In more ways than one, Francona follows Dick Williams’ HOF path

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.”

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Six Days At Shea: November 1999 Mets Inside Pitch

Back in the final days of the 20th century, dinosaurs roamed the Earth and teams had official monthly publications in which features were written for a far-flung audience that was not able to absorb the news as it happened. “Six Days At Shea” was written with those non-New Yorkers in mind, the Mets fans who knew their favorite team had completed a stunning comeback from the edge of elimination but might not have known about the accompanying details and color.

As a 26-year-old reporter and not-so-closeted Mets fan who was starting to work a clubhouse for the first time, it was a blast writing about this in real time. The Mets have not clinched a playoff berth on the final weekend of the season since 1999, so I thought it’d be fun to look back as the 2016 Mets–who looked as finished with six weeks to go as the 1999 team did with three days left–close in on a wild card bid.

Sometimes, reality is stranger than fiction.

If you were a Hollywood scriptwriter, you could not have sold to anyone the story of the 1999 Mets, a story full of melodrama (coaches getting fired), cheesy storylines (team fights back from two extended losing streaks) unlikely plot twist near the end (team controls fate but doesn’t know where it’s going) and sappy ending (team makes the playoffs on the final day of the year).

“This is awesome, isn’t it?”

Actor Kurt Russell grinned from ear-to-ear as he sat in the batting cage adjacent to the Mets’ clubhouse. It was Sunday afternoon, Oct. 3., and the Mets needed a win over the Pirates to force, at worst, a one-game playoff for the NL wild card with the Reds the next day.

The reality of the Mets’ amazing run to the playoffs—the club was five days removed from a seven-game losing streak and two days removed from a two-game deficit with three to play—had captivated everyone, including Russell, the baseball-loving uncle of Mets pinch-hitter Matt Franco.

“This is so rare: Guys who play for years and years don’t have a moment like this,” Russell says. “The immediacy, not knowing what’s gonna happen next. It’s just great to be a part of it, whether it’s as a player or as a fan. You want it to work out, but you just don’t know.”

It worked out for the Mets, who beat the Pirates on Sunday and then beat the Reds, 5-0, in Cincinnati on Monday to advance to the playoffs for the first time since 1988. Those who were at Shea Stadium for the final six days of the regular season won’t soon forget the events which transpired.

TUESDAY, SEPT. 28: The tone is optimistic before the game. On WFAN, Mets GM Steve Phillips talks about how the club still controls its own destiny: Win the final six and the Mets are in no matter what the Reds or Astros do.

But the optimism is gone by the end of the first inning. Venerable veteran Orel Hershiser gets only one out—on a sacrifice fly—before he is lifted for Octavio Dotel. The Mets are down by four runs after one inning and eventually lose, 9-2.

Frustrations boil over in the seventh, when reliever Dennis Cook takes umbrage with the strike zone of replacement umpire Alfonso Marquez. The two have a heated argument and the bills of their caps touch.

“It was just a difference of opinion,” Cook says after the game.

“They’re in a spot now where things just aren’t quite going their way,” says Tom Glavine, the winning pitcher tonight for the Braves. “That’s what happens when you get into a rut. Things that were going your way most of the year aren’t. And the bad thing about what they’re going through is they’re running out of time to recover from it.”

No kidding: The Mets have dropped two games in back of the Reds and Astros with five to play. The Mets’ margin for error has slipped from thin to razor slim.

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 29: Except for Al Leiter, who is cranking up Bruce Springsteen tunes as he gets ready for tonight’s start, the clubhouse is quiet before the game. The Mets know they have their work cut out of them: Not only do they have to make up a two-game deficit with five to play, but they must begin doing so against the greatest pitcher of this generation, Greg Maddux.

Ventura is asked if shaking a losing streak is kind of like shaking the flu. He grins. “Yeah, exactly, that’s a pretty good example,” he says. “I think you can’t get it out of there before it’s time. As bad as you want it to go, if it was always that easy, it wouldn’t be happening.”

The Mets’ fever finally breaks. The Braves take a 2-1 lead into the fourth, but the Mets open the inning with six straight singles off Maddux. Then John Olerud blows the game open with a grand slam home run to give the Mets a stunning 8-2 lead. Leiter is dominant the rest of the way and the Mets win, 9-2.

It’s the first time the Mets have experienced the joy of victory in 10 days, but enthusiasm is muted. “There’s a little relief, but then you realize it’s one game and you’ve got to come back to win tomorrow,” Ventura says. “We’ve got four games left and we need to win them all.”

“We still have to go out and do it tomorrow,” Bobby Valentine says. “There’s no real magic even though we feel like we’re due some good things. I think we have at least a week of good things coming.”

THURSDAY, SEPT. 30: The good things don’t happen tonight as the Braves take a 4-3 victory in 11 draining innings. The game is a microcosm of the Mets season: The Mets were down and they come back. The Mets are down and they come back. The Mets have some moments of brilliance which make you believe something special is about to happen.

The most brilliant moments occur in the eighth inning. In the top of the frame, the Braves load the bases with none out and a 3-2 lead. But Pat Mahomes gets Andruw Jones to ground to Ventura, who touches third and throws home to Mike Piazza, who tags Chipper Jones for the second out. Ozzie Guillen flies out to end the inning.

In the bottom of the frame, Edgardo Alfonzo hits a solo homer with two outs to tie the score. “Fonzie hit the home run and Pat got out of the jam with the double play ball to third,” Olerud says. “Those were big plays, and turned in those situations keep you in ballgames. I thought those were good signs.”

