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Tito

Let’s be honest: What you want in a manager of your favorite team is someone who wins. It doesn’t need to go too much deeper than that. 

Yes, of course, you would prefer it if your team’s manager or coach has a vivid personality — funny, outrageous, thoughtful, loyal, loony, whatever you like. Bears’ fans famously loved their Mike Ditka with his tough football history and boss mustache and in-your-face approach to life. Spurs fans surely love Gregg Popovich, his refusal to tolerate foolishness always on display along with a passionate insistence on playing the game right.

And, of course, Patriots fans mostly love Bill Belichick, not in spite of his obvious flaws but because of them, because he buries himself in the game, because he cuts through the nonsense, because he cares so little about others’ approval that he wears a hoodie to games, because he’s both unromantic and romantic and will do what he needs to do to win.

But really, all of it comes down to that last part, right? Winning. No managers/coaches remain beloved for very long while losing. Cowboys fans adored just about everything about Tom Landry for a quarter century. They weren’t as crazy about him at 3-13.

So, yes, you want a winner. But it’s even more than that.

Every fan deserves, for at least a while, to have someone like Terry Francona coach or manage their team in the postseason.

There is a lot to like about Tito … including the fact that people call him Tito, like his Dad, who led the American League in doubles while playing for Cleveland in 1960. This has always been one of my favorite ever baseball cards — that’s Terry’s father along with Rocky Colavito on the legendary “Power Plus” card from 1960:

Power-Plus-(Rocky-Colavito-Tito-Francona).jpg

Tito — and from now on we’ll be using that name to refer to Terry himself — is an extremely likable person. That isn’t exactly why you would want him as manager, but it certainly helps. You spend any time with him at all and you wish you could spend more. He’s all those things that make people appealing — he’s interesting, occasionally hilarious, thoroughly engaging, loyal to a fault.

He’s one of those rare successful people who listens carefully, not because business manuals say leaders should listen but because he’s genuinely interested in what another person is saying.

He’s one of those rare successful people who craves success but not credit. You probably saw how, after Cleveland took out Toronto in Game 5 of the ALCS,  Francona just disappeared from the postgame interview scene for a few minutes.

“Where did you go?” he was asked by a slightly unnerved Turner’s Ernie Johnson, who clearly had been looking for him everywhere.

“They deserved to have their own moment,” Tito  said, and he was talking about Cleveland Indians president Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff. Francona realized that if he was standing there waiting to be interviewed, Antonetti and Chernoff would get quickly pushed aside the way presidents and GMs always are in such settings. After all, the people want to hear from Tito.

But then Francona left, and with him gone, Antonetti and Chernoff were asked a series of questions until he came back. They got to talk for longer, I suspect, then any president/GM combination in the history of postgame TV interviews. That’s Tito in a nutshell.

So all of these are reasons to LIKE Francona. Then again, I could give you many reasons to personally like Buddy Bell or Ray Knight or Tony Pena or a few dozen other engaging managers. Francona has something else.

In the postseason, Tito comes to win.

No, of course, his teams don’t always win. He couldn’t get things going in Philadelphia at the start of his managerial career. He led the Red Sox to two World Series, yes, but he also managed some postseason failures like the three-game sweeps by the White Sox in 2005 and the Angels in 2009. His first Cleveland team got entirely shut down at home against Tampa Bay in the wildcard game three years ago. The Francona force of personality doesn’t always work.

Then again: Nothing ALWAYS works. Managers are not magicians. Nobody should think that the right move always works or that the optimum strategy guarantees anything at all in a short series. Talent … luck … timing … will … concentration … the reasons for winning and losing go on and on and on.

But what Tito gets — and what a surprising number of managers do not — is that while regular season managing is about balance and trust and (some) strategy and relationships and keeping everyone loose and (mostly) talent, the postseason is something else entirely. I once talked to Tito about regular season managing, and he told a story about how his friend, former Patriots and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, wandered into the clubhouse in June or July and was annoyed by the loud music and how relaxed everyone looked. Where was the hunger? Where were the game faces?

“I have to tell him all the time, ‘Scott, we play 162 of these things,'” Tito said. “It’s different in football, where they play one game a week and it is, like sacred. We do this every day. And if we put too much emphasis on one game, if we have too many team meetings, if we get up for every game the way they do in football, it’s not going to work.”

That’s a perfect summation of regular season managing. To be a successful regular season manager — and it’s a hard one — is to guide a team through the long season, to shorten funks, to ride the good waves as long as you can, to play the long game, to energize and relax players, to stifle problems before they become too large to handle. If you manage a baseball team like a football team, you won’t make it out of April.

