MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

AL crown just the way Tito 'drew it up

Manager pushes right buttons in Indians' World Series run

AL crown just the way Tito 'drew it up

TORONTO -- The cigar smoke was filling up the visiting manager's clubhouse in the bowels of Rogers Centre, but the bag sitting on a shelf had been kept safe and dry from the champagne-spraying madness taking place just a few yards down the hall.

Terry Francona rummaged around in that bag and pulled out his iPhone.

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"Watch this," the man they call Tito said. "He'll be the first call."

Game Date Matchup TV/Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 14 CLE 2, TOR 0 video
Gm 2 Oct. 15 CLE 2, TOR 1 video
Gm 3 Oct. 17 CLE 4, TOR 2 video
Gm 4 Oct. 18 TOR 5, CLE 1 video
Gm 5 Oct. 19 CLE 3, TOR 0 video

Sure enough, there it was, buried amid the avalanche of voicemails and the 186 text messages that had flooded Francona's phone in less than an hour. The missed call had come in mere seconds after 6:46 p.m. ET Wednesday, when the Cleveland Indians, with a 3-0 victory over the Blue Jays, had clinched the American League pennant and their first ticket to the World Series in nearly two decades. The caller ID confirmed Francona's hypothesis:

Dad.

The real Tito Francona.

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That's where this story starts, because that's where Francona's baseball story starts, shadowing his dad at old Municipal Stadium. The tug of the heart is a powerful thing, and in this case, it was enough to get a two-time World Series-winning skipper to at least consider coming to Cleveland, a place where an accomplishment like this can't possibly come without collaboration and an enormous amount of creativity. Francona knew how much it would mean to his father, the former outfielder who spent six years with the Indians' organization and never let it leave his blood, to see the Tribe on the World Series stage.

"This has been good for him," the younger Tito said. "He's getting older, but he's been glued to every game. His whole day is wrapped around what time the game starts."

From there, we jump -- run, rather -- to the two treadmills side by side at the Anaheim Marriott at the Winter Meetings in December 1999. Mark Shapiro, the young assistant general manager of the Indians, found himself working out beside Francona, skipper for the Phillies.

"We had Bud Black, John Farrell, [agent] Pat Rooney -- a lot of common friends," Shapiro recalled. "So it was easy for me to start a conversation."

And, it turns out, a friendship.

When Francona was dismissed by the Phils after the following season, it was only natural for the Indians to bring him aboard as a special advisor while he waited for his next managerial opportunity -- the one where he would make history, build a legacy and, after things went sour in Boston in that awful September 2011, become perhaps the most valuable free-agent manager in the game.

Where are the Indians right now if Francona doesn't spend an uncomfortable season on ESPN before looking for his next gig? Where are they if Shapiro doesn't squeeze a workout into the typically swamped schedule at the Winter Meetings? Where are they if Frank "Trader" Lane doesn't deal Larry Doby, the man who broke the color barrier in the AL, for a young and hungry kid from western Pennsylvania.

They aren't in the World Series.

Francona on Merritt, culture

Every manager gets credit when a club wins. Every manager gets burned at the stake when a club loses. But honestly, logically, there is no way the Indians win the pennant with their rotation in shambles and their lineup robbed of its best hitter if not for Francona. It's really that simple.

Take the Ryan Merritt masterpiece as a fresh example. Francona caught his fair share of first- and second-guessing for starting Corey Kluber on short rest with the Tribe up 3-0 in the AL Championship Series, but he did it both out of the desperation of knowing, in the aftermath of Trevor Bauer's bleeding finger, that he'd have no other viable starting options in a Game 7 unless he tweaked Kluber's schedule and the confidence that, should Kluber falter in Game 4, he could calm the nerves of a kid with just 11 Major League innings to his name in advance of a Game 5.

Francona called Merritt into his office a few hours before Game 5, and he gave him a tactically brief backing.

"Hey man, this isn't life or death," he told Merritt. "No matter the outcome, just go and pitch. We're behind you, I'm behind you, the team's behind you. Just go out there and have fun."

