The Indians made a lot of folks sit up when they hired Terry Francona to be their new manager.
Among those who noticed: The players.
“I was excited,” second baseman Jason Kipnis said last week before the team’s Fan Fest. “You know what he brings to the table, you know what kind of reputation he has. He’s a player’s coach and he’s a winner. You can ask people around the league, all the guys that have played under him, they have nothing but good things to say about him. And they love the way he goes about business.”
“He’s won before,” said pitcher Zach McAllister. “He knows what it takes. It seems like he’s got the right personality and the right mentality to get us over the hump a little bit.”
“I’m very proud to be playing for him,” said reliever Vinnie Pestano.
That’s what happens when a team hires a guy many never expected to consider Cleveland, much less join them. But Francona said his relationship with president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti is what brought him to the Indians.
Fans also are welcoming him, of course, but they also seem to be maintaining a healthy skepticism, to see if a manager can make that big a difference.
They’ve watched this team the past two seasons start fast and then fade. Last season’s fade was a near-implosion, as the Indians went 24-53 in the second half and had the worst month in the team’s history when they went 5-24.
“It was just kind of a whirlwind and a melting pot of a Murphy’s law of what could go wrong went wrong,” Kipnis said.
And it was exacerbated by the fact the Indians were largely a young team, without a strong veteran presence.
“Any player on this team had never been through something like that,” Kipnis said. “So nobody had an answer what to do.”
Which sounds a bit like an indictment of former manager Manny Acta. One job of a manager is to do what he can to ensure long losing streaks don’t happen, but the Indians followed what seemed like an uplifting win over Justin Verlander by losing 11 in a row.
Enter Francona, who brings World Series rings from 2004 and ‘07, but who also managed a team that went through a similar collapse in his last season in Boston. That 2011 Red Sox finished 7-20, and two days after the season “sources” anonymously accused Francona of losing the clubhouse. He and the team “parted ways” (i.e. was resigned) the day after the season.
Francona disputed the claims and took a year off to clear his head after a tumultuous and pressure-filled eight years in Boston. He went to TV, where he planned to stay until Antonetti called.
Once he signed up, Francona spent a lot of time trying to meet his new team. He called, texted, visited and talked with anyone he could, saying he didn’t like the notion of not knowing his players.
“I don’t know how many he called, but I was on that list,” Pestano said. “If there were six, I was pretty fortunate.”
Francona also visited Carlos Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez and others in the Dominican Republic and Chris Perez in Florida. No doubt Perez’s outspokenness came up.
“I wouldn’t hold anything against him if he did something when I was not here,” Francona said. “But there’s probably a proper way to do something. I didn’t know him until this offseason. Now that I know him I will have a better feel for how to handle it.”
Stubbs, Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers are four key additions to the roster, as the Indians were as active this past offseason as they have been in years. All are veterans who have been around. Swisher especially brings energy and excitement along with a switch-hitting bat that has produced 20 home runs and at least 80 RBI in each of the last four seasons (with the Yankees).
“It’s no longer just young guys looking to establish themselves,” Kipnis said. “Now we’ve got guys who are names out there, guys who know how to compete. It’s changing the shape of this team.”
Kipnis said he hopes people start thinking the way the holdovers are.
“That we can win,” he said.
It won’t be easy, not with Detroit welcoming Victor Martinez back from injury and adding Torii Hunter to a lineup that already included Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. It’s another season of big money against small-market money, but the Indians concede nothing.
“(Francona and Swisher) wouldn’t come here unless they thought they had a chance to win too,” Kipnis said.
Cleveland’s 2012 season ended in a pile of rubble.
Somehow, the Indians have built enough of the building back to provide some hope and excitement for 2013. Instead of rebuilding, the Indians re-tooled, starting with their manager.
“Our team,” McAllister said, “Is better than it was last year.”