But the postseason — that IS football. Every game is sacred. Yo get up for every game. One loss is devastating. It’s no wonder that so many managers, even fabulous regular season managers, do not know how to turn on that postseason switch. Buck Showalter is one of the best regular season managers ever. But even now he seems to believe that not pitching his best pitcher, Zach Britton, in a one-game extra-inning playoff loss was the right strategic move. Over a long season, maybe there are sound reasons for that decision. In a win-or-go-home scenario, it’s utterly inexplicable.

The truth is, though, that few managers can turn up the volume for the postseason. It’s just not in their nature. Joe Torre did. Bobby Cox could not. There are more Bobby Coxes out there than Joe Torres.

Tito is a good regular season manager, but he TRANSFORMS come playoff time. His managing this postseason has been triumphant. This Cleveland team had no business winning anything in these playoffs. They are now without 60% of their starting rotation. They are missing the team’s best hitter the last two seasons. They even lost their starting catcher Yan Gomes. Sure, the esteemed Cleveland baseball writer Paul Hoynes took a lot of guff for declaring the season over back on September 17 after Carlos Carrasco broke a bone in his pitching arm, but he was just stating the obvious. How in the heck was THIS team going to win in the playoffs?

Tito went to work. He did not hide from the obvious challenges — he embraced them. It is like he said to his team: “Look, guys, the only way we can win is if we stick together, do whatever we can to help the team and take a whole bunch of chances.”

So they did. Tito didn’t throw his ace, Corey Kluber, in Game 1 of the Boston series, choosing instead to give him just a little more time to recover from his own injury issue. He started Trevor Bauer and then brought the dark lord, Andrew Miller, into the fifth inning for the first time in years, and then brought in Brian Shaw, and then brought in Cody Allen. Against all logic, Cleveland hit a bunch of homers and won 5-4.

Then Tito had his ace Kluber rested and healthy for Game 2, and Cleveland won convincingly. That was more or less the series.

It will forever remain a mystery how Cleveland beat the Blue Jays four out of five games with less than half a rotation and the entire team hitting .168 (and scoring a grand total of 12 runs). Once again, Tito managed every game like it was the last game, never worrying about tomorrow, never holding back. He used up his best relievers. He put his best home run hitter, Carlos Santana, in the leadoff spot (where he didn’t hit much but DID hit two critical home runs). He sent Kluber out on short rest.The urgency crackled through his team. By comparison, the Blue Jays looked spent.

The worst feeling as a sports fan is when your team loses a big game it could have — or SHOULD have — won. Timidity leaves behind scars. You watch your team lose because they went into the prevent defense too early or they left their best reliever on the bench or they were not willing to risk anything to close out the victory … that’s just the worst.

And so, it’s just the best when you have a manager like Tito who embraces the big moment and takes big risks. Of course that stuff can blow up in your face too. Cleveland knows that better than most — one of the most painful losses in Cleveland sports history happened when Sam Rutigliano had Brian Sipe throw the Red Right 88 pass rather than just settling for a nice makeable game-winning field goal.

It cuts both ways. The bottom line is still winning. But winning is especially fun when you have a manager like Tito throwing everything against the wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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28 Responses to Tito

  1. Dale says:

    I was never a huge Francona fan before this September. There were often baffling lineup decisions and an over-reliance on veterans over young players. But the job he has done in September and certainly the playoffs is the greatest managing I’ve ever seen. He deserves every accolade.

  2. Drew says:

    Tito: HOF?

    • chris says:

      How is that a question? Every player, manager, coach, front office member, secretary, ticket taker, and usher involved in ending The Curse of the Bambino should be recognized in the HOF. And when/if the Cubs win this year, Theo deserves an entire hallway named after him.

  3. Jerry Skurnik says:

    While I agree with almost all of this, I don’t agree that all the smart decisions made by Francona only applies to post-season. Putting you best reliever into the game in the 5th or 6th inning if that’s a crucial situation is probably the right thing to do in July or October. Using Britton in the situation that Showalter didn’t do makes sense anytime It’s a shame that it’s unlikely any manager will do this though.

    • MarkW says:

      I think the point is not, don’t bring in your best reliever in the 5th in July — it’s “you can’t do that every day over the course of 162”. Taking the long view, as Joe said.

      I might still argue that if you do that in July, you lose ground because your other relievers know you don’t trust them enough, plus you make the entire vibe more desperate.

