Back at the start of the 2016 MLB season, most prognosticators made the defending World Series and two-time defending American League champion Kansas City Royals the favorites to win their second consecutive AL Central crown.
The Cleveland Indians were considered by most to be in a pack of teams who would be trying to chase down the Royals, with little to distinguish or separate the chances of those division rivals from one another.
But it has been the Tribe who have emerged as the division’s front-runners. Cleveland took over first place on June 4th for what was just the second time this season. They have not relinquished the spot ever since.
The Indians now hold a commanding six-game lead in the standings over the Detroit Tigers with just 16 games left to play. Their ‘magic number’ has dropped to just 11 to clinch the division title.
One of the primary reasons that Cleveland is in this position is the steady, experienced guiding hand of manager Terry Francona.
In his tenure, Cleveland has finished second, third, and third in the division, and has enjoyed a winning record each season.
Francona brought a full baseball life with him when he arrived for the 2013 season. A 10-year big leaguer, the man known as ‘Tito’ in baseball circles is a second generation player.
His father, the original Tito Francona, enjoyed a 15-year career in Major League Baseball from 1956-70, including a six-year stint from 1959-64 with the Indians.
The younger Tito grew up in the baseball world, and became the first round pick of the old Montreal Expos at 22nd overall in the 1980 MLB Amateur Draft out of the University of Arizona.
He received his only taste of the postseason as a player that fall, starting three of the five games in the NLDS against the Phillies, and appearing in the first two games of the NLCS loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Francona made his big league debut just over a year later on August 19th, 1981, grounding out to first base as a pinch-hitter against Dave Smith in the eighth inning of a 9-1 blowout loss for the Expos at the hands of the Houston Astros.
Francona would play as a part-timer in Montreal through the 1985 season, and was finally released just as the 1986 season was about to get underway.
He would spend another five years bouncing around the majors with the Cubs, Reds, Indians and Brewers before a demotion to the minors in early April of 1990 by Milwaukee led to his final season spent in the minor leagues.
His playing career largely done in by multiple injuries, Francona wanted to give coaching a try, and was given a minor league opportunity in the Chicago White Sox organization.
In 1993 with the ChiSox’ Birmingham affiliate he became both the Southern League Manager of the Year and Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year.
Back with Birmingham for the following season of 1994, Francona coached a high-profile rookie by the name of Michael Jordan, and was named by Baseball America as its top managerial candidate.
The year 1996 saw him receive his first opportunity as a coach in the big leagues when he got the third base coaching job with the Detroit Tigers.
In 1997, Francona was hired as the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, who were struggling to find a new identity after their incredible 1993 season failed to lead to further sustained success.
Francona’s years in Philly resulted in a losing 285-363 cumulative record over four full seasons as the organization struggled toward the end of the Veteran’s Stadium era.
Four years after his tenure in Philadelphia ended, many were surprised when Francona was hired to guide the Boston Red Sox, who had fired manager Grady Littlein the aftermath of a devastating 2003 playoff defeat to the arch-rival New York Yankees.
In Francona’s first season at the helm, the Red Sox broke their 86-year “Curse of the Bambino”, winning the World Series for the first time since 1918 by downing the St. Louis Cardinals in four straight games.
Francona would spend eight seasons skippering the BoSox, leading them to a second World Series championship in 2007.
He accumulated a 744-552 record with Boston, winning the AL East in that 2007 season, finishing in second place four times, and never finishing lower than third in the always tough division.
Bringing the Tribe home to the AL Central crown is likely to not be a cake walk for Francona. The second place Tigers and always tough Royals will provide the competition in 13 of the last 16 games.
After a year away, Francona was hired in Cleveland for the 2013 season. Now 57 years of age, he is almost a full two decades removed from beginning that first big league managerial job with the Phillies.
It all begins tonight in Cleveland, as the Tribe hosts Detroit for the weekend at Progressive Field. The team has lost four of its last six games, but the Tigers have failed to capitalize on the slip, losing six of their own last nine.
One of the main reasons that Cleveland is in this position is that they avoid long losing spells. They are the only team this season in all of Major League Baseball that has not suffered a losing streak of four games or more.
The Indians have stocked up on red pom-poms to hand out to the fans who they expect will pack the stands this weekend for the beginning of the final push.
“Your heart is in your throat, but you like it,” Francona said just a couple of weeks back regarding the tight games played and anticipated at this time of year. “It’s agony. It’s awesome.”
During his big league managerial career, there has been both agony and awesomeness for Francona in each of his three stops.
With just two more weeks of solid play, his Tribe will experience those feelings in the crucible of October during baseball’s postseason.