It’s also a good sign when Armando Benitez throws two shutout innings, but Brian Jordan leads off the top of the 11th with a triple and scores on Andruw Jones’ sacrifice fly. The Mets go down meekly against Terry Mulholland in the bottom of the 11th and fall two games in back of the Reds and Astros with three to play.

“I think knowing you have the last at-bat, you go to the eighth, ninth, 10th and think there’s a shot, but we just didn’t do it,” Ventura says. “You gotta keep playing hard, no matter what, and hope for one of them [the Reds or Astros] to lose and we’ve gotta run it out.”

FRIDAY, OCT. 1: It seems as if New York has given up on the Mets. There’s only about 20,000 people in the stands at game time and the pre-game radio talk centered on what the Mets will do next year.

But Kenny Rogers is brilliant on the mound as he strikes out a career-high 10 and he enters the eighth with a 2-0 lead thanks to homers by Ventura and Piazza. But Rogers departs with runners on first and third and John Franco eventually allows the tying hit to Warren Morris.

Then, with the bases loaded and two outs, Franco falls behind 3-0 on Adrian Brown. With the season on the line, Franco comes back and fires three straight strikes to punch Brown out. Franco leaps off the mound and races into the dugout.

Finally, in the bottom of the 11th, the Mets load the bases against Scott Sauerbeck and Ventura delivers the winning hit. He rounds first with the rest of the Mets in celebratory pursuit—symbolic because Ventura has been the Mets’ leader all year—and leaps into the arms of Piazza at second.

“I think everybody looks for the worst instead of hoping for the best,” says Mahomes, who earns the win with two scoreless innings. “My mom called me today and she says ‘I still think y’all gonna make it’ and I still think we’re gonna make it. Until we’re eliminated I still believe we’re gonna make it. All we can do is handle what happens at Shea, we can’t handle what happens at the Astrodome or County Stadium.”

The Mets learn during the game that the Dodgers have beaten Houston and that the Reds have blown a 3-0 lead against Milwaukee. The team sticks around the clubhouse to watch the final innings of the Reds-Brewers game and rejoices when Ron Belliard delivers the game-winning hit for Milwaukee in the bottom of the 10th.

“Believe it!” Rogers shouts in joy. “Somebody’s doing CPR to us, bro! She’s breathing! Clear! She’s got a pulse! Got a flipping pulse!”

One down, two to play.

SATURDAY, OCT. 2: The Mets know before the game that the Reds have lost again to the Brewers, which means as long as the Mets win their final two games they will be assured of no worse than a playoff game in Cincinnati on Monday. The mood is considerably lighter today.

“It’s amazing how much perspective can change,” Phillips says. “Everyone was asking me [Friday] what I was planning to do on Monday, as if we weren’t going to be [in the playoffs] and I’d have nothing else to do. Now people are saying we can go to the playoffs without a playoff game. It’s amazing.”

Not nearly as amazing as Rick Reed’s performance. Reed, who has been injured and/or ineffective much of the year, allows just three hits, no walks, strikes out a career-high 12 and delivers a two-run single to lead the Mets past the Pirates 7-0.

Reed calls his performance the best of his career and no one’s arguing. “Unbelievable,” Bobby Jones says. “He was throwing everything for strikes and working both sides of the plate. That’s the pitcher’s dream, to throw a great game and also drive in a couple too. It was a lot of fun to watch.”

The Mets, left for dead just a night earlier, control their own destiny going into game No. 162. Amazing indeed.

“Obviously, [chances] were not good unless you win and another two teams play well, and when you have three games to go and you’re relying on other teams to lose you’re just getting luck, really,” Ventura says. “I’ve never been through this, where you go down to the last [weekend] two out and all of a sudden things just start getting crazy.”

SUNDAY, OCT. 3: The Mets are brimming with confidence hours before the first pitch. “If somebody would have told me ‘Hey, you’ve gotta play one game for all the marbles.’ I’d say ‘Bring it on,’ especially with this team,” Turk Wendell says.

The Shea Stadium crowd is electric, more than one person says the pre-game atmosphere rivals that of a World Series and it seems as if everyone assumes the Mets’ worst-case scenario will include a game in Cincinnati on Monday.

“Let’s not count our chickens,” Leiter says. “[Pittsburgh starter] Kris Benson stuck it up our butts last time, he’s a good young pitcher and obviously we’re gonna have to scratch some runs against a good pitcher. So let’s worry about that.”

Hershiser allows the first batter he faces to score but shuts the Pirates down through 5.1 innings. Cook and Mahomes get out of the sixth, Wendell throws 2.2 shutout innings and Benitez gets the last out of the ninth.

But Benson is tough, just as Leiter predicted, and he allows only one run through seven. But with one out in the bottom of the ninth, Melvin Mora singles and goes to third on Alfonzo’s single. Olerud is intentionally walked to bring up Piazza and set the stage for the Hollywood ending everyone wants to see.

But there’s a twist ending as the first pitch from ex-Met Brad Clontz skips away from Joe Oliver and Mora races home with the winning run. The Mets storm the field, Shea Stadium goes crazy and “L.A. Woman” blasts out of the loudspeakers.

The Mets are alive and well.

“A lot has happened in the last 72 hours,” Wendell says with a grin.

“How do you temper your words?” Valentine asks. “You don’t really know everything to say here.”

Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon comes in and he and Valentine share an emotional embrace. “We’ve got another game,” Valentine says.

“A few more,” Wilpon says. “A few more, Bobby.”

Kurt Russell is nowhere to be found in the celebratory din of the Mets clubhouse. But you’ve got to figure he was on a phone somewhere, telling his agent that this story of a baseball team full of melodrama, hackneyed stories and out-of-nowhere twist endings, would really make for a great movie.