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"Elbow! Elbow!" the photographers shouted, imploring each other to tuck in wayward appendages that had sneaked into the sights of their cameras. They crouched low, haunch to haunch, at least a dozen of them, and they trained their lenses on the entrance to the third base dugout at Fenway Park last Thursday. They jostled to capture that special moment when Terry Francona, the manager of the Red Sox for eight winning seasons and two championships, would survey Fenway Park for the first time as an opposing skipper. Perhaps he would shed a tear.
After a few minutes Francona ascended the steps from the clubhouse tunnel and promptly bumped his head, hard, on the low-slung doorway. "Damn," he mouthed. The photographers clicked away, sounding like an enormous, restless insect.
It was appropriate that Francona's return to Fenway did not go perfectly. He himself is not perfect, he readily admits. He has long fought a losing battle against chewing tobacco. He is divorcing. He used pain pills for a time. Of his life away from baseball he says, "I have no perspective."
He doesn't expect his players to be perfect, either. Which is a good thing, because they are not. Last October the Cleveland Indians hired the 54-year-old Francona away from ESPN, where he happily spent the 2012 season. As spring training approached, he asked the front office for dossiers on each of his players—not just scouting reports but head shots, so that the moment anyone arrived, Francona could greet him by name, like a conscientious college dean. "I've never been confused with that before," he says. "The idea is that when they walk through our doors, everybody—not just the guys that are our mainstays—deserves to be respected and feel wanted. Not only do we have an obligation to know what they do on the field, and know how to make 'em better, but to know who they are."
As he flipped through the photos, he saw a group of players with easily identifiable flaws. The nominal No. 1 starter who couldn't get lefties out. The oldest hitter in the majors. A whole lot of guys who strike out a whole lot.
The Indians, unusually for them, had spent aggressively over the winter. The club's $117 million off-season outlay exceeded that of any team outside the Los Angeles area, but the Indians did not sign anyone who might be considered a superstar, and most of their additions had already been passed over by the really big spenders. Nick Swisher, the former Yankee, signed for four years and $56 million last December; Michael Bourn, the speedy two-time All-Star, signed in February for four years and $48 million; and the 42-year-old former MVP Jason Giambi, who had interviewed for the Rockies' managerial job, then came to Cleveland on a one-year, $750,000 minor league deal.
They were all nice pieces, but each had his limitations, and none was by himself a franchise changer. General manager Chris Antonetti, though, thought he had hired the manager who could best fit them together. "You try to take the things your guys do well, and maximize them," says Francona—universally known as Tito. "We don't need to remind them of the things they don't do well, know what I mean? We try to almost make our guys feel indestructible."
As of Sunday the 27--22 Indians were third in the majors in runs (248), fourth in home runs (64) and third in OPS (.785). The team's success is very much the sum of its parts, and in some measure a result of Francona's strategizing. The Indians led the league in percentage of at bats taken with a platoon advantage. That's because the roster has several switch hitters, including Swisher, but also because Francona has liberally used his bench players—such as Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes and Ryan Raburn, who have combined for 13 homers and 41 RBIs—in such situations, when they are most likely to succeed. "That's all up to Tito," says closer Chris Perez. "He's pullin' the strings."
Fans often debate how big an impact a manager has on a team's performance, and Francona's platoon orchestration is empirical evidence of his. But the Indians insist that far more important than his tactics is the culture he has instilled, in which the players are emboldened to be nothing more than the best versions of what their personalities and skill sets allow. "He looks for guys to be themselves, and he's not asking them to be anything different," says Antonetti.
"It started in spring training," says No. 1 starter Justin Masterson. "He said, 'Hey, it's not always going to be perfect, but we're going to do something special this year.' " Last season, when the Indians went 68--94 under Manny Acta, Masterson says he felt pressured to be better than he is, and that made him overly reliant on his best pitch, his fastball, which he threw 81% of the time, an MLB high. He went 11--15, with a 4.93 ERA, and lefties had their way with him, for a cumulative OPS of .825. This year Masterson has felt liberated to mix in his slider—which he now throws more than a quarter of the time—and he is 7--3, with an ERA of 3.20. Lefthanded batters have produced an OPS of just .647 against him. He has been an ace on a staff that has been better than expected. The team ERA, 4.78 last year, is 4.28 without any particularly notable new arms.