CLEVELAND — It’s a question Terry Francona has been asked many times since Oct. 6. Why would a high-profile, two-time World Series champion manager who likely would have had golden opportunities elsewhere take the job in Cleveland?
“I think if they’re asking, they probably didn’t know me as well as they thought they did,” Francona said Monday at Progressive Field during a lunch with reporters. “I think people assumed maybe I wanted to wait and go to a team that had a higher payroll. That actually really wasn’t what I was looking for.
“I might get more satisfaction out of coming to a place with people I want to work with, and then when you do get to the solution or you meet the challenge, it means a little bit more. It might be a little harder, but it might be a little more fulfilling.”
Francona, 53, arrives in Cleveland after a one-year absence from the dugout. He endured a tumultuous and embarrassing ending to his eight-year tenure in Boston, where he won world championships in 2004 and ’07.
“I don’t want to just fixate on the end,” Francona said of a team collapse that saw the Red Sox miss the playoffs in shocking fashion in 2011 and the veteran manager lose his job that offseason amidst accusations he lost the clubhouse. “I had seven years and five months of pretty wonderful times there. The last month kind of unraveled, so that’s when you move on. When you’re the manager and your team plays like that, you’re wide open for criticism. I get it.
“I just know how I feel about things. Maybe it’s as I get older, but I really like the idea of coming to a place where (general manager) Chris Antonetti and (president) Mark (Shapiro) are in place. It had a lot of value in making decisions as to where I was going to go.”
Fancona, who like his father, Indians legend Tito, played for Cleveland (1988) and spent a year in the front office (2001), has said all along his relationship with Antonetti and Shapiro was the main reason he took the job.
But the challenge he mentioned appears to be a formidable one, with Central Division rival Detroit set to play in the World Series while the small-budget Indians are coming off their fourth straight losing season.
Francona said he did not ask for a commitment from ownership to spend more, something else that surprised many when he agreed to a four-year contract with the Indians.
“I just feel like however we end up, I think it’s our responsibility as a staff to make everybody better,” Francona said. “I’m actually kind of excited about that. Who knows what our team is going to look like when we get to spring training. But however it is, we’re supposed to take that and get every bit we can.
“It might be a little different to what I’ve been used to in the past. The last couple years in Boston, I felt like I was getting further and further from the field. My title didn’t maybe need to be manager, it was like fire putter-outer.”
Francona said his return with the Indians will allow him to re-experience more of the coaching aspect of the managerial position.
“I like being out on the field,” he said. “I felt like I was getting more removed from that as we lost some staff members (in Boston). I ended up having to do more things that took away from being out on the field.
“Now that we have a clean start here, there’s probably going to be some younger guys. It will be kind of fun to be out on the field with them and trying to impact them and seeing how good we can make them.”
Francona spent three days in Goodyear, Ariz., with Antonetti and scouts, followed by three days in Cleveland with front office personnel and more scouts, as he attempted to familiarize himself with the Indians’ roster.
“We seem to be strong up the middle and that’s a good place to start,” Francona said of catcher Carlos Santana, second baseman Jason Kipnis, All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and center fielder Michael Brantley. “I understand right now there’s some openings (at first base, designated hitter and left field). There have to be some decisions made on how do we best move forward.
“The pitching staff, there’s a little bit of a blend. We have Ubaldo (Jimenez) and (Justin) Masterson. If we can get back towards the 2011 guys, as opposed to maybe last year, that’s a huge step in the right direction. If you have those two guys anchoring your staff, it makes it easier for the younger guys.”
Being alongside Antonetti has helped the transition go smoother and quicker, according to Francona, who flew to Goodyear with the second-year GM and stayed in Antonetti’s guest room.
“There’s been no feeling-out period. We’ve kind of hit the ground running,” said Francona, who in addition to Boston spent four seasons (1997-2000) as manager in Philadelphia. “I’d been on the job for a day, but I could walk around his house in my underwear and it didn’t matter. I’m not sure I would have done that with (former Phillies general manager) Ed Wade on the first day.”
Certainly part of their discussions focused on Francona’s coaching staff. There have been no official announcements, other than Sandy Alomar having a spot should he not take a managerial position, and third-base coach Steve Smith and hitting coach Bruce Fields not returning.
“We’re trying not to have a huge list,” Francona said. “I think it’s safe to say we’ll have guys from the organization and from outside the organization. There’s some we’re closer to hiring than others.
“Pitching coach, that’s obviously a huge thing that’ll be one of the first priorities.”
Triple-A Columbus pitching coach Ruben Niebla took over for a fired Scott Radinsky last year. Francona said big-league experience is not a necessity.
“It has to be somebody we think can impact our staff,” he said. “If it ends up being somebody that doesn’t have major league experience, as long as they can grow into the job, that’s OK.
“That kind of goes with the whole staff. I think if we have a well-rounded staff, that certainly would help, but I don’t think you have to have major league experience in order to be on our staff.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at (440) 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.