Last Saturday was a very good day to be Terry Francona. A friend brought him two Styrofoam containers filled with hot dogs from Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe in New Brighton, Pa., where he grew up. Never mind that the hot dogs had traveled 100 miles, loaded, per usual, with chili sauce and onions. The Cleveland Indians manager ripped into the container and began crushing them, standing up, by the way, in front of his desk at Progressive Field. And suddenly he was taken back to summers from his childhood, back when the dogs cost 18 cents each, and Terry would down eight of them in one sitting.
“The best,” Francona said. “[Bench coach] Brad Mills doesn’t eat anything that’s bad for you, and even he has to have them. Want one?”
I saw the rapture on the manager’s face and didn’t dare take him up on his generosity. My eating experience would have been spoiled by the guilt of having deprived Francona of even one glorious endorphin-jangling bite, lest an entire dog.
And then the Indians had to go spoil an otherwise perfect day by playing a baseball game, which they lost to the worst team in the American League, the Chicago White Sox.
And so it goes for Francona, who only three days earlier lashed out at his team in what he called his worst clubhouse tirade since he was managing the woebegone Phillies around the turn of the century. The defending American League champions win and lose games seemingly on an alternating basis—they are 28-29 after a 3-0 start—that Francona likes to say, “The only thing we’re consistent about is [our] inconsistency.”
This season for the Indians is like a Brighton Shoppe dog without the de rigueur chili sauce and onions: It relies heavily on nostalgia (in this case, the pennant-winning 2016 season), but it’s obvious that something is missing.
Here's what’s missing in Cleveland: the starting pitching is the worst in the league this side of Baltimore, the baserunning has declined significantly, the clutch hitting has been horrendous, the team can’t hit lefthanders and the defense has regressed.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland’s World Series opponent, are suffering from the exact same hangover symptoms. The malaise of both clubs is mitigated, or perhaps even emboldened, by the mediocrity of their respective Central divisions. Neither team is paying a penalty for its languidness, as the Indians are just one game out of first place and the Cubs are 1 1/2 games behind.
The two World Series participants from last year are the two worst clutch hitting teams this year, among several commonalities. Here are the MLB ranks in selected categories this year and last year for the reigning pennant winners:
Taking Extra Bases
Avg. with RISP
Francona reached a boiling point last Wednesday, after a dull 8-1 loss in Colorado. He ripped into his team, not for its lack of effort, but for not playing with the necessary edge required for winning, one he would recognize after guiding the Red Sox to two World Series titles last decade and the Indians to Game 7 of last year's Fall Classic.
His anger was about what the numbers don’t tell you about what’s wrong with Cleveland: His team, he sensed, had grown too comfortable with the idea that winning just “happens” because it happened last year.
“We can’t be a good team only when we think it’s convenient,” he said. “And that’s what I was seeing. If we value winning as much as I hope, and as much as I think deep down they do, then let’s play damn hard every day.
“We’re not good enough to just play when we feel like it. Maybe we were that good in Boston. We’d make four errors and kick the ball around a bit, then David [Ortiz] and Manny [Ramirez] would hit a couple of three-run homers and we’d win 7-6. We had that much talent.
“We’re not that kind of team. Most every team is not like that. We need to play good to win. And last year doesn’t help us win. But sometimes I feel like we’ve been trying to figure out a way to be last year’s team again instead of just being this year’s team.”
The next day, an off day, Francona recalibrated his own mental machinery. He takes and keeps notes of all of his meetings—what he says to his team on the first day of spring training, for instance, or on Opening Day. He reviewed those notes to make sure he was staying on message. And then he thought about himself. Maybe he was part of the problem?
“I didn’t exempt myself when it comes to responsibility,” he said. “[In Colorado] I walked Tony Wolters and the next guy gets a double. I didn’t sleep well.”
Maybe his shelf life in Cleveland was nearing its expiration, given that this is his fifth year there and the core group of players hasn’t changed much. Before his club's next game, on Friday, he asked several players, “What do you see? Is there something different or wrong with how I’m going about it?”
Nobody doubted him.
Francona held meetings all day Friday: meetings with the front office, meetings with the pitchers, meetings with the position players, meetings with his coaches, and meetings with his core leaders, outfielder Michael Brantley and pitchers Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin.
“Are we in good shape or not?” he asked his leaders. They assured him the team was fine.
“They took a lot of ownership,” he said.
So did Francona. Referring to his Wednesday tirade, Francona told his players, “I’m not proud of that, but I felt like it got to that point where if I don’t say anything I’m not doing my job. I’m not a big meetings guy. But I thought we needed this one.”
By the end of the day, and before a 7-3 win against the White Sox on Friday night, all the meetings and the soul-searching put Francona in a much better place.
“I feel like for the first time this year we’re on the right track,” he said. “We’re okay. Even before we won [Friday], I felt really good about this team and where we are.”
Sixteen straight world champions have failed to repeat, the longest such drought since the World Series began in 1903. More than a third of the way into their Year After, the Cubs, with a losing record, may have some insight on why this is so. Maybe it’s the extra rounds of playoffs. Maybe it’s the physical toll on starting pitchers for grinding through a seventh month of competition, and a shorter winter to recover. Maybe it’s just the random nature of postseason baseball. Maybe it’s all of that. Or maybe, if you use Cleveland as a proxy, it’s also something even harder to quantify: human nature.
Francona wasn’t angry with his team over poor fundamentals or a lack of preparation. He was angry because the same mental edge wasn’t there. Maybe that mentality has something to do with the loss of vocal veteran leaders in outfielder Rajai Davis and DH Mike Napoli; Brantley, Kluber and Tomlin are all pro’s pros, but none are likely to be passing out T-shirts advertising the party is at their house, as Napoli did.
Francona always has been a manager who likes to run a team through key, extroverted cogs (i.e. Curt Schilling, Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia in Boston, or Jason Giambi and Napoli in Cleveland). He asked his appointed sergeants to deliver messages. Now more of the work falls to Francona himself.
He told the story about how he received criticism late in 2011, his last year in Boston, for his message growing stale. But what he said people overlooked was that he lost pitching coach John Farrell (to Toronto, as manager) and the team’s mental performance director. Each had been key sergeants for him.
“Let’s face it, playing in the postseason is a thrill,” he said. “It’s glamorous. You’re on national TV, the stars come out, a lot of people want tickets . . . there’s something glamorous about it. It’s easy to get up for it. And then the next year you come back, and it’s cold early in the season, there’s not the same energy in the ballpark . . . that’s when you have to rely on grinding through it.
“Winning isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be easy. You win because you know it’s hard. That’s all I wanted my guys to remember.”
In a three-game series against the Dodgers that starts tonight, the Indians will face Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill, two of the nastiest lefthanders for a lefty-averse team to hit. And then seven of their 10 games are against the division-leading Twins. The next two weeks should give Francona a good sense of whether indeed his team has turned a corner and sharpened its edge. In gastronomic terms, it means playing with chili and onions.