By John Perrotto
GOODYEAR, Ariz. --- Brad Mills stood in front of the Cleveland Indians' dugout in the minutes leading up to a Cactus League exhibition game, pointed at Terry Francona and laughed.
"Why don't you write something bad about him?" Mills, the Indians bench coach said of Cleveland's manager. "Nobody ever writes anything bad about him. You guys think he's perfect."
Mills can get away with needling Francona. They have been close friends since their days playing together at the University of Arizona in the late 1970s, and Mills also served as Francona's bench coach with the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox. Mills knows as well as anyone that it is nearly impossible to write negatively about Francona these days. The Red Sox's crash landing during Francona's final season in Boston is now two and a half years in the past, and he has reestablished his credentials in Cleveland.
Francona was the American League Manager of the Year last season, when the Indians ran off 10 straight victories to end the regular season and earn a wild card for their first postseason appearance since 2007. After a year away from the dugout while working as an analyst for ESPN, Francona proved he hadn't lost the touch.
"I know he never likes to take credit for anything, but he really did a great job of changing the culture and just bringing a breath of fresh air here," Mills said. "He's such a people person and he connects so well with players that he creates a good environment where almost everyone can succeed."
The Indians' success last season exceeded even the highest of expectations. Cleveland had suffered through five non-winning seasons in a row and finished 68-94 in 2012.
Yet Indians right-hander Justin Masterson knew from the moment the Indians hired Francona, in October 2012, that things would be different. Masterson broke into the major leagues with the Red Sox in 2008, the year after Francona helped lead Boston to its second World Series title in four years following an 86-year championship drought.
"What he brought was credibility, and that's so important at this level, it makes such a big difference because you're not going to fool people in the major leagues," Masterson said. "I called him when he got the job and said, 'hey, we've got make things happen now.' He said not to worry, that we'd put together a great coaching staff and ownership was committed to winning. I was so excited when I hung up the phone. I knew right then we were going to be contenders, regardless of what our record was the year before."
Everything turned out the way Francona told Masterson it would. The Indians spent on free agents for the first time in ages, signing first baseman Nick Swisher and center fielder Michael Bourn to contracts totaling $104 million. Meanwhile, many of the holdover players already took steps forward under pitching coach Mickey Callaway and hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo.
To a man, though, the Indians credit Francona with setting a fun yet professional atmosphere in which they can thrive without feeling any excess pressure beyond the everyday demands of playing a major-league schedule.
"From game 1 to game 162, he has the same routine and he's behind us," Bourn said. "He's not a manager that calls a whole bunch of meetings or tries to get on his players when he has a chance. He only speaks only when he needs to speak. And when he speaks, you listen. He's been doing this for a long time. He just tries to stay behind you, no matter the situation. As players, we appreciate that."
Dealing with people is clearly Francona's strength. It's not that he doesn't know baseball strategy or how to utilize his team's personnel, but he keeps his players happy over the course of a long and grueling 162-game schedule. Managers who aren't able to do that don't usually last very long.
"I don't know of any player in the major league who wouldn't want to play for Terry Francona," Masterson said. "I don't think a lot of guys on other teams necessarily thought of Cleveland as a good place to come play. That changed once he took over as manager."
The key now for the Indians is sustaining their success of a year ago when they were 92-70. While the lineup returns intact, Cleveland has retool their starting rotation after losing left-hander Scott Kazmir and right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez in free agency. That duo was a combined 23-18 with a 3.65 ERA last season.
The Detroit Tigers remain the team to beat in the AL Central after winning three straight division titles, though they finished only one game ahead of the Indians last season. However, the Tigers appear at least somewhat vulnerable following an offseason in which they traded first baseman/cleanup hitter Prince Fielder and right-hander Doug Fister.
"We're not trying to make anyone think we're the '27 Yankees," Francona said. "We don't have an All-Star at every position. What we do have is a good group of guys who play hard with veterans who set a good tone and young guys with talent who want to get better. The one thing this team learned last season was to get punched in the stomach and be able roll with it. I like that about our guys. That's why I like this team so much."
The feeling is mutual.
"He's a great guy to play for because he makes things fun, but we also respect the fact that he is the leader of this team," left fielder Michael Brantley said. "He was a big reason for our success last season. He taught us how to win. Now, it's up to us to take it further this year."
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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.