Terry Francona was ushered into the interview room Wednesday moments after managing the Indians into the World Series, so he was late arriving to their postgame celebration. He walked into the clubhouse just as players stopped spraying champagne and started speaking to the media.
The Indians actually struggled to get the party started. It was if they weren’t exactly sure what to do after beating the Blue Jays and winning the American League Championship Series. For a while, each time they were ready to uncork the bubbly in unison, they realized somebody was missing from their circle.
Francona’s absence, strangely, was overlooked.
It was just as well, as far as he was concerned. To him, the pennant was for the band of brothers in the clubhouse and the City of Cleveland. The Tribe, who had the 23rd-highest payroll when the season began, ran away with the AL Central, swept the Red Sox and dumped the Jays in five games.
“I’m honored that we’re going to the World Series,” Francona said after eliminating Toronto. “We always said, if we could do it with this group, it would be so special. This is as close to a family feel as you can get in a professional setting. For that part of it, it’s beyond feeling good. The only personal things are the relationships.”
Cleveland is back in the World Series for the first time since 1997, when the Indians were five strikes from winning the title and lost in seven games to the Marlins. They haven’t won a Series since 1948. Francona was born in 1959, when his father, Tito, was a rookie outfielder for the Tribe.
Francona’s life in baseball began in Cleveland, so he understood the spirit of the city when he was hired as the Tribe’s skipper in 2013. This year, the Indians were built with players who were flawed in certain areas, but they overcame their shortcomings with the competitive fire and brawn common among the resilient people in Northeast Ohio.
You couldn’t ask for a manager in Cleveland more suited than the cerebral Francona, whose first managing job came in 1993 after former Indians third baseman Buddy Bell hired him to oversee a minor-league team for the White Sox. Francona, literally and figuratively, has put his heart into the game since he was a kid.
In 2001, he was on his way to interview for the Mariners managerial job and instead landed in the hospital for four days with a pulmonary embolism. In 2005, when he was with the Red Sox, he was hospitalized for three days with chest pain. He missed a game this year against the Nationals after having similar problems.
His health issues hardly compromised his passion, which reflected on his players. Look at the 2004 Red Sox, the only team in baseball history to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games. Thursday was the anniversary of them completing the comeback in the ALCS against the Yankees.
The ’04 Red Sox were affectionately known for being a “bunch of idiots,” but really they were a hard-driving, resourceful team that refused to surrender. They exorcised the Curse of the Bambino and handed Boston its first Series since 1918. Three years later, they won another under Francona.
Cleveland has a 7-1 record in the postseason, so it’s not as if the Tribe’s success in 2016 came the way Boston’s did in ’04. Still, the Indians possess the same fundamental qualities as the great Red Sox teams with their great pitching, solid defense, smart base running and relentless hitters who refuse to surrender at-bats.
It’s why he’s among the most revered managers of his time, why Derek Jeter tipped his cap to Francona whenever the Yankees played against teams he managed. Francona, named Manager of the Year in his first season in Cleveland, has 1,381 victories to his name. He’s inching toward the Hall of Fame.
If the Indians win the Series, he should be a lock.
Francona, 57, has a 35-19 record in the postseason. His .648 winning percentage is the highest among managers with at least 50 playoff games. After beating the Blue Jays, he passed Sparky Anderson for seventh all-time in playoff wins. He’ll pass Casey Stengel if the Indians bring home a championship.
The Indians had more adversity test their resolve this season than any pennant winner since the ’04 Red Sox. People forget they lost two of their top starting pitchers, Carlos Carrasco to a broken hand and Danny Salazar to arm problems, in the past six weeks. They were without top hitter Michael Brantley all season.
Trevor Bauer sliced his pinky before the ALCS and was gone after ripping open his stitches in the first inning of Game Three. Francona patched the final 81/3 innings with six pitchers to secure the win. With no other starters available, Ryan Merritt arrived from the Arizona Instructional League to shut down the Blue Jays in Game Five.
Cleveland responded one time after another. They persevered through so much that they practically welcomed another challenge before taking the field Wednesday. Francona pulled Merritt into his office and made it clear his teammates were behind him. He pleaded with him to enjoy the experience, no matter how daunting.
Mike Napoli, the kind of impassioned player who thrives under Francona, hit a double and drove home the only run Cleveland needed. Merritt had a ball while retiring the first 10 batters he faced. Afterward, the rookie left-hander watched his teammates from the periphery like a freshman attending his first frat party.
Francona was nowhere to be found while the champagne flowed, but he certainly wasn’t overlooked. Everybody understood he was the primary reason a bunch of boys playing baseball created a circle and celebrated.