October 6th, 2016.

The Cleveland Indians are making their first foray into the American League Division Series in nine years as they play host to the Boston Red Sox on a warm autumn night from Progressive Field.

The Indians hit three home runs, all of them in the third inning, taking a 4-1 lead as the inning closed. They would go on to chase soon-to-be-named Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello from the game in the fifth.

In the top of the same fifth inning, the Indians hold a 4-3 lead after Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon homers off of Trevor Bauer to start the frame. Bauer would retire the next two hitters before being removed with two outs in the inning.

Now, removing a wobbly starting pitcher in the 5th inning of a one-run playoff game was fairly commonplace by 2016. It might not have been every manager’s instinctual move, but it was far from unheard of. What was completely out of the ordinary, however, was the fact that Terry Francona would stride to the mound, take the ball from Bauer and call for his left-handed relief ace Andrew Miller to come out of the bullpen in the fifth inning.

For those that don’t remember, Miller was an imposing figure that Cleveland picked up at that year’s trade deadline. A tall, three-quarters throwing lefty with a blazing fastball and back-breaking slider who would hold down one of the best bullpens in baseball during his tenure with the Indians along with closer Cody Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw.

Miller was a weapon at Francona’s disposal and while many playoff bullpens have had incredible individual weapons, history was made with how Francona deployed Miller. Francona would set a new precedent that night and in the American League Championship run that was about to ensue.

Before that warm fall night on the shores of Lake Erie, going to your best reliever in the middle innings just wasn’t done. Miller closed out the fifth, pitched the sixth and got two outs in the seventh that night, halting the Red Sox’s momentum in the process. He would go on to throw 19 1/3 innings that post-season pitching to a 1.40 ERA and winning ALCS MVP honors.

Miller, Allen, Shaw and the rest of the Indians bullpen would be masterful in a near Cinderella story run that would take Cleveland into extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series. And in the process, Terry Francona would lead his team- despite losing two and a half of its best starters and having to throw a soft-tossing left-handed rookie in the rotation during the ALCS (anyone remember Ryan Merritt?)- to everything but the pinnacle. He did it in part, by breaking new ground on how managers utilize their bullpens in the post-season. In 2016, using your best reliever in the 5th inning of a post-season game was bizarre. Not doing it in 2023 might get you second-guessed. Terry Francona was the first man through that wall.

Truthfully, Francona hit every right button that October to get his team as close to immortality as possible. But even with that achievement, and the absolute grace he and his squad showed when they ultimately ended up on the short end in Game 7, that was not his biggest achievement at the helm of the Indians/Guardians.

Let me give you another October 6th.

October 6th, 2012.

Do you remember this time period in Indians baseball? Three days earlier, the Indians had just finished a disappointing 68-94 campaign with Manny Acta at the helm for all but the final six games of the year. The team had been rudderless since before Acta took over really, since previous manager Eric Wedge lost the clubhouse during the 2009 season. Most fans thought that the logical next man up to get a crack at the manager’s role is former catcher and current member of the coaching staff Sandy Alomar Jr. Alomar managed the final six games of the season, finishing with a 3-3 record. People like him and think we could be a cool story as manager, but know that he is essentially unproven at the role.

Instead, fans would be floored on this date when the team announced that their next manager would be Terry Francona. With that announcement, everything changed.

As far as managers go, Francona might have been the most highly coveted candidate on the market at the time. And again, remember the time period The Indians had been lousy for about five years. LeBron was in Miami. Pat Shurmur, Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson were the flavor of the month perpetual disappointment for the Browns. During this dark and dreary time in Cleveland sports, the man who broke the Curse of the Bambino not only signed on to be the Indians manager but did it while praising the organization and saying that Cleveland was his only choice.

Forgive me for saying this, but this town has a bit of an inferiority complex. It’s part of why we took it so hard when #23 decided to go to South Beach. It’s why we push so hard for our homegrown celebrities whether you are from the Bob Hope generation, Drew Carey generation, Kid Cudi generation or somewhere in between. A lot of people from the outside don’t point at us and go “Yeah, I like what’s going on there. I am going to go out of my way to be a part of that.”