      • sanford sklansky says:

        Way back in the day there were no defined closers and bull pens were short. You would some times have starters come in and relieve. It is a little hard to decipher because you can’t find 25 man roster at any one time, but if you look at baseball reference you kind of figure out how many pitchers were on the staff at any one time. There was a 4 man rotation and the bull pen was usually just 4 or 5 pitchers. If your starter got in trouble there was usually a guy who could go 3 or 4 innings. You hardly see that any more. It happens more so in an extra inning game where every one in the pen has been used. While the bases may be 90 feet a part, it is a different game today.

    • SDG says:

      Speaking as someone who comes from a city that hasn’t ever had a great manager and just got its butt kicked hard by Cleveland, I’m leaning towards some kind of “angered the baseball gods” theory, myself. Why is is just the Cubs and Red Sox? Expansion teams should get to blame bad management and bad luck on a curse, too.

      It has always fascinated me why some teams just dominate the postseason. I know some people believe its a crapshoot, where small sample size means the results are basically random, and some people believe the morality play version, where whichever team wants it (Yankees) more and fights for it harder (Yankees) and plays like a true team instead a bunch of selfish stat-padding glory hogs (you see where this is going) will win. I think it’s a skill – using your bench, matching pitchers and batters, so forth.

      • invitro says:

        “Why is is just the Cubs and Red Sox? Expansion teams should get to blame bad management and bad luck on a curse, too.” — Those teams had a great history before their “curses” hit. Expansion teams don’t tend to have a great history.

        “I know some people believe its a crapshoot, where small sample size means the results are basically random” — It’s not just a belief. If you look at the history of results, they are indeed mostly random. I don’t know if the few teams that have done particularly well in the postseason, over and beyond their regular season record and/or run difference, are within a normal distribution or not, but they probably are. Except for the Royals — I think I remember calculating that they’ve been the best postseason team. The Braves, of course, are by far the worst, unless it’s the A’s.

  4. Byron says:

    I miss Francona every single day as manager of the Red Sox. Farrell is fine during the season but is not built for the postseason (I’d argue that he was out managed for most of the 2013 run) but he was better than Valentine who was a complete dumpster fire.

    But Francona was something else. Like you said, he didn’t win every series but it wasn’t because he did something dumb or was out managed. I knew that he knew what he was doing and that’s worth a lot.

    And the Sox front office slandered him after they kicked him out of town. That was disgraceful. So I’m glad to see Francona back in the World Series and I’m pulling for Cleveland.

  5. EZANO says:

    Great article, but how on earth do you not mention Bruce Bochy in the list of coaches who have mastered the art of “turning up the volume” in the postseason? He may be the best in the modern era.

  6. Fin Alyn says:

    I can even handle a manager who doesn’t win if he is making the right moves. In the end it comes down to the players and their ability to execute, but it’s the managers job to put the right guys in the right situation. As a Dodger fan, far too often with Mattingly you went “WTF? are you DOING?” This happens much less with Roberts just in his first year. Fewer WTF moments is always better.

  7. JB says:

    The Tom Landry 3-13 remark got my attention. Revisionist history to suggest fans wanted him gone. It turned out good with Jimmy Johnson building the team, but at the time Jerry Jones was portrayed as a evil without equal in Cowboy land.

    As an aside, the assumption that the game passed Landry by is probably wrong. He was the one of the most innovative men the game has ever seen (invented the 4-3 to stop Jim Brown, then invented the motion offense to beat the 4-3; the shotgun offense etc). The personnel department let him down in the late 80s with a series of draft busts, but with his mind and attention to detail, I believe he would have turned the team around. The Skip Bayless narrative that the game passed Landry by came out years later and should not be accepted as gospel.

  8. MikeN says:

    Does he still do the rocking back and forth having no idea why he’s there thing?

    When Ned Yost was winning, people declared it was just luck, and really there a bad team.

  9. While it doesn’t change the overall message of this post, I would point out that Carlos Santana batting leadoff is not an example of Francona adjusting his tactics or approach for the postseason. Santana was the Tribe’s leadoff hitter against right-handed pitchers for most of the season. He was atop the batting order 85 times, including 55 times as the DH, which was the most appearances by a DH in the leadoff spot since Brian Downing with the 1992 Rangers.

  10. Allan Wood says:

    Tito cemented his nickname among certain Red Sox fans in 2007 as Playoff Assassin. He has shown the same cut throat tendencies this year. I miss Tito a lot.

  11. Cuban X Senators says:

    Damn, I was hoping this was a Tito Jackson top 5.

    It does throw me still (& has for many yrs) that Terry is now Tito & not even Tito, Jr.

  12. Since I am a Dodgers fan who will be rooting for both the Cubs and Indians when they play in the World Series (sigh), I have to mention a couple of things related to this piece that involve my crew.

