It is not easy to become a major league manager and even harder to stay one. Sometimes success can come from good fortune and sometimes from hard work. But to be looked upon as an elite manager, you need to lead some really successful teams and win the ultimate prize as a World Series Champion.
I am writing this at Spring Training before one game that matters is actually played. I don’t want a slow start or a fast start or, worse yet, a full season to pass before this is written. Terry Francona IS an elite manager! And, better yet, he is the Cleveland Indians manager!
Now you might say I am simply stating the obvious after Francona’s success with Boston or that I am delirious as a Tribe fan considering his lukewarm performance with Philadelphia. Although either could be true, let me explain.
Terry ( or Tito as he prefers to be called honoring his father) is a person driven by his heart and his character and not by his ego. He understands the gift he has been given to play and manage in a game he loves. A game he was around as a little boy. His father gave him the chance to experience the game but did not define his success.
This is why it should be no surprise to anyone but sky nose pointing residents of Boston or New York that Francona hand-picked his return to the game in Cleveland. He knew and had an emotional connection to the city and the management of the Indians. To some, that may seem like a silly reason to take on a team flashing a 68-94 record in front of your face. It obviously is not to Tito.
I have personally seen and heard plenty this spring about Francona, and this, coupled with what I just explained, is why I think he is an elite manager. His success as a manager is far from over. That is the way it is with those rare few.
Let’s briefly look at some things we know about Tito. First, until the season he left, he held together a team of young players and star veterans that crushed much of the competition and outcompeted the rest. He handled more outsized egos and quirky personalities than some managers see in a lifetime. But the Red Sox, through the good years before the collapse in 2011, played together and played with heart. Francona admitted he lost the team and promptly left. That ability to look in the mirror and not always point a finger comes through in his actions as a manager.
Francona has shown this spring on multiple occasions that he is willing to tell players where they stand early and make decisive moves. Some positive and some negative. On the positive side as new starter Bret Myers struggled early, Tito pulled him aside and assured him a spot in the rotation in return for him relaxing and doing what it took for him to get ready for the season. If it worked, only time will tell. Another when Masterson struggled in inning one Sunday, he pulled him aside to help Masterson focus his energies in the right direction. I have no idea what was said, but I did see the result. Four strong innings followed.
On the negative side, after what I detailed last night as a performance confirming he was not ready, Francona pulled Matt Capps into the office and told him it wouldn’t work right now. The cards were left in Capps hands to decide to accept a minor league assignment. I believe a similar discussion was made with Dice-K. Although these are not the kind of discussions the players want to hear, they are ones that build respect and trust.
As Indian fans have witnessed, the roster was enhanced and upgraded to an exciting group after Tito was hired. Holes were plugged with quality in most cases (outfield /bullpen) and silly putty in others (starting pitching). But no one can deny the 2013 Tribe is dramatically improved. Now I think the credit has gone a bit far citing “The Francona Effect”, but his influence has been all over these changes. Antonetti and Dolan have made the moves, but without trust in Francona they would have thought long and hard about making them. Plus, players would be more reluctant to come here.
Often Francona is mentioned as a “player’s manager”. I think there is a great deal of misconception about this term. A player’s manager does not necessarily always complement the players or only give positive reinforcement. A true “player’s manager”, which I think does describe Francona, is one with the ability to relate on a player’s level and be honest and clear about where the player stands with the team. Better yet, one that makes it clear to the player as early as possible where they stand. If a manager always complements a player and then simply “cuts him”, there is an immediate distrust built between not only that player and the manager but other players and the manager once this is revealed. That may not translate to problems at first, but it inevitably does result in problems with players. I think Tito is clearly showing the players very early that he will be honest and let them know when they do or do not fit into the team’s plans.
The final piece of being a true elite manager is the ability to make the players think that they are even better than their talent would predict. This characteristic is the only one I am not certain Francona possesses. This team, in contrast to the many “stacked” teams in Boston, will be a great test of that skill. My hunch is that Francona will clearly reveal his talent in this area as the season progresses. As much as I hated Sparky Anderson (because for a time I was an Indians fan residing in Cincinnati), I always admired his ability to believe in his players even when they were beginning to doubt themselves. He was often a terrible “in-game” manager, but his teams won despite that in part because of his skill at bringing the best out of his team.
It is not by chance that I have not once mentioned in this blog about whether he knows to bunt in this situation or steal in another. I didn’t even mention the ability to know when to pull a pitcher from a game. Because, by it’s very nature, a baseball manager is a manager of men more than a manager of each game situation. I doubt Tito will be “outmanaged” often, but his other skills are what set him apart.
So, it is for all these reasons (and a few more not mentioned), that I honestly believe that Terry (Tito) Francona is one of a select few elite managers in baseball. It isn’t enough by itself to make the Cleveland Indians winners in 2013, but it certainly won’t hurt.