There was a time when the city of Cleveland screamed bloody murder when Tito Francona came to town. It was 1959 and the Indians traded slugging outfielder Larry Doby to the Detroit Tigers to get Francona. It’s one thing to be traded for a popular outfielder, it’s another to be traded for a future Hall of Famer.
Doby was a seven-time All-Star when the Indians dealt him to Detroit in a straight-up deal for the 25-year old Francona in spring training in ’59. Tribe faithful were not pleased.
Fast forward 53 years and the reception in Cleveland for the arrival of Tito Francona’s son is much more welcoming. The son – who inherited his father’s nickname – is a heralded manager with two fat World Series rings on his hand. The Indians hope he can win a third, the first for the Cleveland Indians since before Papa Francona wore the uniform. The Tribe last hoisted a trophy in ’48.
The elder Francona proved to be a wise acquisition for the Indians, as he hit to the sweet tune of .363 his first year with the Tribe and finished fifth in AL MVP voting. He played five more seasons on the shore of Lake Erie, averaging .284 with 14 homers and 63 RBI per season while playing left field. Francona earned a reputation for beating up his former teams, something that Indian fans hope his son also inherits. Younger Francona managed both the Red Sox and Phillies for stretches of time, of course.
So now, “young” Tito returns to Cleveland to take over the reins of a team that has gotten off to good starts the last two years, only to fall off in the second half. The young talent is there, but a few pieces will have to be added. Francona is a piece at the top that could impact everyone else in the clubhouse.
In Boston, Francona had a reputation for being a “player’s manager” – a good guy who left his player’s alone for the most part as long as they performed well between the lines. But his hands-off approach slowly eroded into a free-for-all, and after his club collapsed at the end of the 2011 campaign, he was politely shown the door. In Cleveland he will be tasked with a different type of ballclub – one that’s trying to get to the post-season, not one that was on the verge of a championship. For the second time in his managerial, Francona will be charged with building a winner, not guiding a proven winner. In 1997 with the Phillies, Tito took over a club that was sparse of talent and old in the tooth, a losing team. Under his watch, the Phils improved a bit, ultimately he was let go when they regressed in his fourth season. But back then, Tito was just 38 years old when he started that gig, he’s older, wiser, and he has two big rings on his knuckles. He’s learned and he’s earned.
In his first season with the Indians in ’59, the elder Francona was praised by his manager, Joe Gordon.
“Tito has won at least 10 games for us,” Gordon said.
Cleveland fans will take that sort of improvement from this Francona in 2013.