The Zen of Terry Francona operates somewhere between cool and klutzy, the everyman as major league manager, the failed player turned potential Hall of Famer. Underestimate his intellect at your peril.
The Cubs’ Joe Maddon gets all the credit for his goofy dress-up travel days, the clubhouse turned petting zoo, the catchy slogans. That’s Maddon’s shtick. It helps him connect with the next generation of players while keeping a very stressful environment a touch lighter.
Francona, however, is the opposite of that. Not that he’s more serious than Maddon. Francona just doesn’t project the same “groovy” vibe. With Maddon being a noted wine aficionado, the Indians manager was asked early in this World Series about his own vino preferences. He replied that the extent of his knowledge came from drinking Boone’s Farm in college.
Who can’t relate to that?
And with the Indians hoping to close out their first World Series title since 1948, Francona has proven to be a perfect fit in Cleveland. He doesn’t have the homegrown pedigree of LeBron James, who delivered the NBA crown in June. But Francona already has a championship resume, arriving at the shores of Lake Erie with the two rings he won with the Red Sox.
Initially, Francona seemed to be living in exile, bounced from Boston amid allegations of abusing pain medication and losing control of a Red Sox team that collapsed in 2011. The smear campaign was straight from any team’s standard playbook. The Sox needed a fall guy to explain away a pitching staff that reportedly was drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games while on the field a $161-million roster lost 19 of its last 26 games to tumble from first place and finish out of the playoffs.
Seeing Francona now, perhaps more at ease in Cleveland than he ever was during the good times in Boston, those lurid tales sound like urban myths. Francona, 57, streaked to a 9-0 World Series record before the Indians dropped Game 2 to the Cubs at Progressive Field, a place that couldn’t be more different than Fenway’s cauldron. He can appreciate that.
“Are you kidding me?” Francona said before Tuesday’s Game 6. “Shoot, if I went to Beirut, it would be like the perfect place to from Philly to Boston. I mean, there were a lot of times I thought my name was “You [stink]!” because that’s all I ever heard. I’ve been here for four years. I haven’t grown up here, but I’ve been here long enough to care.
“The city kind of reminds me of our team a little bit. They got pushed around, now they’re starting to push back. And I’m happy for them.”
By the intervention of the baseball gods, Francona got an opportunity to push back, too. Matching up with the Cubs meant a chance to upset his former boss, Theo Epstein, now the president of baseball operations for Chicago. The two World Series combatants gloss over those Boston years now, at least publicly patching things up.
Francona already earned a measure of revenge by sweeping the favored Red Sox in the Division Series, with the added bonus of popping champagne at Fenway. That began the uncanny hot streak of button-pushing for Francona, whose every move this October seems to work out in his favor. Epstein would be another coveted notch on Francona’s uniform belt, but his affable demeanor throughout this World Series has disguised any of the lingering bitterness — along with the anxiety churning inside Francona.
In the ALCS, Francona lost a tooth in the wad of tobacco he chews during games, then needed a 1 a.m. visit from the dentist for a repair. On the eve of Game 5 of the World Series, Francona couldn’t sleep, so he ordered $44 worth of ice cream from room service, including a brownie sundae and four more scoops with chocolate sauce. Typical for someone who lives atop a residential hotel near Progressive Field and drives a motorized scooter to work. Did we also mention he’s golfing buddies with the Cavs’ J.R. Smith, whose other claim to fame is partying shirtless?
But that’s just how Francona rolls, and he hopes this ride ends with another title for Cleveland.