it happened, and that'll never change. But it doesn't mean you have to wake up angry."

He is still angry.

"Yeah. Yeah. Sure. A little bit," Francona said. "I thought the way it happened didn't have to happen like that."

The salve comes in winning, be it in Philly, Boston or Cleveland, a place that hasn't had a World Series winner in 65 years. If Boston wanted to saint Francona after 2004, Cleveland would crown Francona, its king having gone down south and all.

It's what makes the revitalized Francona so alluring: Among his baseball acumen – see how he has used his bullpen as a perfect example of conserving his arms – his ability to handle the whims of 25 alpha millionaires and his playing Pied Piper to a city about which this can be said: "At least we're not Detroit."

[Also: J.P. Arencibia caps Blue Jays comeback]

Until the arms arrive – beyond Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar, there's not a whole lot close in the organization – the Indians will subsist on their bats. And Francona will preach what he preaches, consistency first and foremost, even if staying consistent and not panicking two Septembers ago accompanied the collapse.

"I know how I feel about the game," he said. "If I'm stubborn in one thing, it's because I know how I feel. But to do this job right, you have to be all in and not dragging your ass and not beat up. Because the players don't deserve that. And the organization doesn't deserve that."

Francona is right, like he is regarding so much in this game. He was wrong, however, about one thing: He does have perspective. It's simply tunneled, singular, pointed toward one place and one place only: the field onto which he soon would jog, lacing a stream of tobacco spittle, back in his proper uniform, exactly where he belongs.

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