By John Perrotto
CLEVELAND -- It is 3 p.m. on a gorgeous Friday afternoon and Terry Francona is a happy man.
The veteran manager is standing behind the batting cage at Progressive Field along with general manager Chris Antonetti and other members of the Cleveland Indians front office and coaching staff. They are watching three Latin American teenagers take batting practice after signing their first professional contracts earlier in the day.
It is a moment those inside the game relish, a group of baseball men watching raw kids who are years away from making a major-league roster. There are no television cameras, music blaring over the sound system or business types talking about ways to create new revenue streams.
"This is why I like it here," Francona says. "It's about baseball. That's the way it should be."
Francona made one of the most shocking moves of the offseason when he decided to leave ESPN after one year as an analyst on their Sunday Night Baseball telecasts to take the Indians' job.
The 54-year-old joined a franchise that suffered a 94-loss season in 2012 and hasn't won a World Series since 1948 in a city that hasn't celebrated a major professional team sports title since the Browns won the 1964 NFL Championship Game. After winning two World Series in an eight-year stint as the Boston Red Sox's manager that ended with him being fired the day after the 2011 season ended, Francona's move to the shores of Lake Erie seemed like one of desperation by someone who yearned to return to managing at any cost.
"I know that's what some people thought but those people obviously don't know me that well," Francona said. "It's never been about the spotlight or making the headlines for me. I'm a baseball guy and I wasn't coming back to manage for just any job. It had to be the right job and I knew it was the right job, even though maybe it didn't appear that way to those on the outside."
After being fired by the Philadelphia Phillies on the last day of the 2000 season, ending a four-year stint in his first major-league managerial gig, Francona spent the 2001 season as a special assistant in the Indians' baseball operations department. He performed a variety of roles and developed close ties with Mark Shapiro and Antonetti, now Cleveland's club president and general manager, respectively.
"I have some much respect for Mark and Chris, not only as baseball people but people in general," Francona said. "I knew working for them would be the right fit for me."
It certainly has been as the Indians are a surprising 71-59 going into their game Tuesday night against the Braves in Atlanta. Cleveland entered play Monday six games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central but just 1 ½ games behind the Oakland Athletics for the second AL wild card. The Indians have won three more games than last year with five weeks left in the season.
The Indians face a daunting stretch starting Tuesday when they begin a six-game road trip that consists of three-game series against the National League East-leading Braves and the Tigers. They return home next Monday for three games against the Baltimore Orioles, who are one-half game behind the Indians in the wild card standings, then finish the season with 23 games against teams out of contention.
"I like our situation," Francona said. "I think we're good enough to win. We don't have wiggle room. We might make a couple of errors, but our guys show up every day to play the game right. When we play the game well, we're pretty good."
The Indians haven't been to the playoffs since 2007 and turned off most of their fan base by trading ace pitchers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee during the next two seasons. However, Francona takes great pains not to fuel pennant fever.
"We kind of just go week-to-week with this thing," Francona said. "We have good weeks and we have bad weeks. We try to stay away from the contending thing. I'm just having fun watching it. Every day with these guys is fun. I'm enjoying it."
One advantage Francona seemingly had over predecessor Manny Acta was that ownership decided to increase the payroll over the winter -- though Francona says he had already agreed to come to Cleveland before that decision was made. The big-money moves haven't worked out as planned as first baseman Nick Swisher is hitting .244 with 15 home runs in 114 games and center fielder Michael Bourn has a .269 batting average and 19 stolen bases in 101 games.
"None of our guys have stats that are off the charts this season," Francona said. "What's happening, though, is we're getting help from everyone. That a reflection on (Antonetti) and the roster he has put together and the guys we have on this team. Our guys have been resilient. Every time things look bad, they find a way to bounce back."
It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine how many wins and losses a manager is directly responsible for over the course of a season. Most sabermetricians say no more than five and veteran baseball people will say 10, at the most.
If you go by the Pythagorean win-loss record, based on the numbers of runs a team has scored and allowed, the Indians should be 69-61. Cleveland has been better than that by two wins, which could be random variance, but also at least an indicator of Francona's impact.
To a man, though, the Indians players believe Francona is the biggest reason why their team is in contention. It is not anything that Francona has done specifically from a tactical standpoint that has made a difference, but rather the life he has breathed into a franchise with his relentlessly upbeat attitude.
"He has brought credibility to the franchise," closer Chris Perez said earlier this season before he stopped talking to the media. "When you have Terry Francona as your manager, people take you seriously."
Left fielder Michael Brantley, in his fifth year with the Indians, likes the tone Francona sets on a daily basis.
"He's the leader of our team, there is no doubt about that," said Brantley, who has acquired the nickname Dr. Smooth in part for being on current streak of 216 errorless games, which is a club record.
"He has a positive attitude every single day and he lets the players go out and perform to our highest level. That's everything you would want in a manager right there and we are very fortunate to have a proven winner like him.
"He called me three days after he got the job and I was really impressed that he would take the time to do that. I was so excited that I was ready to go to spring training right then and start working."
While money always talks in free agency -- Swisher signed a four-year, $56-million contract and Bourn agreed to a four-year, $48-million deal. But for those two players and 42-year-old designated hitter Jason Giambi (who signed for only one year and $750,000), Francona was a strong enticement to come to Cleveland.
"I think every player in baseball looks at him as that dream manager, that one guy you want to play for at some point in your career," Giambi said.
Francona has long been regarded as one of baseball's good guys with his easygoing manner, self-deprecating humor and quick wit. However, Francona became a different person during his final years in Boston as the pressure of managing in a large market with an obsessive fan base caused him to become irritable and edgy at times.
The Red Sox were generally considered the best team in the major leagues heading into the 2011 season after trading for Adrian Gonzalez and signing Carl Crawford as a free agent the previous winter. They entered September with a 1 ½-game lead over the New York Yankees in the AL East race and a 10-game advantage over the Tampa Bay Rays before everything fell apart. The Red Sox went 7-20 during the season's final month, dealt with the distraction of a report that starting pitchers John Lackey, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz sat in the clubhouse drinking beer and eating chicken during games, and were eliminated from postseason contention on the last night of the season.
Francona was fired the next day and was stung when the Boston Globe published an extensive story a week later detailing the breakup of his marriage and an alleged problem with prescription painkillers. Some of the bitterness spilled out in the best-selling book Francona authored with Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy titled "Francona: The Red Sox Years."
A small trace of bitterness is still there when Francona talks about the joy of working with Shapiro and Antonetti.
"My bosses are as good as you could ever hope to work for, probably better, for that matter," Francona said. "I love the people I work for and it's nice that they appreciate me. Everyone, deep down, wants to be appreciated, because it brings out the best in you."
The Indians have brought out the best in Francona. In turn, Francona has brought out the best in the Indians. And it is happening away from the spotlight.
"Every game means the same here for me as it did in Boston. That hasn't changed," Francona said. "My stomach feels the same during the games. The great thing about being here is you can concentrate on baseball because there are fewer fires to put out or peripheral stuff to worry about.
"First and foremost, it's about baseball, and that's the way it should be."
John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.