A Major League Baseball team may never name its manager as the most valuable player but one could certainly make an argument for one skipper to be the first to earn such an honor.
The Cleveland Indians' Terry (“Tito”) Francona, whose club has the lowest payroll in the majors at just over $53 million and more injuries that make winning almost impossible, has to be considered as a team MVP keeping the Indians still within contention of a postseason birth, while guiding his team to a winning record as the season nears the month of August.
Yes, a winning record with virtually no starting pitching rotation as the injured list sidelined the 2020 Cy Young winner and all-star game MVP Shane Bieber, a rising star in Zach Plesac, as well as Aaron Civale, the American League's leader in wins (10) at the time he sustained his injuries For what feels like a very long time, the rest of the starters to take the mound for the Tribe features a group of unproven arms going back-n-forth between the minor leagues in Columbus and the very brief major league stops to Progressive Field.
Add your best home run threat in Franmil Reyes, gold glove catcher Roberto Perez, promising outfielder and superb hustler Josh Naylor and newly acquired Eddie Rosario to that growing list of players watching from the dugout or home during the 2021 campaign, and one truly has to wonder how in the world is Francona keeping this sinking ship above water, let alone the .500 mark.
The answer is very simple, Francona is a winner. As a manager, he was a winning teacher in Philadelphia, a multiple World Series champion in Boston, and has done nothing but win in Cleveland. When Francona arrived inside the Tribe's dugout, he was saddled with a 2012 team that lost 94 games, and quickly took the Indians to the postseason the following year.
Francona, a mastermind of orchestrating a bullpen to near perfect harmony, did just that during the 2016 World Series. And had it not been for the fact that Tito was basically “handcuffed” as far as the availability of starting pitchers were concerned, I am still convinced to this day that he would have enjoyed a third World Series title, and Northeast Ohio baseball fans would be able to watch a championship flag unfurling at the ballpark located on the street corners of Carnegie and Ontario in downtown Cleveland.
Never mind the unfortunate and understandable injury to starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco, unable to pitch in the fall classic against the Chicago Cubs who took the title beating the Indians in seven games, what was beyond “understanding” and unacceptable was watching Trevor Bauer making the decision to play with his drones. A big league pitcher with his team in a World Series opted to basically play with sharp instruments resulting in a cut hand and fingers-brilliant!
Francona, up 3-1 in the series, had no choice but to pitch a tired Josh Tomlin in Game 6, and an even more tired Corey Kluber in Game 7. And, we know the rest of that story is history. I am still confused as to why Bauer seemingly got a “pass” on this, but I digress. The bottom line is that World Series loss was NOT on the shoulders of Francona. Yes, one can always play the “what if” game but the fact still remains, we'll never know for sure, will we?
What Tribe fans do know is that Francona has been more than a welcome sight as team manager over the last eight years. Let's not forget that incredible 22-game winning streak the year after the World Series. That is something people may never see again in their baseball lifetimes. Do you know how incredibly difficult that is at the MLB level? Winning five or six games in a row is a daunting task and achievement, but 22? That is what Francona brings to the managerial table.
He is also knocking on the door of Cleveland baseball history coming closer to surpassing Mike Hargrove in terms of team manager victories. Hargrove's 721 victories is second to Lou Boudreau's club-leading 728 wins. Soon, Francona will reach No. 729 to gain the top spot-another truly outstanding achievement.
At the end of the day, and for those who really have a solid grasp and understanding of the game of baseball, one doesn't have to look too far for reasons why the Indians, despite all the adversity of 2021, are still in the conversation as a possible playoff team come October.
And speaking of conversation's, don't forget to mention Francona when talk of MVP surfaces. A true baseball lifer, and a manager who gets the most out of his players when there may not be much left to give. A no-nonsense guy who never rests on his laurels or gives in to excuses.
Francona just wins, and that will always be how one is measured in professional sports. But soon, whether it be his own decision or for health reasons, Francona's smiling face, guiding hand, teaching voice and vote of confidence will no longer be seen in the dugout.
I certainly don't intend to take a page out of Tribe owner Paul Dolan's book of ill-timed phrases, but as he said with the inevitable departure of Francisco Lindor, “enjoy him while you can.”
Let's enjoy Terry Francona, Cleveland, and support him 100 percent-he's earned it.