Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year is an annual must-read. Given that the national recognition rarely has anything to do with the teams or individuals whom we cover. In turn, WFNY will soon announce its choice for 2013′s Cleveland Sportsman of the Year. Here’s one of the nominations for that honor by an WFNY writer.
It hasn’t been the greatest of years in our fair city. The Browns were…well, you know….the Browns. The Cavaliers struggled through one bad, injury-plagued season and haven’t done much to excite the city in the next. The Indians, however, had a dramatic shift not just on the field, but off of it as well.
It has long been said that a team can take on the personality of its head coach or manager. That has never been more true than with the 2013 version of the Cleveland Indians. From the day that Tribe general manager Chris Antonetti and President Mark Shapiro pulled the gigantic rabbit out of their hat and hired Terry Francona as their manager — something NOBODY thought was possible — things were different within the Indians organization. All of a sudden, an air of legitimacy surrounded the Indians. No longer were they going to be an afterthought throughout the game of baseball.
Though it has been and will never be admitted to publically, I truly believe Francona would not have taken this job without ownership and the front office committing to spending some money on players. Immediately after taking over as skipper, Francona went to work. By the time they went to Goodyear, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn were two pieces of the every day lineup. Jason Giambi joined the team on a minor league deal but Tito told everyone that if his bat could still move, he would be integral to the team’s success. Most everyone doubted that a team coming off of 96 losses would have the ability to immediately become contenders.
Everyone except for Francona and the guys in that clubhouse.
Tito had them believing from day one and it was easy to see his influence had transformed them from a nice early season story into a team that had to be taken seriously by mid season. These were not Manny Acta’s Cleveland Indians. You could see it in the way they carried themselves on the field, in the clubhouse, with the media, and in the community. They were a tight-knit crew of players who would run through a wall for their skipper. Sometimes, they actually did.
As the summer grew longer, the big and memorable wins continued to pile up. All along, Francona was there never getting too high or too low, keeping himself and his players on the level, but instilling in them both the will to do big things and the belief that they were a special group.
Perhaps no moment was more telling about the special relationship this team carried with their skipper than when Giambi hit the first of his two memorable walk-off winners against the White Sox. On a steamy night in late July, Giambi’s pinch hit blast set off a wild scene at Progressive Field. As the team awaited the 42-year old at the plate and was finished mobbing him at the plate, Giambi found his skipper, picked him up, and gave him a gigantic bear hug. It was one of the signature images in a season to remember.
The Indians would go on to finish the season winning 10 straight, 92 in all, to advance to their first playoff appearance since 2007. Baseball writers recognized his efforts as well, awarding him AL Manager of the Year. It is not a stretch to say that without Terry Francona, this just flat out does not happen. He is the genuine article. To a man in baseball, every one who played for him loves him and those who haven’t, want to. Francona is a straight shooter — a true players manager who lets everyone in his clubhouse know where they stand. Tito is truly the face of the franchise. Paul Dolan, Shapiro, and Antonetti know they have struck gold.
Francona will be seen again this summer zipping through downtown Cleveland on his scooter on his way to and from the ballpark, to dinner, or wherever else he may go. But make no mistake, Progressive Field is his home and the place he wants to be.
Is there even any other candidate close to being the 2013 Cleveland Sportsman of the Year? If there is, make your case, but that person cannot touch Tito’s impact on his team and this town.