"With Tito, you are who you are, and we like that," says Perez.
Francona does not necessarily believe that baseball seasons have emotional turning points. "Whatever you do tonight is what's important," he says. His players, though, aren't so sure that they didn't experience one on May 6, against the Oakland A's.
The Indians entered the game with a record of 14--14, and in the bottom of the first, Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera hit back-to-back solo home runs off A's starter Jarrod Parker. Two batters later, Mark Reynolds stepped to the plate. Parker threw a 92-mph fastball that struck him on the left shoulder. "I don't know if he was trying to hit me," Reynolds says, "but it hurts, and it's up near my head."
Reynolds would have his revenge in the fifth. Parker's first pitch was another 92-mph fastball, but this one found the middle of the plate, and Reynolds devoted every watt of his significant power to crushing it. The ball traveled some 457 feet and landed in an area of the bleachers at Progressive Field that as far as anyone can recall only Jim Thome had ever before reached. "A mammo," Masterson calls it. "A bagoonga." After Reynolds made contact, he took a few slow steps toward first, spat and then stared at Parker for a moment. "He buzzed my tower, I hit a homer," says Reynolds. "We're even."
The blast was significant for several reasons. One of them was that Reynolds had been encouraged to swing that hard in the first place. Between 2008 and '12, with the Diamondbacks and the Orioles, Reynolds hit 164 homers, more than all but seven other players, but he also struck out 993 times, by far the most in the majors. Those whiffs turned off many clubs. He was nontendered by Baltimore last November, but picked up by the Indians 10 days later, for one year and $6 million. "Tito's told me from Day One, you go do what you do," Reynolds says. "Sure, we talk about maybe seeing a few pitches, approaches for different guys. But it's mainly, you swing the bat. You hit the ball far. You can change the game."
"You got a guy, a veteran player, that can hit the ball out of sight," says Francona. "I'd be silly not to embrace that." Francona's handling of Reynolds led not just to that home run but to 11 others, to go with a team-leading 40 RBIs. And, perhaps in part because he has been freed from worrying about striking out, a career-low strikeout rate.
Reynolds's shot might have been symbolically important for the Indians. Francona wants his players to express themselves. "I remember walking up to [Reynolds] and saying, 'Go get him, big boy,' because I was fired up," Francona says. Francona had no problem with Reynolds's brief stare-down, either. "Tito loved it," Reynolds says.
"It was kind of a catapulting point for this ball club: Hey, we're going to change the attitude around here," says Giambi. Adds team president Mark Shapiro, "It wasn't just a homer. It was an exclamation point."
Many exclamation points followed, as over the next 2½ weeks the Indians went 13--5 to turn a four-game deficit to the Tigers in the AL Central into a half-game lead. Last Friday the Indians spent a rain-canceled batting practice exactly the way Francona would have wanted them to. They sat together in Fenway's cramped visitors' clubhouse, watching the MLB Network and poking fun at one another's flaws, thereby marginalizing them. The ringleader was Swisher, who was back from a few days' paternity leave. ("She is the most badass thing on the planet," Swisher said of new daughter, Emerson Jay.) In his four seasons with the Yankees, Swisher had been a supporting player—if an always peppy and consistently productive one. Now he is a leader. "The camaraderie factor is monstrous for us," he says.
On a sectional sofa, as the Indians ate McDonald's brought in by a clubbie, it was mentioned that Aviles, the journeyman infielder, had last October been traded from the Red Sox to the Blue Jays not for a player but for that evening's opposing manager, John Farrell. "First or second player ever traded for a manager?" Swisher asked, laughing. "Seventh!" Aviles said. Then it was Swisher's turn. The MLB Network ticker revealed that Swisher was a career .164 hitter, with 25 strikeouts, against that night's starter, John Lackey. "Aw, man!" Swisher cried.