Merritt on outing, Francona

It made the kid feel good. And Merritt, with 4 1/3 shutout innings in which only two of the 14 men he faced reached base, pitched the game of his life.

"I think what you see," said Tribe general manager Mike Chernoff, "is an atmosphere where guys aren't afraid to take advantage of situations and step into a moment. Every single one of those conversations during the year is a moment where he's building that culture."

The Indians have had a ton of guys step in and step up in this ridiculous run of seven wins in eight October games. And that's an organizational victory for a team that was the only postseason entrant which entered the year in the bottom 10 in payroll. But people aren't paying lip service when they say the confidence to overcome limited resources and injury adversity stems from the skipper.

"He's a difference-maker," said Shapiro, the Blue Jays' president, after he visited Francona's office to offer his heartfelt congrats. "More than I ever would have imagined."

Tribe owner Paul Dolan admitted much the same.

"I didn't fully appreciate," said Dolan, "what a difference he would make with our franchise."

In a lot of ways, Francona legitimized the Indians' effort.

Even as the Indians necessarily scaled back their payroll in the wake of the John Hart-orchestrated glory days of the 1990s, the front office led by Shapiro and Chris Antonetti remained a model for many others in terms of its analytical approach and focus on the farm. But success came only in short spurts, and the difficulty of sustaining that success was deeply rooted in the inability not to groom top talent, but to keep it.

Antonetti on Francona's guidance

The margin for error was impossibly small, and that's why a disastrous development like coughing up a 3-1 lead in the 2007 ALCS hurt so hard.

Francona couldn't change the finances, but he could change the clubhouse. He could achieve buy-in from the veterans and youngsters whose playing time wouldn't always be assured, selling them on the value of effective partnerships that pay off in the longer run. Francona couldn't attract the nine-figure free agents, but he could attract a guy like Mike Napoli, a playoff-tested vet looking not for the most lucrative home but the right one. And as we've seen night after night on this postseason stage, he could manage a bullpen like few can.

Miller on playing for Francona

Shapiro and Antonetti knew all this when that first contact was made with Francona with the 2012 season spiraling out of control and Manny Acta good as gone. But in some ways, as conversations escalated, they probably spent more time reminding Francona about the negatives associated with the position rather than pouncing on the positives. To say Cleveland -- with scant fans in the stands on those cold April nights (or, for that matter, many warm June, July and August nights) -- is not Boston is an understatement. Shapiro and Antonetti were worried that after the initial excitement of returning to his baseball roots wore off, Francona would feel the pangs of regret.

But he signed on, because he valued the "we" more than the "me."

"A lot of people came to me and said, 'I thought you were going to cherry-pick,'" Francona said. "My answer is that I did. I knew I'd be happy here, going to work every day with these guys. I wanted to do that."

The Indians won in Francona's first year, a blissful run of 10 straight wins at season's end that, ultimately, only set them up for the heartbreak of the AL Wild Card Game. They won in 2014 and '15, too, just not enough to hang with the Tigers and then the Royals. They entered this year with a vaunted rotation fronted by Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, a questionable lineup shrouded by concern about Michael Brantley's recovery from shoulder surgery and a farm system strong enough to put them in the mix for any of the summer's prime pieces.

If not for that farm and a 14-win run in the second half of June, Cleveland wouldn't have been able to swing the Andrew Miller trade. But the Indians pulled the trigger on that deal in large part because they knew they had a progressive skipper who would maximize the value of the relief arm they were giving up such a large swath of their system to land. And Francona has surely maximized Miller this month.

Must C: Miller's dominant Game 5

It seems impossible to say this about a man who ended an 86-year curse in a major market, but this improbable advancement is surely Francona's finest managerial moment to date. Given the Indians' hurdles and their health, they have no business heading where they're headed.

But they're headed there all the same, and it's a story borne out of family and friendships and faith in the ability to overcome all odds.

"Me and Chris talked about it a lot of times, even in tough times," Francona said in that private moment in his office, the party outside raging on. "We'd say, 'If we can do it, it's going to be that much more meaningful.' And you know what? It is."

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.