When the Indians visited the Yankees in August, I headed to the Bronx in hopes of interviewing Indians skipper Terry Francona, who managed the Red Sox when I covered the team from 2004 through 2007 (thanks, 2013 Red Sox, for negating my claim to fame: No titles in 86 years for the Red Sox prior to my arrival and none since I left).
The Indians, who took over first place in the AL Central for good in mid-June, were in obvious “go for it” mode after acquiring Andrew Miller from the Yankees, so I wanted to ask Francona about the possibility he was following the Hall of Fame path set by his first major league manager, Dick Williams.
Alas, I couldn’t find a home for the story before or during the playoffs, which is a shame, because Francona proved me prescient for once. Regardless of how the Indians fare against the Cubs in the World Series, which begins tonight, Francona is headed for the Hall of Fame. And he cemented his candidacy by using Miller in a way that would have made Williams proud–usage that Francona foretold during a press conference the day before we chatted in his office.
It was fun to tie together the threads connecting Francona and Williams, so I wrote the story anyway. Hope you enjoy it.
Terry Francona, seated on a podium in a conference room at Yankee Stadium the afternoon of Aug. 5, grinned when he was asked what the acquisition of Andrew Miller from the Yankees could do for the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians.
“I could probably tell you more in a couple months, when it’s over,” Francona said.
It’s not over yet, but Miller’s already provided the answer. Miller has struck out 21 batters over 11 2/3 scoreless innings this month in leading to the Indians, who have not won the World Series since 1948, to the World Series, where they will face the Chicago Cubs, whose title drought, you might have heard, stretches back to 1908.
With his uncommonly aggressive usage of Miller, Francona has also answered in the affirmative another question he was more reluctant to answer the first weekend of August: Is he headed for the Hall of Fame?
“I don’t ever think about those things,” Francona said in his office Aug. 6. “I know I’m lucky. I got put in some really good situations. There’s some really good players, there’s some really smart people running the teams. I caught some of the good fortune.”
That good fortune in Boston — where Francona managed the Red Sox to World Series crowns in 2004 and 2007 — vaulted him into the Hall of Fame conversation years ago. Ten managers have won at least three World Series — nine Hall of Famers and San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy. In addition, 27 of the 30 Hall of Fame-eligible managers who have won at least three pennants are enshrined in Cooperstown.
Even accounting for the fiery fashion in which his Red Sox tenure ended following the 2011 season, Francona could have parlayed his resume into another opportunity in a big market, where that good fortune is, ahem, Theo-retically easier to find: Three weeks after Francona left Boston, his general manager, Theo Epstein, bolted for the Cubs with a year left on his contract.
Instead, after spending 2012 recharging as an analyst for ESPN, Francona joined the Indians, the third team in a hard-luck, three-sport town whose championship drought was not afforded the lyrical melodrama that accompanied the title pursuits of the Red Sox and Cubs.
Nor are the small-market Indians, whose payroll annually ranks among the bottom third in baseball, afforded the resources of a Boston or Chicago team. But Francona, who was aware of the restraints under which the Indians operated after spending a season in the Cleveland front office in 2001, enjoyed the challenge of winning with far fewer dollars to spend — and far fewer distractions to manage.
“A couple of people actually said ‘Well, we thought you’d cherry pick,’” Francona said. “I’m not sure I like that term. But my answer was ‘I did.’ This was where I wanted to come.
“I said ‘Hey, I’m coming for the right reasons, I’m not going to go to pasture.’ I know it can be harder here. But I want to come to a place where — maybe because of the way things ended in Boston — when we win, it will be so fulfilling, because we do have some challenges here.”
Once he set upon the less-traveled road, Francona followed in the footsteps of his first major league manager, Dick Williams, who reached the World Series as a rookie manager with the Red Sox in 1967 and piloted the Oakland Athletics to consecutive championships in 1972 and 1973 before he ended his career with a quartet of expansion-era teams—the California Angels, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners—that had never made the playoffs prior to his arrival.
Under Williams, the Expos were eliminated from the NL East race in the final week of the season in both 1979 and 1980, when they finished second behind the eventual World Series-winning Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies, respectively. Williams was fired in September 1981, just a couple weeks after Francona made his major league debut and a month before the Expos made the playoffs for the first time. Three years later, Williams sealed his Cooperstown candidacy by leading the Padres to the World Series.
“He could see the game, man,” Francona said of Williams.
So can Francona, especially in the playoffs. Only two managers in the League Championship Series era have won five of their first six postseason series: Williams and Francona, who actually won six of his first seven playoff series.
Francona, who was aggressive with closers Keith Foulke in 2004 and Jonathan Papelbon in 2007, has utilized Miller like Williams used Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers during the Athletics’ World Series runs. Fingers entered a game in every inning between the fifth and 11th in 1972 and 1973. Miller has entered a game in every inning between the fifth and ninth this month.
Most outside observers believed Miller, the reigning American League fireman of the year, would supplant Cody Allen as the Indians’ closer upon being acquired July 31. But in Miller — whom Francona in August dubbed “ … a guy that’s willing to pitch at the most opportune time of the game” — Francona could finally employ a bullpen the way he wanted.
“When I came here, Cody Allen was that guy—we used him probably from two outs in the sixth up until the ninth and we leveraged him wherever we could.” Francona said. “And it’s tremendous. But then through success, you earn that closer’s role, which I understand, and he deserves it. But then it’s hard to find somebody to replace that. So now, with (Bryan) Shaw, Andrew (and) Cody, we’ll kind of pitch them whenever it makes sense.
“They’re all three on board with that, so it should help. I don’t think there’s going to be much confusion.”
Nor is there any confusion about where Francona is headed. Cooperstown might not be on his mind, but it’s his destination.
“What I truly care about is just trying to be the best manager I can, for the players here and the organization,” Francona said. “I’ve felt like that since I was in A-ball managing. If I took care of the players and the organization first, my situation would always take care of itself.
“And you look up 30 years later and I’m still doing this, so it works.”