Indians' win streak is final stamp on Francona's Hall of Fame resume

Photos – doccenter – 0915 SH 43147480
In this May 2000 photo, Phillies manager Terry Francona watches a win over the Rockies.

Terry Francona’s resume — two World Series titles in Boston and another World Series appearance in Cleveland — was already good enough to be submitted for Hall of Fame review. Now, with the Indians having put together the longest winning streak in modern baseball history, it should be stamped as guaranteed.

“Yeah, I agree,” said Brad Mills, the Indians’ bench coach and longtime friend of Francona’s dating to their playing days together at the University of Arizona and with the Montreal Expos. “And it’s not just about the things he has done on the field as far as being the manager. It’s about the relationships he has been able to build with players, front-office people and people from other teams around the game. It makes his ability to win all the more special. It will make his legacy down the road even more special.”

Francona’s managerial road to Cooperstown did not start so well two decades ago in Philadelphia. At 37, he became the youngest manager in baseball at the start of the 1997 season. He adopted a fallen franchise with a minuscule payroll of $31.1 million, which ranked 22nd among 28 teams. The Phillies’ payroll never ranked higher than 22nd during his four seasons, and predictably, a lot of losses followed. Francona took them hard and endured a lot of undeserved abuse from frustrated fans.

Lost in thought one night while driving to his Bucks County home after a game, he whiffed on his exit and kept right on going until he noticed he was getting close to New York. Another night, he went to get into his car to go home and found his tires had been slashed outside Veterans Stadium. Boos were routine when he went to the mound to make a pitching change.

It all culminated with Francona’s being fired on the final day of the 2000 season down in Miami after a 97-loss season. Mills, who was also fired as the first-base coach, did not hide his frustration and anger as he sat in the visitors’ dugout before Francona’s final game as Phillies manager.

“The thing I was upset about was I knew how much ‘T’ loves the game and how he wants it played the right way, and I felt that had been overlooked by a lot of people,” Mills said during a phone interview from Cleveland. “I just did not think the criticism he was receiving was deserved. We didn’t win and I get that, but I felt like a lot of good things had been done in our four years there.”

Still, a lot of people thought the Phillies had disposed of the village idiot. Mills remembers the drive out of Miami after the final game. Along with bench coach Chuck Cottier, Mills and Francona got into a car and headed  to Tampa for some rounds of golf at the Saddlebrook resort.

“It was the weirdest thing because we had to pass the team bus as we were leaving the ballpark,” Mills said. “We just waved and kept on going.”

Nobody knew how joyous the ride would become. There were the two World Series titles and five playoff appearances in Boston and now maybe even a more satisfying experience in Cleveland.When Francona got to Cleveland in 2013 after a year as an analyst on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball telecasts, the Indians were coming off a 94-loss season and their payroll was in the bottom third of baseball. The Indians won 92 games and went to the playoffs in his first season. A year ago, they were back in the playoffs and one win away from Cleveland’s first World Series title since 1948.

Thanks to their insane 22-game winning streak, which ended Friday night with a loss to Kansas City, the Indians will be back in the postseason this year. Francona has not changed much, according to Mills. He was criticized in Philadelphia for being too lenient with players, but Mills said that was a false accusation.

“You can say he’s too lenient when you watch from a distance or you’re outside the clubhouse,” Mills said. “But he knows how to get his message across. It might not be how someone else would say it, but the message is conveyed. It might be through his coaches or the clubhouse guy.”

Or even a card game.

“He plays cribbage with some of his players, and a lot has been written about it,” Mills said. “There are things that go on in those cribbage games; a lot of messages are delivered to the team leaders in those games. There’s just no yelling, belittling, or browbeating.”

For more than three weeks, Cleveland has had  nothing but victories. The wins have not been followed by wild clubhouse celebrations. The Indians follow the lead of their even-tempered manager, which is why there was so much concern when he ended up in the hospital because of a heart condition that required a surgical procedure.

Mills, 60, managed the American League to a victory in the All-Star Game and served as the interim manager for the Indians during Francona’s absence. Like Francona, he should get a second shot at managing in the big leagues at some point.

“It took me a little by surprise because he never said anything about it to me,” Mills said. “I was really concerned after the all-star break because when he first came back, he did not look real good. He wasn’t moving well, but after about a week, he started doing better. And where it stands right now is that he’s doing really well.”

It is always good for a manager’s health when his team goes nearly a month without losing. And it’s really great for that Hall of Fame resume.