ATLANTA -- Ever since the Cavaliers became shirtless wonders in celebration after they removed a 52-year-old hex from Cleveland with an NBA championship, the Indians haven't lost. Not only that, they've mostly annihilated opponents during their 12-game winning streak and counting.
You also should know this: When it comes to magic teams, Indians manager Terry Francona is a wizard, but only without the hat, the robe, the wand and the total belief that his pixie dust actually works.
Sorry, Terry, but fairy tales do follow you around. Or are you suggesting that something else is happening here?
"It's just that you've got to have a lot of talent, you've got to get a little bit lucky, and then you've got to be good enough to take advantage of that luck," said Francona, downplaying his Harry Potter effect when we chatted this week at Turner Field, where his Indians continued their sprint out of nowhere Tuesday night atop the American League Central division. This time, they played one of their few squeakers since June 19, which was LBJ Day -- as in LeBron James Day or as in Father's Day, if you insist -- with a 5-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves. They followed that up with a 3-0 win on Wednesday. The more the Indians prosper beyond expectations, the more you notice how Francona lurks in the background.
Remember the Curse of the Bambino? It vanished in 2004 after Francona used his hocus pocus (along with a lot of Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Curt Schilling) to manage the Boston Red Sox from a 3-0 deficit during the best-of-seven American League Championship Series to an improbable comeback against the New York Yankees along the way to a sweep of the World Series.
Now one of Cleveland's four major professional sports teams is the world champion of its sport for the first time since 1964. Voodoo, exorcism and Francona were involved. How else could you explain the Cavs becoming the first team ever to erase a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals? They even clinched the whole thing on the home court of the Golden State Warriors, the defending world champions and the owners of the league's Most Valuable Player of the two previous seasons and the coach of the year.
It also didn't hurt that the Cavs had Kyrie Irving and some guy named LeBron James. Plus, since Francona works in Cleveland these days, he likely sent mystical waves or something down the stretch of Game 7 for the Cavs. To which he shook his head after hearing my hypothesis before he returned to his three-pronged mantra -- the one that emphasizes talent, luck and turning luck into something such a shiny world championship trophy.
"Look at the Miami Heat [during Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs], when Ray Allen hit that shot," Francona said, with voice rising and arms waving, while describing a game-tying three during the final seconds of regulation play. "Chris Bosh gets the rebound, and he throws the ball over [to Allen] in the corner. My goodness, that game should have ended before he makes the shot. If that happens, two weeks later, people don't remember that the Heat almost came back in that situation."
Instead, the Heat actually did win in overtime before they grabbed Game 7 for the NBA championship. But here's why Francona said he believes neither he nor anybody else can wish a team to success: If Bosh fumbles the rebound at the end of Game 6, and if he doesn't make the pass to the corner, and if Allen misses the shot, LeBron isn't the LeBron we know today. That's because the heroics of Bosh and Allen were preceded by James' dud of a three-point try with the clock ticking toward zero. If the Spurs win right there, James is a loser in three of his four trips to the NBA Finals at that point, and the LeBron bashing goes into the stratosphere.
"So there's a perspective there that I think people lose sight of, and I'm not the smartest person in the world, and I know I'm not," Francona said. He may understate his worth as a manager, but others don't. After four losing seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies through 2000, Francona had that curse-busting year to start his stint in Boston, and his Red Sox grabbed another World Series title in 2007. Then he was unemployed after the Sox blew a nine-game lead in September in 2011 until Francona joined ESPN for a two-year run.
Next up, the Indians.
Since Francona came to Cleveland in 2013, it's been a splendid fit, starting with the Indians' 24-victory improvement from the year before. He's never had a losing season with the Indians, and consider that the Tribe had nine of them during the 11 years prior to his arrival.
"I knew I wanted to be in position where, when I came to work, I would enjoy the people I was with, and I love it here, but we have challenges. We have a lot of challenges," Francona said, partly referring to northern Ohio's rocky economy contributing to the Indians owning the worst attendance in the Major Leagues. "But despite those challenges, it's fun trying to do something difficult with people you respect and people you care about. I like that. Even when we won (it all in Boston), you go through the champagne, and it was like, 'What's next?' But I'm proud that I'm now smart enough to enjoy the ride. The journey. That's because nobody knows how these things are going to end. Only one team can win. That's hard, so I hate to wait until the end and go, 'Oh, yeah. That was fun.' No. It's fun, because we don't know how it's going to end."
We don't even know about the beginning and the middle.
Take the AL Central, for instance. At the start of the season, that division supposedly belonged to the Kansas City Royals, baseball's defending world champs and back-to-back winners of the AL pennant. If not the Royals, then the Detroit Tigers were picked to rule with their loaded every day lineup on paper. Even the Chicago White Sox had folks predicting before Spring Training that they had enough for a deep run into October.
The Indians? Not so much, but now they are less than long shots from grabbing their first World Series championship since 1948. That was 22 years before the Cavs were born, and the whole Indians franchise has been around the city since the turn of the century -- the 20th century. It makes you wonder what would happen if the Indians won it all, and if those 1.5 million people who showed up last week for the Cavs' victory parade would come to hug the Indians with even more of their friends, neighbors and relatives.
"All I know is that everybody in Cleveland has a lot of practice celebrating now with the Cavs, so that was a dry run, and they'll make the party better for the Indians," outfielder Rajai Davis said, chuckling. "It would definitely be something special for the city as far as baseball is concerned."
Davis didn't come to the Indians until this season, but second baseman Jason Kipnis has been around for six years, which is long enough to hear the eternal moaning around town over Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move and The Decision and Jose Mesa. Which is why Kipnis said, "I don't know if the curse has been lifted with the Cavs winning, but I do know that everybody in Cleveland is in a better mood these days."
The Indians are contributing to the smiles.
Nobody pitches better in the AL than these guys. For verification, their ace is Corey Kluber, and he started Tuesday's game against the Braves with the worst ERA in the rotation at a mostly decent 3.59. They have Francisco Lindor who is seemingly always on base, and they have Mike Napoli who is seemingly always knocking folks home. Their lineup is clutch overall, especially since they rank in the middle of baseball's pack in batting average, but they are fifth in runs scored. That's partly because Davis churns his 35-year-old legs fast enough to make the Indians one of the game's top base-running teams, and that's mostly because Francona is as sharp as they come as a strategist. Among other things, he often bats slugger Carlos Santana in the leadoff slot.
Wizards get away with those things.