He helped put an end to one curse. Now, he can play a part in making sure another one—albeit less pronounced—comes to a close.
By the time Terry Francona had led the 2004 Boston Red Sox to the World Series title and put to bed an 86-year hex, he and every other member of the organization were forever deified in the minds of Boston sports fans.
By capturing another championship three years later, Francona all but ensured himself to be a Hall of Famer. A .574 winning percentage and six seasons of at least 90 wins certainly enhance his case, even if his departure from the Sox was far from cordial.
But what the Cleveland Indians accomplished over the course of the 2016 season and specifically over the past few weeks, in terms of mere talent, may be his best managerial job yet.
The Tribe lineup of today, noted for its timely hitting, doesn’t boast the potency of David Ortiz or Manny Ramirez. The pitching staff, while consistent, doesn’t have the likes of Pedro Martinez or Curt Schilling.
This doesn’t even take into account the myriad injuries Cleveland faced both early and late. Michael Brantley, who’s hit higher than .300 in each of the previous two seasons, was limited to just 39 at-bats. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, who each had 11 victories and ERAs under 4.00, suffered September setbacks and were unavailable for October.
What Francona has at his disposal now is a far cry from what was there when he took the position.
Upon joining the Indians as skipper prior to 2013, they were coming off a 68-94 season (20 games out of first place in the AL Central). It appeared Francona was jumping into a situation similar to that of his first managerial gig in Philadelphia – where he languished during four uninspiring years with the Phillies, resulting in a cumulative record of 285-363 and a pink slip after the 2000 campaign.
But Francona, ever a player’s manager, learned plenty during his eight years in Boston. His winning attitude fed off on his new club almost right away, as the Indians won 92 games and earned a wild card. Then came consecutive winning seasons before 2016’s AL Central title.
Open-minded as he is affable, Francona doesn’t follow any orthodox procedures. Not the ones established when his father, Tito, played during the 1950s and 60s. Not the ones made when Terry himself played during the 1980s.
No, there is no such “book” that Francona takes as gospel. Rather than being formulaic, he puts immense trust in his personnel. His players, in turn, answer the call.
The victories that led to the American League pennant illustrate this beautifully.
Trevor Bauer, who had an unfortunate encounter with a drone a few days prior, couldn’t make it out of the first inning of his Game 3 start. Six relievers followed to cobble together 8.1 frames of seven hits and two runs.
Bauer’s careless outside activity forced a restructuring of the rotation. So, up three games-to-one heading into Game 5, the call went to Ryan Merritt—who we’re pretty sure nobody beyond Francona had ever heard of. All he did was throw 4.1 shutout innings before the ball eventually went into the reliable left hand of Andrew Miller—who everyone is now familiar with.
Prior to the postseason, Miller vocalized his willingness to used at any time and at any length. Francona took him at his word. Miller has not just delivered, he’s been practically unhittable. No surprise, Miller won the ALCS MVP. And now, he’s Francona’s most valuable piece as he goes after a third championship.
Regardless of this World Series outcome, Terry Francona’s legacy as a manager worthy of Cooperstown has been established. But if he does get the necessary four victories to ensure Cleveland’s first title in 68 years, he’ll have another line to etch onto the plaque…and another fan base that will be forever grateful.