What's happening in Cleveland is a testament, first and foremost, to the value of strong relationships. Baseball, like any other business, is built on them. And for Terry Francona, the relationship with the men who make the Indians' personnel decisions began on a hotel treadmill at the Winter Meetings many years ago and a couple managerial stops ago. Francona and Mark Shapiro got to talking in the workout room, and their conversations have evolved steadily over the years. On Friday, the conversation was about the Indians' managerial vacancy, and on Saturday, the announcement was that Francona had accepted it.
For the Indians, this is quite a managerial coup. They've averaged less than $60 million in player payroll over the last three years, they're coming off a 94-loss season and their upper-level Minor League talent is, shall we say, suspect. Add up those factors, and this ordinarily would not be the type of job a Terry Francona -- a two-time World Series winner with a resplendent reputation -- would touch. But the relationship has remained steady and sturdy, even as many changes have taken place in Francona's life and the Indians' various ups and downs. When the Phillies fired Francona in 2000, Shapiro, the Tribe's newly appointed general manager, scooped him up in a special assistant role. When Francona interviewed for the Red Sox job, Shapiro and his then-assistant, Chris Antonetti, helped prep him. They didn't prep him for Friday's interview; they didn't need to. Francona's enthusiasm for this position -- enthusiasm that surprised some -- was all the Indians needed to move forward. Yes, Sandy Alomar Jr. was fit for this role, and I was definitely among those touting him. But that backing was fixated on the faulty premise that Francona wouldn't actually be interested. That he was indeed interested served to surprise, though, in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn't have, given the relationship base he's built with the front office and his family lineage in Indians baseball. All Francona needed was some assurance of stability. A four-year guarantee buys him that, and in recent days Francona had let on that such a guarantee is worth more than the money alone. Now that this personal relationship between Francona and the Indians' higher-ups has led to a more formal one, it is, of course, Francona's job to start building relationships with the young faces on the Tribe roster. And the front office is supplied with the likely more difficult task of building up the talent level of a team aching in the one area that is most difficult to alleviate -- starting pitching. That's why the question of whether or not Francona can win in Cleveland trends more toward "when" than "if." There is some thought that Francona wouldn't have taken this job without some assurances that the Indians plan to expand their player payroll. Perhaps that's true, though more than a decadelong track record from the Dolan family of not vastly outspending projected revenues speaks for itself, and revenues from a 2012 season in which the Indians finished next-to-last in the attendance tally weren't exactly robust. Neither are the projections for 2013. What people need to understand is that a jump from the $60 million range to the $80 million range, even if applied appropriately, might only buy a club another win or two. Even a seismic increase in the payroll department -- and that's not going to happen in one of the game's smallest markets, unless there's some franchise-altering regional television deal on the horizon of which I'm completely unaware -- means nothing if it's not backed by solid baseball decisions. Fact is, the Indians could have survived quite well (particularly in the AL Central) on their present payroll, had the personnel decisions -- from the CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Ubaldo Jimenez trades to the First-Year Player Drafts -- not turned out so consistently unproductive in recent years. Time will tell, as it tends to do, but this Francona hiring feels like a significant step in another, more positive direction in the decision-making process. It is, however, only a small step, for the Indians are clearly much more than a manager away from contention. But if the Indians wanted a clubhouse culture change, they've found it. If they wanted a guy fans can respect, a guy whose beliefs they can buy into, they've got one. The Indians knew quite well, when they began the process of replacing Manny Acta, what they'd have in Terry Francona if they could get him to come aboard. And now that he's agreed, this already long-term relationship is really just beginning.