CLEVELAND: In the run-up to the Indians’ hiring of Terry Francona as manager, the single most repeated question on talk shows and among fans seemed to be: “Why would he take the job?”
Here was a successful manager, the winner of two World Series with the Boston Red Sox, who had the cachet to pick and choose where he would work next, telling the world that his first choice was Cleveland for a franchise that famously keeps its payrolls low and its frustration level high.
When Francona was introduced at a news conference Monday at Progressive Field, his answer to the question was the essence of simplicity and more personal than professional. It wasn’t the money he would make, the prospects in the farm system or the kind of payroll that makes large-market teams steamroll mid-market teams.
“I am so honored and excited to be rejoining the Cleveland Indians family,” Francona said. “There are two main reasons I’m here today: Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro.
“I was on the treadmill at the 1999 winter meetings, Mark was next to me. If memory serves me right, I was going a lot faster [stops for laugh]. I struck up a conversation with Mark, and it led to a relationship that’s been going on 12 years now.
“When I was let go by [Philadelphia] Phillies in 2000, Mark reached out to me, and I ended up taking a job as special assistant in baseball operations. Through that, I met Chris and we immediately struck up a friendship that lasted until today.”
Apparently, the Tribe’s persistent struggle to fund the team and the scarcity of talent in the upper levels of the farm system were not important enough for Francona to change his mind. Asked if Antonetti, the general manager, tried to sell him on the fact that the club would do more to attract and keep talented players, Francona said, “He went to great lengths early to tell me that there would be challenges, and that didn’t scare me off.”
When did Francona make the decision to come to Cleveland?
“When Chris called me,” he said. “I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Francona made it clear that his job will be to manage the players he is given.
“I didn’t ask for that [larger payroll],” he said. “That wasn’t one of the questions. I don’t need to be the general manager or the owner. I don’t even know what the payroll was. My job is to build a relationship with every player on the team and get the most out of them.”
Francona is not working for free. Far from it. He was given a four-year contract, longest for an Indians manager in memory. His salary was not announced, but it is believed to be something close to the $4 million per season he received with the Red Sox.
After being described in glowing terms by Antonetti, Francona smiled and said, “After that introduction, I don’t think I got enough money.”
However, he described negotiations as lasting 10 minutes — it was a little longer than that, Antonetti said — and minimized the importance of the deal he made. Did the length of his contract mean he thought it would take four years to turn the team around?
“No, that had nothing to do with it,” Francona said. “I don’t know. That’s as much as they’d give me. Maybe I should have asked for six. I know I’m kind of making fun of this. It wasn’t a priority for me to be the highest-paid manager. I don’t want to be a rental manager. I want to be a part of the solution. I want to stick ’round for a while.”
Will Francona’s relationship with Antonetti blur the lines between the two executives and eliminate honest disagreement?
“Chris and I actually had this conversation,” Francona said. “I understand the chain of command. And they understand I want to make them proud. At the same time, I think we can have the ability to have an argument or two. But when you have a relationship, you go on from there.”
Added Antonetti, “We’ll actively seek that kind of discourse and discussion, Terry’s viewpoints. Those things are healthy for an organization.”
Hiring Francona should resonate well with the fans, but this was an unusual situation in that fan favorite Sandy Alomar was the other managerial candidate, who took over for the final six games of the season after Manny Acta was fired.
Alomar has been asked to take a coaching job [he was Acta’s bench coach] with the Tribe, but whether he accepts won’t be known for a while. Antonetti said there is no time limit on Alomar’s answer, and he understands that Alomar might be a serious candidate to manage another team.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.