    One, the worst strategic manager I ever saw during the regular season is also the best one I ever saw in post-season: Tommy Lasorda. In 1988, he chewed up Davey Johnson and Tony LaRussa and spat out the pieces. And he did it because he took the approach that Joe sees in Tito: every game–every inning–was life or death. Johnson and LaRussa didn’t or couldn’t adjust their thinking. Now, I also could argue that the way Lasorda used Orel Hershiser in the post-season helps explain why his arm blew out not long thereafter. And that’s something to think about in connection with this argument: when it’s do-or-die, will doing now mean death later?

    Two, about the relaxed locker room. Back in that halcyon time of network television coverage when Costas-Kubek and Michaels-Palmer-McCarver weren’t even the best pairings, Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola were doing a Game of the Week in 1988 and Joe asked Vin what kind of difference Kirk Gibson had made. Vin replied by saying that Gibson had brought a football mentality to the Dodgers. I’ll use quotation marks, and I’m close to the actual exchange:

    Vin: “Have you ever been in a football locker room?”
    Joe: “No.”
    Vin: “As you know, a baseball clubhouse is very relaxed before a game. But with Gibson, it’s more like a football locker room. The tone in the Dodgers clubhouse is almost sepulchural.”
    Several seconds of silence.
    Joe, sounding like he is about to choke to death: “Sepulchural?”
    Vin, dryly: “Yes, sepulchural.”
    Several seconds of silence.
    Joe: “I can’t WAIT until Jon Miller gets ahold of this one.”

  13. Dave says:

    Interesting, at least to me. Most of all some of the comments. For the record, a lifelong Tribe fan who has suffered (even during the 994-97 seasons) for about 50 years.

    @michaelgreen327: “Now, I also could argue that the way Lasorda used Orel Hershiser in the post-season helps explain why his arm blew out not long thereafter.”

    HUH? Wasn’t a Dodger fan then or now, but please, I need to understand YOUR definition of “not long thereafter”. He certainly helped us (Cleveland) to TWO World Series appearances after he played for Lasorda.

    @Dale: “There were often baffling lineup decisions and an over-reliance on veterans over young players.”

    Two names – Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin. The former played SS in 2015. Played LF and now is our starting 3B of a one-year rental who was never that good. The latter has been starting in a platoon all season. I won’t mention moments this year (you can check them out if you can – hint, check Google walk-off inside-the-park-HR) but since he came here in 2013 Tito has simply played what he had. That includes the bullpen, which, come 2017 (like the last 4 seasons) I’m not yet sure what each player’s role is.

    It’s interesting reading everyone’s thoughts in the comments. Particularly those who Tito played for. I wish I were a BoSox fan (not really) and could truly recall when they broke THEIR jinx. Instead I have to recall Manny Acta, Eric Wedge, and Joel Skinner. And that’s only over the last 14 years….

    • Dale says:

      Can’t argue with any of that. He’s definitely been a huge step up from his predecessors. But keep in mind, he only played Ramirez and Naquin because he was forced to, due to injury (Brantley) and steroid use (Byrd).

    • MikeN says:

      A few weeks before they won that World Series, Bill Simmons wrote that Francona should be fired. He did the same with Doc Rivers.

    • Dave, congratulations on your guys making it.

      I did not say that Hershiser never recovered, but he missed most of 1990, and some of those following the Dodgers felt Lasorda overused him in 1988 and 1989. He recovered and went on to do great work for my side and for yours.

  14. Zach says:

    …he told a story about how his friend, former Patriots and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, wandered into the clubhouse in June or July and was annoyed by the loud music and how relaxed everyone looked.

    Aargh, Scott Pioli. Let’s just say that when he finally got his chance on the big stage, he made sure nobody looked relaxed or happy. First things first.

  15. Jaunty Rockefeller says:

    Francona is to me the perfect manager–delivers results with sensible strategies, and engages the media & fans thoughtfully and with a sense of humor.

    But one question—what are Belichick’s obvious flaws? On-field, does he have any? He’s a bit of a grump, sure—but I at least do not count that as a flaw. Spygate, like deflatefate, seem to be of any relevance only because of his success.

    • invitro says:

      “On-field, does he have any?” — He’s not particularly good-looking.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I think his flaws relate to his relating to the public/media. But, as long as he wins, who cares? But no one is going to want to win a “have lunch with Bill Belichick” contest. Although it might be interesting in a macabre sort of way.

  16. Binyamin says:

    Tito was well liked in Boston but a common nickname among fans was FranComa for his laissez faire management style, at least in regular games.

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