As the Cleveland Indians prepare for what they hope will be their first World Series championship since Harry S. Truman was President, many are considering the Hall of Fame credentials of Terry Francona. We at BoT decided to take a look at Francona’s life in baseball to evaluate his worthiness.
Francona’s career in baseball started as a 22-year-old outfielder with the Montreal Expos in 1981. Over ten seasons in Major League Baseball, Francona amassed 474 hits and had a respectable .274 AVG.
Francona did some coaching in the minors and was eventually hired to be Buddy Bell’s third base coach in Detroit. At the end of the 1996 season, the 38-year-old Francona was hired to be the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, replacing Jim Fregosi.
The Phillies organization was in a free fall since their pennant winning season in 1993 and brought in the young skipper to right the ship. But Francona and the Phils floundered. Over four seasons, the Phils never finished higher than 3rd place (although the Braves and Mets were mighty good) and suffered two last place finishes. Curt Schilling, Scott Rolen and Bobby Abreu were some of the lone bright spots on a team that relied all too heavily on the likes of Robert Person, Doug Glanville and Desi Relaford. Francona was fired at the end of the 2000 season, with a record of 285-363. This version of Francona showed no signs of one that would go on to manage the Red Sox to two World Series championships.
At the end of the 2003 season, the Boston Red Sox organization was licking its proverbial wounds after a tragic Game 7 loss to the New York Yankees in the ALCS . The infamous decision by Grady Little to leave an overtired Pedro Martinez in the game led to Little’s contract going unrenewed. Theo Epstein had decided to move on, and was in search of a new skipper. Francona, who had bounced around the American League (including a stop in Cleveland) as an assistant coach over the previous three seasons, was hired. Epstein, according to a 2003 Associated Press article, had also considered Texas first-base coach DeMarlo Hale, Dodgers third-base coach Gene Hoffman and Anaheim bench coach, Joe Maddon.
Francona inherited a team that had averaged 94 wins over the previous two seasons. The Sox had an ace in Pedro Martinez and a legitimate slugger in Manny Ramirez. Johnny Damon was in his prime and David Ortiz was coming off of a 54 HR season. To add to this stable of talent, the organization acquired Francona’s former ace, Curt Schilling, from the Arizona Diamondbacks just a few days before his arrival. Schilling signed a three year extension shortly after arriving, leading many to speculate that he had a lot to do with Francona ending up in Boston.
Regardless of the reason, this talented team with Francona at the helm, was able to rid Boston of the 86-year championship drought on the diamond and won the World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004. This tremendous season was marked by an epic rally in the ALCS when the team trailed the Yankees three games to none. The 2004 Red Sox remain the only team to ever recover from such a deficit. Whether Francona was the manager or not, this battle-tested group with the infusion of Schilling and his championship pedigree, were poised for a championship season. The 2004 Red Sox made Francona a winner, not the other way around.
In stark contrast to the ’04 team, the 2007 World Series Champions were not as talented The starting rotation was led by Josh Beckett (who had a career year) and supported by Daisuke Matsuzaka and a duo of 40-year-olds (Schilling and Tim Wakefield). While the team scored the 4th most runs in the majors, it was not as star-studded as the 2004 version. Names like J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo and Coco Crisp replaced Damon and Ramirez. Managers who get more from marginal players are worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, and Francona did just that.
Not only did the offense over perform that year, but he guided his team through the season with a bullpen that included Hideki Okajima, Mike Timlin, Kyle Snyder, Javier Lopez and then closer Jonathan Papelbon. This team won the AL East, swept the Angels in the ALDS and beat the Indians in seven in the ALCS. An impressive season from a team that was not dominant on paper.
Francona’s tenure in Boston ended with two consecutive third place finishes. The 2010 and 2011 each finished seven games out of first place, and the two sides decided to part ways.
The Cleveland Indians hired Francona in 2013 and the team went on to win 92 games. Franconca was selected as the AL Manager of the Year as the team improved on their 68-94 record from the year before.
The 2016 Cleveland Indians have dominated the postseason. After sweeping the Red Sox, the Indians beat the Blue Jays in five. The team is powered by two sluggers, Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana, who had 34 HR’s a piece in the regular season. The team also led the American League in stolen bases, fueled by a quartet of burners. Fransisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez each have more than 15 steals, while a rejuvenated Rajai Davis has 43.
The completeness of the roster extends to the pitching mound. The Cleveland starting rotation, led by ace Corey Kluber, finished with a collective WAR of 8.9, good enough for best in the American League. Combine a strong starting staff with shutdown relievers Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, and the Indians are a manager’s dream. Above average at nearly every position.
This consistency from a group of average to above average players is a credit to Terry Francona. Baseball fans, especially those in Boston and Cleveland, have been able to watch Francona blossom from a sub .500 manager to one with a strong championship pedigree.
At some point in the next decade or so, the Veterans Committee will receive Francona’s resume for consideration for baseball’s greatest honor, a plaque in the Hall of Fame. Had it not been for the the Grady Little calamity and a loaded ’04 Red Sox roster, it is uncertain that Francona would have had the opportunity to enter this discussion. But he seized the opportunity, and will eventually end up in Cooperstown because of his success with the ’07 Red Sox and his tenure in Cleveland.
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