Tito At Home: Four Years Removed From an Ugly Exit in Boston, Terry Francona is Happy in Cleveland 


Indians skipper Terry Francona has told the story before, but he tells it again when asked to evaluate his status in Cleveland.

When Tribe General Manager Chris Antonetti came to Francona to talk about a contract extension in late 2014, he told his boss he had to tell him how much he was even making at the time.

"What that points out," says Francona, "is that I was completely content and I was happy. I'm here for awhile. I have a lot of years left, something like until 2021 with club options and stuff, but I don't really know how long it goes or what I'm making. Chris [Antonetti] knows me so well, he understands me so well and what makes me tick, he's doing great for me. I know I've said it a few times already, but I'm completely happy."

He had said it a few times already in the course of the conversation, and he would go on to say it many more times.

For Francona, the working relationship that exists between the dugout and Top Men upstairs -- namely Antonetti and team President Mark Shapiro -- has been years in the making.

"The main reason I came here to begin with, to be pretty honest, was because of my relationships with them," he says. "I met them in a period when I had just gotten fired by the Phillies. It was the first time I'd ever gotten fired, and your self esteem takes a hit. I came here and worked with Mark and met Chris and I immediately knew he was the smartest guy in the room who also never made you feel dumb. I was at a point where I was searching and it was good for me to be around those guys. And then it came full circle. Chris called and I came back and two years in, I would say those relationships are even stronger -- not only professional relationships, but personal relationships. I think I was smart enough to know to come to a place where I would be comfortable and maybe my better qualities might come out and maybe my bad ones wouldn't."

That current state of contentment pairs well with winning, which the Indians have done better than just a small handful of teams in the last two years since Francona arrived. But winning is only part of the equation. Francona had won plenty before, taking the Red Sox to the playoffs six times including two World Series victories.

But the end of that Red Sox career came with gossip-laden takedowns in the newspapers, rumors of pain pills, tales of a clubhouse lost and a manager who couldn't control his players, let alone get the most out of them on the field, and the end of his marriage.

"I had a nice run in Boston," Francona says. "But Boston's a whole different animal. It's a very difficult place to be the manager. It's an awesome place to be the Manager too. With all that good, there's going to come some bad. It was my turn at the end. I was responsible for some of it. Some things were truths, some were half truths, and some were not-at-all truths. It was hurtful. That's why, when I came here, I came for the right reasons. You live, you learn, and you try to make good decisions. I love Cleveland. I haven't been here my whole life, but I live downtown, I walk around, I care about the Cavs winning, and not because I should but because I know what it'll do for the city. I was thrilled for the convention coming too, because I know what that'll mean for Cleveland."

He's happy, and he's happy with who he works with, and he's happy with how the team is built. The feeling is mutual. As Francona's Boston tenure ended and he rounded into a job on camera at ESPN, the Tribe was dealing with the end of the Acta era and a culture that had plummeted to Brownsian depths in the lockerroom.

The turnaround, in just two short years, has been remarkable. Francona is routinely mentioned as the best manager in the game and the Indians' clubhouse atmosphere is as tight as ever, with examples of Francona's brand of camaraderie dotting media reports throughout the year. Most recently, there was the string of spring training pranks -- parking shortstop Jose Ramirez's car on the field, for example, or the water balloon war against the front office.

"We got them good and then they got us," Francona says. "We entered the gate one day and 10 guys, a couple of Ivy League guys in there too, doused us. I remember thinking these are Ivy League guys and they spent some serious time thinking how they could get us back. I thought that was special."

Francona and Antonetti, with whom Francona says he has a bit of an Odd Couple friendship, have had more than a decade to build that sort of bond. The skipper's still working on that evolving bond with the players, though from the looks of things, you'd assume he'd been in the Tribe dugout for a decade too.

"The more you know people the more you can ask of them," says Francona. "We talk about it all the time: Each team is going to have their unique personality. You have to work at it, so that when things are wrong, you came through it. The team that starts 6-0 might be talking about how they have each other's backs. Well, shit, you're 6-0. Let's hear from the team that starts 0-6. That's when you find out about loyalty and chemistry and those things. It's a long year. It's not all roses. You have to tell them stuff they don't want to hear, but if the relationship is built on honesty, they'll listen."

From the start, when the Indians first approached Francona while he was at ESPN, that's how the Tribe front office dealt with Francona.

"Chris was really honest," he says. "He said, 'This is where we are. I don't want to talk you into coming here and in a year, you're frustrated with where we are.' I really appreciated that. I think sometimes people need to step back and, whatever our payroll is, and I'm not even sure what it is, realize that Chris's job is to work within that framework. When Chris sees Jon Lester out there, I'm sure he thought he was a pretty good pitcher too. But he has to make it work and win, and I sometimes feel the need to come to his defense. He's in a really difficult challenge and I think they're acing it. I don't think he gets enough credit, and that's by no means a criticism of where our payroll is. I knew coming in where we were.

"I had come from Boston where we were one of the bullies. Teams would talk to players and then we'd swoop in. It was kind of fun. We had good teams. But I knew that wasn't going to be the case in Cleveland. I was more excited about trying to do the job with people I not only respected but genuinely liked. I knew it would be more baseball and less babysitting. And I was at a point not just in my life but in my career where I thought that would be something fulfilling."

Francona, incidentally, doesn't talk about the Red Sox days with the current roster.

"I don't bring it up unless someone asks," he says. "I don't want to be that guy. I'm here. What's important is here. It's a different set of circumstances and we're all in. I didn't come here to go to pasture."


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