Terry Francona did.

And for lack of a better way of putting it, it was really cool having that guy wanting to be the manager of my favorite sports team. That feeling never wore off in more than a decade.

In the process, he would take a really smart and talented front office- again, a front office that he respected enough that Cleveland would be his only desired organization- and he would build a clubhouse culture to go with it. Francona would be a leader. Stern and even incensed when he needed to be, but mostly, a self-deprecating, even-keeled, steady hand getting his players to focus on the game at hand and letting the rest take care of itself.

The change would be almost instantaneous. The results on the field would be better in 2013, including a Wildcard birth in Francona’s first year, but I am talking about something deeper, something that would carry on through Francona’s tenure as Cleveland’s skipper.

For the last eleven years, if you’re an Indians/Guardians fan, you’ve settled in on any summer evening and felt like your ball club has a chance to win every single night. That they will compete hard. Minimize dumb mistakes. Run the bases with a purpose. Field the baseball. Give you everything they got. It’s been a long time. We have distanced ourselves so much from the Acta years that it’s easy to forget. That doesn’t always happen.

For the last eleven years, win or lose, you knew that the people in charge were getting the most out of their ballplayers. And you knew that was happening because the players had the utmost respect for their manager. Tito could be a source of pride. We don’t spend the most money and we may not have the most talented starting lineup, but our organization knows how to develop pitchers and Francona will get a roster to run through a wall for him.

I have to figure that’s worth something in the W column. I’m certain it is worth something in how I perceive my team.

Memories abound from Francona’s time with the team. The 2016 World Series run is probably the most obvious and is a credit not just to his decision-making but to how he prepared that team for adversity. It’s a credit to that culture that he instilled.

Still, there are other memories both of the illustrious and light-hearted variety:

  • 6 playoff appearances and near victory in arguably the best World Series ever played.
  • A record 22-game win streak and 102-win season in 2017.
  • The probably tens of thousands of pieces of gum he chomped over the course of eleven years and the “Tito” bucket always appearing on camera behind him in the dugout.
  • Jason Giambi‘s pinch-hit walk-off home run in 2013.
  • Francona ripping into Trevor Bauer after he threw a ball over the center-field fence at Kauffman Stadium in 2019.
  • The stolen scooter saga.
  • The entire 2022 season, is arguably the most fun season in recent memory, but specifically including Josh Naylor‘s walk-off home run and headbutting Francona’s helmeted head in celebration.

Those memories are great, and I’m sure I am forgetting some, but I have a specific personal and off-the-field memory that comes to mind that I think best captures what I am trying to express.

I used to work on East 9th Street in a building between The nine hotel/apartments and the ballpark. Our parking was across the street so we would have to cross 9th in order to get to work. I don’t remember what year it was, but it was a bright, summer morning and a co-worker and I had just crossed the street and were walking north towards our building when a man on a red scooter came scuttling the other way down 9th street towards the ballpark.

My co-worker notices the helmeted man first and just lets out a surprised but enthusiastic “… I think that’s Francona!” while gesturing at the Indians skipper headed to the ballpark for another day’s work. After a brief pause to make sure it isn’t a different middle-aged man on a red scooter, we have the time to wave as Francona shoots by, waving back with a look of amusement on his face at two young but grown men looking like deer in headlights gawking at the Indians’ skipper.

The moment is over before we know it. My co-worker and I talked about how cool it was. Every so often over the course of a few summers, some of us from the building would cross paths with Francona like that during the season. It’s not a glamorous memory by any means, but there’s just something about it.

In retrospect, the memory reminds me of warm summer mornings from a time when I was a little younger. There’s a feeling that goes with that. It’s hope and optimism. It’s a romanticism about baseball. It’s a pride in this hidden gem of a city we call home and the under-respected baseball team that resides in it. It’s excitement about what’s going to happen tonight when you turn on the ballgame.

I just want to thank Terry Francona for being a big reason why I was able to enjoy fun, competitive and interesting baseball for the last eleven years. For setting a culture and winning standard for my favorite team. For being a part of this community.

Thank you, Terry Francona. Cleveland baseball will not be the same without you in the dugout.

 

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