CLEVELAND — We don’t know if the lovefest between Terry Francona and his players will continue much beyond Wednesday night, when the Indians face the Tampa Bay Rays in the one-game wild-card playoff at Progressive Field.
If it does, Francona will take his band of “goons” to Boston, where he won two World Series championships with the Red Sox, in what will be an emotional and awkward time for him, according to some of his lieutenants, who have watched Francona do what they believe has been his best managing job yet.
If the Indians do not make the American League Division Series, it wouldn’t dampen the affection that Francona has won from his players, coaches, and general manager Chris Antonetti.
“I’ll bet he’ll tell you that this is one of his favorite teams ever,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “I’ve never had so much fun as a player being a part of this and having him lead us. He comes in there and he brings it every day. That’s contagious. He comes in with all of the enthusiasm and excitement and laughter and I just feed off that stuff. We all do.”
Francona has talked about his time in Boston to his players, according to former Red Sox infielder Mike Aviles, but he never had brought up the “chicken and beer” situation until his Monday media session. When asked about the difference in managing this team as opposed to others, he said, “Well, there’s been no chicken and beer.”
He elaborated Tuesday on that playful moment.
“I lied about that,” he said. “We did have some chicken.”
Francona took his lowest moment with the Red Sox — September of 2011 — and turned it into a funny moment.
Aviles said he wasn’t surprised at the “chicken and beer” remark.
“He’s the biggest clown on this team,” Aviles said. “When you talk to him in the media, he’s the nicest guy ever and very professional. The people outside of baseball need to know he’s the biggest clown in this locker room. We’ve gone through periods this season where we’ve been very good and then lost a lot of games. Even when we’ve had some losses he’s come in cracking jokes on me or somebody.
“So if he’s that calm and cool, why are we uptight?” Aviles said.
After being fired by the Red Sox in the wake of that September collapse, Francona spent a year as a color analyst for ESPN. While he enjoyed his TV experience, he missed being a major league manager. He had worked with the Cleveland executives, Antonetti and president Mark Shapiro, as a special assistant for a year (2001) and came to admire what they do.
So when the Indians came calling, Francona didn’t want to mess it up.
There were some uneasy moments when Francona came out with a book about his Red Sox experience in which he was critical of the ownership. But as that subsided and Antonetti started tacking on players such as Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Jason Giambi, it started looking like a competitive team.
Francona didn’t want to get in the way.
In Boston, the resources flowed freely. In Cleveland, they were worried about lagging attendance. The Indians could add payroll, but it would never be Boston. This was a different animal.
“No, I don’t think you manage differently,” Francona said. “Once the game starts, the dollar signs go out the window. I’ve immensely enjoyed this team and that has nothing to do with money. Whether we win or lose, it has nothing to do with money. While I was fortunate to get this job, the transformation [Antonetti] did with roster was incredible and it gave us a chance to get to this point.”
Aviles played a utility role for Boston in 2011 and was the starting Sox shortstop in 2012. He then was traded to Toronto for manager John Farrell, and the Jays soon sent Aviles and Yan Gomes to Cleveland for pitcher Esmil Rogers. The Jays might like to have the throw-in in that deal, Gomes, back — he’s become the Indians’ starting catcher.
“I even told [Dustin] Pedroia he may want to send me a playoff share because of that, but we’ll see how it works out,” Aviles said about his being dealt for Farrell. “All around it worked well. Boston got the guy they wanted. I got to go to Toronto and they were able to get a pitcher they wanted for me and Yan, and the Indians got two good players. I’d like to say we got two good players for a pitcher. From that standpoint, it worked well.”
Aviles has had so much fun he started up the Goon Squad — referring to the Cleveland bench — along with Ryan Raburn.
“I started to look at our bench and guys were getting hits and I said, ‘Hey, I’m not sure there’s another bench in the league this good,’ ” Aviles said. “Ryan and I were talking and we came up with Goon Squad, made up some T-shirts, and we’ve had fun with it.”
Aviles, who was admonished by Sox manager Bobby Valentine in spring training of 2012 for not performing a popup drill to Valentine’s liking, said when asked how he did on popups this spring training, “I caught them all and I called off whoever I needed to call off.”
Swisher said Francona is the reason he’s with the Indians.
“He convinced me that it was going to be good,” said Swisher, the former Yankees outfielder. “I’ve seen his teams over the years and the way the guys loved playing for him, so I knew what he could bring. What he could bring was exactly what I wanted.”
Shane Victorino made the opposite decision. It was between Boston and Cleveland and Victorino, offered a four-year, $44 million deal by the Indians, turned it down to take three years at $39 million from the Red Sox. Victorino felt he had a better chance of getting to the postseason with the Red Sox. Turns out both he and Swisher made it.
Francona brought his old guard with him. Brad Mills, his lieutenant for many years in Boston and Philadelphia before that, went with Francona after Mills lost his managerial job in Houston. But Francona also brought in someone he never had met — pitching coach Mickey Calloway — who had been Cleveland’s minor league pitching coordinator.
“He makes you feel comfortable right away,” Calloway said. “I spoke to him for an hour on the phone during an initial interview and then, in the in-person interview, in the first five minutes I felt like I had known him a long time. His way of dealing with people is unbelievable and that’s been the main key to our success. He’s definitely done that for us as a coaching staff. He’s made it fun.”
The Indians have won 10 straight heading into Wednesday night.
“It doesn’t mean a thing,” Francona said. “We’ll be as good as the number of hits we can get off Alex Cobb.”