CLEVELAND — Terry Francona could have waited to manage somewhere else. At some point, a more talented team in a major market with a massive payroll would make him an offer.
But if he was going back, there was only one team for him.
And when the Cleveland Indians called, Francona was on his way.
“I knew it was right for me,” he said.
Francona, who led the Boston Red Sox to two World Series titles, was introduced Monday as the new manager of the Indians, who crashed in the second half this season after contending for four months. It’s a family reunion of sorts for Francona, who has ties with the Indians stretching back over 50 years.
His father, Tito, played six seasons in Cleveland and Francona spent a year working as an assistant in the Indians’ front office after he was fired by Philadelphia.
Francona signed a four-year contract. He hopes to stay even longer.
“I don’t want to be a rental manager,” he said. “I didn’t want to come in worried. I want to be part of the solution. I want to stick around. I didn’t come here to go to pasture.”
With an impressive resume that includes ending Boston’s 86-year drought between world championships, Francona was picked by the Indians over Sandy Alomar Jr., who served as the club’s bench coach before taking over as interim manager for the final six games after Manny Acta was fired on Sept. 27.
Francona is inheriting an Indians team that finished 68-94 and 20 games out of first place in the AL Central. Cleveland went 18-45 after July 27, an inexplicable collapse that cost Acta his job and sent Indians general manager Chris Antonetti and president Mark Shapiro searching for a strong leader to take over a club with young talent and potential.
They didn’t have to look far. The night Acta was dismissed, Antonetti called Francona, who spent the past year working as an analyst for ESPN. Before long the two friends were hammering out contract terms.
“There’s two main reasons I’m here today — Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro,” Francona said. “We’ve kept in touch for the last 12 years. I value not only their friendship but their guidance and their leadership. I know we have challenges ahead of us but I look forward to us tackling these challenges as a unit, as a ‘we.’ I’m genuinely excited to do that.”
After being introduced by Antonetti, Francona looked toward the back of the room, where his 78-year-old father sat proudly.
“In 1959, a guy hit .363 and that was the year I was born,” Francona said, “and it just so happens to be the same guy that is the best father a son could ever ask. “
Francona said he became emotional when he informed his dad that he was the new manager of the Indians.
“I kind of cried a little bit,” Francona said. “I didn’t want to, but it just happened. You can’t take a job because your dad was a good Indian, but it’s a still a good story. It’s pretty special.”
Tito Francona said he offered his son some advice when he learned he was interviewing in Cleveland.
“I said, ‘Stop right there,”’ the elder Francona said.
Francona has not yet hired any coaches for his staff. Alomar is under contract for one more season with Cleveland and has been offered the chance to return as the team’s bench coach. But the 46-year-old Alomar could be a candidate for other managerial openings in Boston and Colorado.
Since accepting the Indians’ offer on Saturday, Francona said he has reached out to several players on Cleveland’s roster and is eager to begin getting the Indians, who haven’t made the playoff since 2007 — when they lost to Francona and the Red Sox in the ALCS — headed in the right direction.
“This is a clean slate for everybody,” said Francona. “Dealing with players is fun. Dealing with young players is really fun.”
Francona said the year working as a broadcaster has re-energized him. He acknowledged making mistakes during his final season in Boston as the Red Sox collapsed by going 7-20 in September and missed the playoffs. The pressure took its toll on Francona, forcing him to withdraw from the game and reflect “on what mattered to me.”
“To do this job and do it correctly, you’ve got to be all in all the time,” Francona said. “I was showing some signs of wear and tear. But I wouldn’t have interviewed here if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”
Francona has some simple goals for the Indians.
“We’re going to compete,” he said. “We’re always going to compete. We may not win every game, but we won’t back down from anyone.”
With Cleveland, Francona won’t enjoy the same hefty payroll he had with the Red Sox, who were able to add high-priced free agents to complement their stable of young talent. While some fans fixate on baseball’s economic imbalance, Francona said success and failure isn’t predicated on dollars spent.
“Tampa has done if for years in the American League East,” he said. “They’ve gone toe to toe with Boston and New York. Oakland is doing it. That’s not something I spend a whole lot of energy on. My job is to get the players that we have to play the utmost of their ability, and then even beyond that to care about each other on the field fiercely and start building loyalty.
“I don’t really care what players are making. What I want them to do is play the game right.”
As word circulated around baseball of his interest in the Indians, Francona said he was met by some who wondered if he was serious.
“They said, ‘What are you doing? Why don’t you wait for a team that’s guaranteed to win?’ The people that were asking didn’t know me as well as I thought,” he said. “I’m looking forward to this challenge. I can’t guarantee we’re going to win. Nobody can, but I’m excited about the chance to go about this and make this better.”